In Joint Letter to Governors, Dozens of Northwest Leaders Urge Holistic Approach to Four-State Salmon Recovery Process
Dear Governors Brown, Bullock, Inslee, Little and Governor-Elect Gianforte:
On behalf of over three million of the region’s community-owned utility customers
and thousands of small businesses, farms, and manufacturers which depend on
clean, affordable hydropower, recreation, irrigation, and navigation, we thank you
for coming together to actively work on salmon recovery in the Pacific
We collectively embrace the critical importance of healthy salmon populations for
the Pacific Northwest and its Tribal Nations. The communities and organizations
we represent live here and care greatly for the region’s natural environment. It is
part of our shared Northwest ethic and heritage.
As Northwest states move towards bold clean energy goals, we point out that
several of the nation’s most respected environmental advocacy groups recently
acknowledged hydropower’s importance in the nation’s fight against climate
Regionally, hydropower plays an even bigger role, providing close to half of all
our electricity and 90% of our renewable electricity.
As a result, our region has the least carbon-intensive electric service and the
most-affordable renewable power in the nation. It is crucial that we retain this
leadership position in clean and affordable energy to meet the region’s equity,
environmental health, and economic recovery objectives.
Our respective organizations have never believed there is any inherent conflict
between the region’s hydropower, irrigation, recreation, and navigation systems
and healthy salmon populations. The data reflect this perspective.
Viewed on a decade-by-decade basis, the numbers of adult salmon returning to
the Columbia River Basin have seen significant improvements since the lower
Columbia River dams and lower Snake River dams were built, bolstered by
successful hatchery programs and significant fish passage improvements.
There is no denying, however, that compared to the number of juvenile smolts
produced, the overall percentage of returning adults is on the decline. That trend
is not unique to the Columbia River Basin.
A new peer-reviewed study published in Fish & Fisheries shows there have been
near-uniform declines in Chinook salmon survival across the West Coast of North
America over the past 50 years.
This finding includes rivers with dams and those without dams; from pristine
rivers in Alaska to more urbanized rivers in the Puget Sound. The study shows
these declines have averaged approximately 65% over the 50-year period.
Research indicates this general trend applies to steelhead and southern coho
populations, as well.
Two other studies released this summer also point to the strong relationship
between climate change, warming oceans, and declining salmonid health.
In its recently released Biological Opinion (p 276), NOAA Fisheries showed that
climate change appears to have a much larger effect on Chinook salmon survival
in the oceans than in rivers. Alarmingly, NOAA indicates Chinook salmon
populations may face extinction in 20 to 30 years if the observed relationships
between warming ocean temperatures and salmon survival continue.
Pointing to a more hostile ocean environment, due to ocean-warming and
competition from pink salmon, scientists at the University of Alaska found the
size of Chinook and sockeye salmon in Alaska’s rivers has declined significantly
since 1960, as salmon are spending fewer years at sea. The researchers
purposely chose a region of North America without dams to isolate this oceanic
It is often implied that breaching the lower Snake River dams will solve the
problem of salmon recovery because we are told its habitat is pristine. However,
decades of development have taken a toll on many areas of the river.
Additionally, the Fish and Fisheries study demonstrates that even truly pristine
rivers have experienced equivalent steep declines in adult salmon survival.
In conclusion, the referenced studies show salmon struggles are not isolated to
the Columbia River Basin. Instead, we have an ocean-wide problem, which
requires a holistic approach and perspective.
Accordingly, we, the signatories of this letter, call for the following guiding
principles to effectively guide the four-state process:
• Trans-Oceanic Acknowledgement: Solutions must be grounded in the fact
there is strong scientific research demonstrating the declines in key salmon
populations are due to warming, acidifying oceans that are shifting the
balance between salmon predators and prey. If these trends continue, salmon
survival may decline even further. If this reality is not understood as the
baseline, then the solutions that come out of the four-state process will
inevitably be unsuccessful.
• Holistic Approach: Solutions must be holistic in nature, addressing the broad
nature of salmon survival declines. As a result, favored solutions should
prioritize efforts to address challenges in the shared ocean environment.
• Social Cost of Carbon: Solutions must be evaluated for their effect on the
social cost of carbon. The recently adopted Record of Decision for Columbia
River System Operations includes data-driven estimates for carbon
production increases if hydropower generation is diminished.
• Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Solutions must be examined for their likely
socioeconomic and health impacts for under-represented and vulnerable
communities that need access to affordable energy, clean air, and agricultural
jobs. The recently adopted Record of Decision for Columbia River System
Operations includes relevant scenarios for increased customer costs if
hydropower generation is diminished.
• Wildfires & Climate-Driven Disasters: Solutions must not add to the risk of
wildfires and other climate-driven disasters that can affect both salmon and
• Balanced: Solutions must be balanced in nature when evaluating the
hydropower system, recognizing the Congressionally-authorized multiple
purposes of the Federal Columbia River Power System. These purposes
include flood control, navigation, recreation, irrigation, and electricity
• Scientific Rigor: Solutions that would diminish significant clean energy
resources and/or low carbon transportation infrastructure must undergo nonpartisan and rigorous scientific testing before adoption.
Once again, we thank you for your efforts as you plan to bring diverse
stakeholder groups together to help the region recover threatened and
endangered salmon populations. This goal is incredibly important. We offer our
pledge to assist you in the process as regional stakeholders and to provide
subject matter expertise.