Come together to save Puget Sound and Snake River salmon

An adult spring chinook is checked for tags in a trap at Lower Granite Dam on the Lower Snake River in 2019. (Image courtesy of Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The following is an op-ed written by Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05) and Congressman Dan Newhouse (WA-04) published in the Seattle Times on Sunday, July 25, 2021.

The recent spring chinook returns on the Snake River should be celebrated by everyone in the Pacific Northwest who cares about restoring salmon, preserving our region’s legacy of feeding the world, and protecting reliable, renewable and affordable energy.

The 2021 Snake River spring chinook returns through Lower Granite Dam show an increase of 27% over 2020 returns, which is a 55% improvement from 2019 data. With nearly 30,000 chinook passing through the dam this year, we should be encouraged that current strategies to mitigate the impacts of the federal hydropower system are working.

While our work to restore salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest to the 10-year average of 50,000 Snake River chinook, and beyond, is not nearly finished, this latest data is a rebuke to some groups’ fearmongering and primary goal of breaching the four Lower Snake River Dams at all costs, consequences be damned. With little evidence to suggest removing these critical hydropower and navigation assets would restore salmon, it’s time to take a look at the data and acknowledge salmon and dams can — and do — coexist, as well as how we can continue to mitigate the impact dams have had on salmon with technology and fact-based solutions.

The positive two-year trend we are seeing is encouraging, and we should continue to focus our efforts on supporting investments and policies that will deliver real results for salmon. Doubling down on steps identified by salmon experts as critical to successful salmon recovery would be a great place to start. Let’s focus on tributary and estuary habitat restoration, actions to reduce toxic pollutants, predator management, research into the impacts of ocean conditions on the life cycle, enhanced hatcheries management, fisheries oversight and research on the reintroduction of salmon above the Hells Canyon Complex in Idaho.

“With little evidence to suggest removing these critical hydropower and navigation assets would restore salmon, it’s time to take a look at the data and acknowledge salmon and dams can — and do — coexist.”

We know that there is no silver bullet to solving the challenges salmon face. It is going to take collaboration among state, local, federal and tribal governments, as well as nonprofits, national laboratories, universities and other stakeholders to achieve our goals.

As Central and Eastern Washington’s federal representatives, we’re doing our part to provide much-needed resources to the federal agencies leading Pacific salmon recovery programs. We are also working to ensure these programs are set up for success and that resources are not being wasted.

Unfortunately, Washington state’s failure to protect Puget Sound salmon from toxic pollution has become a growing concern, especially as the U.S. House of Representatives moves legislation to direct more resources to salmon recovery in Puget Sound. The state of Washington continues to allow outdated sewage treatment plants to spill raw sewage into the Sound, creating conditions that are literally suffocating our salmon.

According to a 2019 report from the Washington Department of Ecology, about 20% of the Puget Sound has failed to meet the Clean Water Act Standard mandated by the federal government. Why? Because over the years, 79 sewage treatment plants have dumped millions of gallons of toxins into the Sound. Additionally, the Washington State Department of Ecology is developing a new permitting process that would authorize the pollution of our waterways at levels that violate the Clean Water Act, resulting in the continued poisoning of our salmon.
Most recently, over Independence Day weekend, 10 beaches across Washington state were closed due to high levels of fecal bacteria. Just days before, the Marina City Beach Park in Des Moines was closed due to fecal contamination after a sewage spill. This gross fact has real consequences for salmon, and to ignore it would be unconscionable.

“The state of Washington continues to allow outdated sewage treatment plants to spill raw sewage into the Sound, creating conditions that are literally suffocating our salmon.”

The Puget Sound salmon, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found to be the highest priority stocks for the southern resident killer whales, are in crisis, which is part of the reason we were proud to support the PUGET SOS Act in June. We are hopeful that establishing a Puget Sound Recovery National Program Office as part of the PUGET SOS Act will push the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce Clean Water Act Standards in Western Washington. But this is only part of the equation. We must come together to stop the sewage, save our Sound, save our salmon and save our orcas. 

The challenges before us are great. There is no question that human activity, climate change, a need for efficient transport of agricultural goods and demand for reliable, renewable and affordable energy have impacted salmon. But our dams have also brought prosperity to our region, raised the standard of living, protected our cities from floods, helped our farmers feed the world and established Washington as a clean-energy leader. We must not forget about these transformational benefits. 

“We must come together to stop the sewage, save our Sound, save our salmon and save our orcas.” 

Achieving salmon recovery goals will require honest conversations, a spirit of collaboration, and a commitment to policies and programs that are getting results. Our sights are set on restoring endangered salmon, and we won’t stop until we achieve this important goal.

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