Court case on fate of Snake River dams postponed at least 45 more days

The Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River, in southeast Washington. (Courtesy Bonneville Power Administration)

This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Parties to a lawsuit challenging the federal government over its plans to continue operating dams on the Snake River at the expense of salmon runs asked a federal court in Oregon for more time to negotiate with one another.

A coalition of conservation groups represented by the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, with support from the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe, agreed to pause their two-year-old lawsuit against five federal agencies Tuesday for at least 45 more days. This comes on top of an August 60-day postponement to allow more talks after more than two years of negotiations.

During the next 45 days, the parties will continue to hash out a plan to save imperiled salmon and deal with the Snake River dams outside of the courtroom. The federal agencies named in the 2021 lawsuit – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service – own and operate four dams on the lower Snake River, the main tributary to the Columbia River, flowing from Idaho and eastern Washington into Oregon.

By Dec. 15, all parties in the lawsuit must either reach an agreement, go to court or request a multi-year pause on the lawsuit while they continue to work out a plan to restore the Snake River salmon.

The four dams provide irrigation and emissions-free hydropower for nearby communities, but have also led to the near extinction of 13 salmon and steelhead populations that return to the Columbia Basin from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. The downstream effects are hitting southern resident Orcas off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon that rely on salmon for food and are federally listed as endangered.

Earthjustice, a lead plaintiff, is representing the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Northwest Energy Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources and Fly Fishers International. No party in the litigation is allowed to discuss proposed plans in detail until the lawsuit is resolved, Elizabeth Manning, an Earth Justice spokesperson, told the Capital Chronicle.

Lawyers at Earthjustice and Shannon Wheeler, chair of the Nez Perce, have said publicly that the four dams on the lower Snake River should be removed. The continued salmon losses are attributed to a lack of river water that’s used to irrigate crops, the growth of farmland in the area, overfishing, rising water temperatures and the adverse impact from hatcheries and hatchery fish.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in 2022 that the best way to rebuild salmon populations in the Columbia and Snake rivers was to breach the dams.

Conservation groups and federal agencies have been fighting for more than three decades over the construction of the Snake River and Columbia Basin dams and the massive declines in salmon and steelhead runs that followed. The government has been sued five times over the dams since 1994, and lost each time. Federal judges found the dams were imperiling salmon and violating the Endangered Species Act and treaties with tribal nations. Each case led to small changes, such as allowing for the release of more water from reservoirs or investments in hatcheries programs.

Kayeloni Scott, a communications consultant for the Nez Perce Tribe on Snake River issues, told the Capital Chronicle that the tribe will do whatever it takes to save the salmon. She said the tribe’s fisheries manager has even discussed preserving some species’ DNA so they aren’t completely lost.

“It’s not guaranteed, but it’s the last hope we have to hold on to what these species are, and we’re getting near that point,” she said.

On Wednesday and Thursday, a gathering of 16 tribal nations, including the Nez Perce, will meet virtually and in person in at the Tulalip Resort and Casino in Tulalip, Washington north of Seattle to “Stand and speak with one voice on behalf of water, orca, and salmon,” according to her news release. The event will amplify the voices and sense of urgency behind the need to restore salmon in the Lower Snake River and Columbia Basin, she said.


Tribal gathering addressing salmon

Where: Tulalip Resort and Casino at 10200 Quil Ceda Boulevard, Tulalip, Washington

When: On Wednesday, Nov. 1 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., representatives from 16 tribal nations in the Northwest will offer presentations, including representatives from the tribes that have led the Klamath Dam removal project. Sign up for virtual viewing here.

On Thursday, Nov. 2 from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the event will include panels and presentations on topics about energy, irrigation, business impacts, transportation, orca and salmon.

Sign up for virtual viewing here.


by Alex Baumhardt, Washington State Standard

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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