Clean energy, justice, and salmon: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the Northwest

The Snake River   Photo: Alison Meyer Photography

By Bob Irvin, President and CEO, American Rivers

A vision is emerging in the Pacific Northwest that would not only save iconic salmon, but boost clean energy and vital infrastructure, and honor treaties with Northwest tribes — revitalizing an entire region and building resilience in the face of climate change.

Salmon in the Pacific Northwest are in crisis because hydropower dams block their migration upstream to spawn and downstream to the ocean. In addition, climate change is warming rivers – which can be deadly to salmon that need clean, cold water. Scientists say that removing four federal dams on the lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River, must be part of any credible salmon recovery strategy.

Can we remove hydropower dams – a source of non-fossil-fuel energy – and fight climate change?  A proposal announced by Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) offers a resounding “yes”. Congressman Simpson has proposed a $33.5 billion job-creating package of salmon recovery actions, including lower Snake dam removal and other river restoration and water quality improvements regionwide, along with major investments in clean energy, agriculture, and economic revitalization.

A well-crafted, comprehensive solution would benefit the nation as a whole by restoring salmon runs, bolstering clean energy and strengthening the economy of one of the most dynamic regions in the country.

Some salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers are headed toward extinction if we don’t take urgent action. We can’t afford to lose these iconic creatures. They are a cornerstone of the web of life, supporting more than 130 species, from eagles to orcas. Salmon have sustained native tribes across the region for thousands of years, and tribes continue to lead salmon recovery efforts. Salmon are also economic engines for local communities, supporting recreation, tourism, and other businesses regionwide.

While there are plenty of details to be hammered out before legislation can be enacted, Congressman Simpson’s fresh thinking and comprehensive approach build on a legacy of collaboration in the region. From the Yakima to the Owyhee, the Pacific Northwest has a track record of crafting innovative, bipartisan solutions to challenging water and river issues. Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have supported collaborative salmon recovery efforts in the past and they have a critical role to play now. We have a window of opportunity to include urgently needed salmon recovery and clean energy investments in President Biden’s national infrastructure legislation.

Removing the four dams on the lower Snake River would be the biggest salmon and river restoration effort the world has ever seen. It would demonstrate on a grand scale, that healthy, free-flowing rivers are vital green infrastructure, and that river restoration is a sound investment in economic recovery.

We’ve seen the success of dam removals – from Maine’s Penobscot River to Washington’s Elwha River to Oregon’s Rogue River. When dams are removed and rivers restored, fish return and ecosystems and communities thrive. In 2020 alone, 70 dams were removed, reconnecting more than 600 river miles, delivering a wide variety of benefits to communities.

Two summers ago, I floated the Middle Fork Salmon, in the heart of Idaho’s Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. The trip had everything, spectacular scenery, great fishing, wonderful companions. The only thing missing was abundant salmon which, before the construction of the four lower Snake River dams, made the 900-mile journey from the ocean to the Middle Fork Salmon to spawn. I came away from that trip knowing that restoring this amazing migration is critical to the future of the Pacific Northwest and our nation.

Congressman Simpson has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing, to take bold action, to invest in our future. We must seize the moment, while we have the chance.

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