What is the Columbia-Snake River Agreement?

On December 14th, 2023, the White House announced a significant agreement between the federal government and a set of states, Tribes, and non-profit conservation groups around endangered Northwest salmon, steelhead, and the dams sending them to extinction. 

We previously published a press release to announce the development. Now, we’re diving deeper into the background behind the agreement, what it actually means, and what comes next.

The Context

ICL is one of 10 plaintiff conservation organizations who’ve been pursuing litigation over Snake River dam operations for more than 20 years, represented by Earthjustice. 

See a timeline of the case from Earthjustice here

In 2020, we renewed our lawsuit against the federal government, this time over the Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement (CRSO EIS). This document, composed under the Trump Administration, implemented a plan that would keep the lower Snake River dams in place, driving Snake River salmon and steelhead to extinction. Of the options analyzed, only dam breaching would restore these fish to abundance. 

We sued the federal government over their shoddy analysis. Since 2021, our case has been stayed while we and other plaintiffs negotiated with the government. In 2023, these negotiations culminated in two agreements. 

The first was the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative (CBRI), a roadmap for salmon recovery formed and agreed to by the Six Sovereigns — a partnership between Washington, Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. The CBRI lays out a comprehensive suite of actions that together will restore salmon, steelhead, and other native fish to abundance throughout the region. 

The second agreement was made between the Six Sovereigns, conservation organizations, and the federal government, to begin implementation of some CBRI actions now, in the hopes of completing the rest at a later date through Congressional authorizations and funding. 

The Agreement

The Columbia-Snake River Agreement, as it’s now being termed, is the first step down the pathway to restoring abundant salmon and steelhead. The agreement does four things:

  • Brings federal resources and expertise to bear on breaching and replacing the four lower Snake River dams. Federal agencies like the US Dept. of Transportation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will analyze how to replace the energy, transportation, recreation, and irrigation services currently provided by the dams. This work will be done in partnership with Washington state agencies that are already beginning this analysis, thanks to funding granted through the state legislature in 2023. In addition, the Department of the Interior will study the impacts that dam construction had on Tribal treaty rights. Finally, the government will inform a new supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, to replace the 2020 CRSO EIS that is the subject of our litigation. 
  • Allocates new funding to salmon protection and Tribal energy projects. More than $500 million will be spent over the next ten years on improving salmon habitat and completing critical maintenance projects at regional hatcheries. The Department of Energy will support and fund the development of new, Tribally-owned renewable energy projects to provide Tribes with energy sovereignty and to begin replacing the energy from the lower Snake River dams. 
  • Changes dam operations. While the agreement is in place, dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers will alter their operations to benefit some runs of fish, especially Spring and Summer Chinook. 
  • Stays litigation. The agreement will extend the pause on litigation for up to 10 years. However, there are clear “off-ramps” that plaintiffs can take if the government does not live up to its commitments or if there aren’t meaningful steps to implement more of the CBRI in the coming years. 

What’s Next?

ICL, our co-plaintiffs, and the Six Sovereigns are dedicated to ensuring the federal government lives up to its commitments. That includes all federal agencies and especially the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which has slowed progress on salmon recovery for decades. We will collaborate to push the Biden Administration forward toward a plan to breach and replace the lower Snake River dams and implement the rest of the CBRI. 

On the flip side, implementation of these steps will depend on Congressional legislation. More of our elected officials should be supporting this agreement, the CBRI’s suite of actions, and the restoration of abundant salmon and steelhead in the region. Through our network of supporters and members, we will make sure these officials hear thousands of voices calling for the return of healthy fish runs throughout the region. 

Answers to YOUR questions about the agreement

Why were other stakeholders not included in the agreement? Was this a “backroom deal?”

The agreement was made to stay litigation between the plaintiffs (states, Tribes, and conservation groups) and the federal agency defendants. These are the parties at the core of the litigation, and the ones who can agree to stay or settle the case. 

Litigation itself is not a public process, but the federal government still created numerous opportunities for regional residents to make their voices heard. In Spring 2023, the government hosted three listening sessions. In summer, a multi-month public comment period resulted in more than 50,000 comments submitted. In short, there were abundant ways for people to make their opinions known by federal officials. 

Doesn’t this delay dam breaching for 10 years or more?

No. The CBRI states that the lower Snake River dams must be removed within eight years. We hope that Congress will pass legislation that deauthorizes the dams and funds their replacement services once federal agencies have completed the studies laid out in the agreement. Because infrastructure projects are being completed quickly, we believe dam breaching can (and must) still occur before 2030. 

Does President Biden support dam breaching?

The agreement doesn’t take a defined position on dam breaching, but it lays out significant analyses of exactly how to breach and replace the lower Snake River dams. President Biden also supports abundant, healthy salmon populations that can only be achieved through breaching of the dams and restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River. 

Recovering healthy and abundant salmon throughout the Columbia/Snake River Basins is a national priority. Now, we need members of Congress to pledge to support the actions needed to reach these goals. Take action below and urge your representatives to pledge their support for salmon abundance!


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