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Governors, tribes ratify Columbia River Basin pact at White House signing ceremony

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Governors, tribes ratify Columbia River Basin pact at White House signing ceremony

Feb 23, 2024 | 7:07 pm ET
By Jacob Fischler
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Governors, tribes ratify Columbia River Basin pact at White House signing ceremony
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee displays a photo of the Columbia River as White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory and White House senior advisor John Podesta look on before a Feb. 23, 2024, White House signing ceremony for an agreement to protect the river. (Screenshot from White House live feed)

The governors of Washington and Oregon and four Native American tribal leaders gathered at the White House on Friday to celebrate last year’s agreement to avoid litigation over dams in the Columbia River Basin.

The agreement, which was announced in December and resulted from years of negotiation among the states, tribes in the region, environmental groups and federal agencies, established a path to reviving the area’s salmon and steelhead populations and called for a 10-year pause in legal fighting.

The governors, tribal leaders and a handful of administration officials held a White House signing ceremony Friday, though the deal has been in effect since the parties signed a memorandum of agreement in December.

Federal funds boost tribal-led revival efforts for salmon in upper Columbia River Basin

The agreement was a necessary condition required under treaties with tribes to address the ailing fish populations and to restore the health of the river basin, but it marked the beginning of a long process, not the end, administration representatives and others said Friday.

“There’s much to do in order to live up to our commitments and to live up to the president’s memorandum of agreement,” White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said. “But I think the partnership that we have worked to develop will ensure that we are able to be successful.”

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek called on the federal government, tribes and states that were parties to the deal to “stay true to the framework” of the compact. Reaching the agreement was a major milestone, she said, but more work would be needed to follow through on the commitments outlined in the deal.

“This is a happy moment,” Kotek said. “But just the beginning.”

Federal commitment to Native American tribes

Part of the agreement is meant to address federal commitments to tribes — the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe — that promise plentiful fishing in perpetuity.

Jonathan W. Smith, the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, said the 19th-century treaty ceding much of the tribes’ land to the federal government promised indefinite fishing rights and that fish would always be available in the tribe’s traditional areas.

But that has not been the case in recent decades, he said, as the longhouses that host tribal ceremonies have “had empty tables.”

“For too long, we have not had fish to sustain ourselves, let alone teach our youth the ways of our culture,” he said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee thanked tribal members for acting “as a guardian for the salmon.”

He said the Columbia River was significant to Native and non-Native residents of his state and called for making the river basin’s health a continued priority.

“This is personal with me and 8 million Washingtonians,” he said. “That is the artery of our state. It needs to be brought to health.”

The agreement remains more controversial, though, in more rural and Republican areas of the state.

Inslee, who is well known as a climate advocate, also framed the agreement as part of a wider effort to address climate change impacts.

Deputy U.S. Energy Secretary David Turk praised Inslee, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, at the White House event for helping form the foundation of the Biden administration’s climate policy.

Dam removal possibility worries Republicans

Republicans in the region have largely been skeptical — if not downright hostile — to the agreement, seeing it as a precursor to removing dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington.

U.S. House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state held a hearing last month blasting the “secret deal” that she said excluded utilities, hydropower users, agriculture and other affected industries in the area.

Removing four Snake River dams — Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam — would harm the area’s clean-energy production, flood control capability and overall economy, Rodgers said at the hearing.

Mallory testified that the agreement leaves a decision on dam removal to Congress.