Feb 9, 2024 - Water

What's next for Columbia River salmon restoration efforts

A photo of salmon swimming in a river.

Tribes will now have control over funds for salmon restoration under a new agreement with the federal government. Photo: Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

Local tribes are hoping a historic, billion-dollar agreement with the federal government will help save native fish in the Columbia River Basin from extinction, but worry that without additional long-term investment, salmon may still be threatened.

Why it matters: Salmon and steelhead populations in the basin have dwindled for decades in part due to extensive damming — decimating a vital food source, commodity and sense of identity for tribes.

Driving the news: In December, the Biden administration announced it would dedicate $1 billion over the next decade to salmon restoration and tribal-led clean energy projects throughout the basin.

  • The agreement puts a five-year stay on litigation brought by tribes and environmental advocates over the federal government's operation of dams in the region.

What they're saying: "If salmon die, our culture dies," Austin Smith, a natural resources manager with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, tells Axios. "The federal government's acknowledgment is pretty key so we can get ahead of the curve."

  • As part of the deal, four tribal nations, in partnership with the states of Oregon and Washington, will have control over how restoration funds are spent, not the Bonneville Power Administration.

The intrigue: BPA, an agency within the Department of Energy that delivers hydropower to utilities in the Northwest, has historically been responsible for how salmon recovery funds are doled out because it manages Oregon's largest hatchery.

  • It also supplies the majority of the energy in the Northwest.

However, BPA has been criticized for prioritizing energy production over salmon recovery. As part of the agreement, BPA will hand more than $300 million over the next 10 years to tribes to do as they see fit to recoup native fish losses.

State of play: Before any dollars are distributed, tribes will need to work with state agencies to create a comprehensive plan to submit to Congress on which restoration efforts will be prioritized.

Upping fish production is key, Jeremy Takala, a tribal council member for the Yakama Nation, tells Axios.

  • That means addressing maintenance concerns at hatcheries, promoting tribes as co-managers of the fisheries and figuring out the timing of hydrosystem spillover to allow for better fish migration.
  • Whether the four dams on the lower Snake River will be removed is up to Congress, though there is little bipartisan support for the initiative as it currently stands.

What's next: What's challenging is that each tribe and state have their own priorities, Takala said. So there is no timeline for when plans will be submitted to Congress or when tribes expect to see money.

  • And while $1 billion seems like a hefty sum, Takala said, it won't be enough without future investment.
  • "We know that if we continue to not see any type of increased resources for our projects, we are going to run out of fish."
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