US admits role in devastating Northwest tribes with dams

Bonneville Lock and Dam comprises multiple run-of-the-river structures spanning the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington states in the US. (Photo/AP Archive)

The US government has acknowledged, for the first time, the harmful role it has played over the past century in building and operating dams in the Pacific Northwest — dams that devastated Native American tribes by inundating their villages and decimating salmon runs.

In a new report on Tuesday, the Biden administration said those cultural, spiritual and economic detriments continue to pain the tribes, which consider salmon part of their cultural and spiritual identity, as well as a crucial food source.

The government downplayed or accepted the well-known risk to the fish in its drive for industrial development, converting the wealth of the tribes into the wealth of non-Native people, according to the report.

"The government afforded little, if any, consideration to the devastation the dams would bring to Tribal communities, including to their cultures, sacred sites, economies, and homes," the report said.

It added: "Despite decades of efforts and an enormous amount of funding attempting to mitigate these impacts, salmon stocks remain threatened or endangered and continued operation of the dams perpetuates the myriad adverse effects."

The Interior Department's report comes amid a $1 billion effort announced earlier this year to restore the region’s salmon runs before more become extinct — and to better partner with the tribes on the actions necessary to make that happen.

That includes increasing the production and storage of renewable energy to replace hydropower generation that would be lost if four dams on the lower Snake River are ever breached.

Best hope for recovering salmon

Tribes, conservationists and even federal scientists say that would be the best hope for recovering the salmon, providing the fish with access to hundreds of miles of pristine habitat and spawning grounds in Idaho.

Northwest Republicans in Congress and some business and utility groups oppose breaching the dams, saying it would jeopardise an important shipping route for farmers and throw off clean-energy goals.

"President Biden recognises that to confront injustice, we must be honest about history – even when doing so is difficult," said a statement from White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary.

"In the Pacific Northwest, an open and candid conversation about the history and legacy of the federal government’s management of the Columbia River is long overdue."

The report was accompanied by the announcement of a new task force to coordinate salmon-recovery efforts across federal agencies.

Salmon are born in rivers and migrate far downstream to the ocean, where they spend their adult lives before returning to their natal rivers to spawn and die. Dams can disrupt that by cutting off access to upstream habitat and by slowing and warming water to the point that fish die.

Fighting for generations

The Columbia River Basin, an area roughly the size of Texas, was once the world’s greatest salmon-producing river system, with as many as 16 million salmon and steelhead returning every year to spawn.

Now, scientists say, about 2 million salmon and steelhead return to the Columbia and its tributaries each year, about two-thirds of them hatchery raised.

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in southeastern Idaho said it once harvested enough salmon for each tribal member to have 700 pounds of fish in a year. Today, the average harvest yields barely 1 pound per tribal member.

Of the 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead that once populated the river system, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

There has been growing recognition across the U.S. that the harms some dams cause to fish outweigh their usefulness. Dams on the Elwha River in Washington state and the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border have been or are being removed.

As early as the late 1930s, tribes were warning that the salmon runs could disappear, with the fish no longer able to access spawning grounds upstream.

The tribes — the Yakama Nation, Spokane Tribe, confederated tribes of the Colville and Umatilla reservations, Nez Perce, and others — continued to fight the construction and operation of the dams for generations.

"With these agreements, there is hope," Tom Iverson, regional coordinator for Yakama Nation Fisheries said. "We feel like this is a moment in time. If it doesn’t happen now, it will be too late."


Source: TRT