Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray announced Thursday that the energy and navigation benefits currently provided by four dams on the lower Snake River would need to be replaced before they will support breaching them to restore salmon populations.

After analyzing the results of a 10-month-long study looking at how to revive dwindling salmon populations, neither Democratic policymaker would rule out breaching as an option. Both, however, believe that investments in the region's transportation network and electrical grid need to happen before breaching could be "credibly considered by policymakers in the future."

"Key infrastructure and energy investments must be in place before we can seriously consider breach," Murray said. "Still, specific salmon runs are struggling, and breach is an important option that could help save the salmon — and we cannot under any circumstances allow the extinction of salmon to come to pass."

Salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake River system have declined more than 90% over the last 100 years, according to estimates from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Game. Federal agencies have spent $17 billion building hatcheries and equipping the dams with additional safety measures like fish ladders and diversions screens, but these have not been enough to reverse losses for two at-risk species: spring-summer chinook and sockeye salmon.

In October 2021, Inslee and Murray announced a joint federal-state process to find a comprehensive solution for salmon recovery in the rivers, promising to solicit the views of a multitude of individuals and groups across the Northwest in their search. They said they would look into the potential for breaching four eastern Washington dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.

"We approach this question with open minds and without a predetermined decision," they wrote in a joint statement at the time. "Both of us believe that, for the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impacts of breach can, or cannot, be mitigated."

Their final report — which said replacement of the dams was costly, but possible — was published Thursday along with their recommendations.

Breaching the dams requires Congressional authorization, a point Murray emphasized in a statement Thursday. So far, only two legislators — Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. — have proposed a plan for breaching the dams, but their idea has faced opposition from a number of the Republicans from the region. Several Democrats remain on the fence.

Tribes, environmental groups and fishermen, worried about the fates of sockeye salmon, steelhead, fall chinook salmon and spring-summer chinook salmon — four species native to the Snake River — have spent years pushing for the dams to be breached. Samuel N. Penney, the chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, said Murray and Inslee's recommendations are "the next step in the right direction to save these sacred species."

"We appreciate Senator Murray and Governor Inslee's recognition that salmon extinction is unacceptable, and that restoring the lower Snake River can be done in a way that not only addresses affected sectors but also ensures a better future for the Northwest," Penney said in a statement.

The idea of breaching the dams has been unpopular among farmers and shippers, who rely on the dams' locks to move their goods up the river. Nearly 30% of the nation's grain and oilseed exports are taken up and down the river system through the dams' locks, according to a letter sent by 60 agricultural groups to President Joe Biden last year.

The National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Grain and Feed Association released statements Friday that commended Inslee and Murray for recognizing the role the dams play for agriculture, but doubled down on both groups' opposition to breaching the dams.

"Breaching the Lower Snake River Dams in the Pacific Northwest would create severe economic harm to the entire U.S. agricultural value chain," Mike Seyfert, NGFA's president and CEO, said. "Removing the LSRD will hurt producers and negatively impact the operations and livelihoods of NGFA members who have made investment decisions based on the ability to utilize barge transportation."

Breaching does not mean destroying all parts of the concrete dam, but rather, the earthen portion blocking the flow of water down the river. But freeing the river makes barge transportation impossible, which would require farmers to instead transport their goods by train or truck. 

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These concerns, along with worries about the loss of hydroelectric energy generation, have spurred strong pushback from a number of the region's Capitol Hill Republicans, including Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Butler, Idaho Rep. Russ Fulcher and Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz. 

Both Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers released statements criticizing the process Murray and Inslee used to develop their recommendations and saying they would not support any legislative efforts to breach the dams.

“The report and recommendations released today by Governor Inslee and Senator Murray are a welcome step back towards reality, but the fight is far from over," McMorris Rodgers said. "For months, they led a sham process paid for by Washington taxpayers and pandered to radical environmental groups who ignored the facts in pursuit of what is still their end goal — breaching the Lower Snake River dams."

In their recommendations, both Inslee and Murray committed to authorizing more projects to expand salmon habitat and passage throughout the Columbia River Basin and the Pudget Sound, use money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to replace or enhance infrastructure and energy production in the region, and commission more detailed studies looking into transportation impacts resulting from the elimination of barging on the lower Snake River.

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