Feds Require Fish Passage at Lewis River Dams to Recover Endangered Salmon

August 25, 2021

National Marine Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service withdraw Trump-era decision, put salmon and steelhead back on track for recovery in the Lewis River

August 24, 2021

Eli Asher, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, 360-355-5851
Bill Sharp, The Confederated Bands and Tribes of the Yakama Nation, 509-945-3167
Kessina Lee, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 360-605-9763
Amy Kober, American Rivers, 503-708-1145

(Portland, Oregon) – On July 27, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (collectively, “Services”) withdrew a Trump-era preliminary determination which, if made final, would have allowed PacifiCorp to continue blocking access to critical salmon habitat in Washington’s Lewis River for the foreseeable future.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe, the Confederated Bands and Tribes of the Yakama Nation, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), along with American Rivers, Columbia Riverkeeper, and Trout Unlimited warmly welcome the Services’ decision and view it as a critical step to recovering Endangered Species Act-listed fish in the Lewis River, an important tributary to the lower Columbia River.

PacifiCorp (a Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. subsidiary) operates three dams on the North Fork Lewis River. For over 80 years, these dams have blocked fish passage to over 100 miles of quality salmon and steelhead habitat and have destroyed generations of anadromous fish. 

In 2004, PacifiCorp promised the Cowlitz Tribe and the Yakama Nation (along with numerous federal and state governments and non-governmental organizations) that it would provide fish passage at each dam to reintroduce salmon and steelhead throughout the upper Lewis River. In exchange, the tribes and others agreed not to oppose the renewal of the dam licenses. In 2008, this Settlement Agreement was officially made part of PacifiCorp’s renewed licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate the Lewis River dams for the next 50 years, the maximum term allowed.

Under the Trump administration, PacifiCorp sought to exploit a provision in the Settlement Agreement that would relieve them of their fish passage obligations and instead allow them to pursue habitat restoration projects in the Lewis River watershed above the dams. This process would provide enormous cost savings to the utility, while imposing an incalculable cost to salmon recovery. In 2019, the Services issued a preliminary determination that PacifiCorp did not need to construct fish passage as promised, but instead could pursue these much cheaper habitat restoration projects. This determination came despite strong objections of other signatories to the Settlement Agreement, who subsequently contested the Services’ decision.

In their recent notice of withdrawal, the Services explained that their decision to withdraw the Trump-era policy comes after a thorough reevaluation of the information submitted to them by PacifiCorp. The Services write that “further consideration has identified critical uncertainties” in the evidence used by PacifiCorp to dispute the need for fish passage.

The Services’ return to sound science indicates a brighter future for Lewis River and Columbia River salmon, and honors commitments made to tribes who continue to manage and rely on salmon that are central to their cultural identity.

“The Yakama Nation stands vindicated by the Services’ recent decision to again require passage for endangered fish populations within the Lewis River Basin,” said Yakama Nation Fish and Wildlife Committee Chairman Gerald Lewis. “It remains clear that generations of salmon and other anadromous fish have died at the base of these structures. If PacifiCorp and other hydropower dam operators do not build passage for these fish now, these native fish resources will die. The Yakama Nation will therefore continue to work with PacifiCorp to ensure promises are kept and fish passage is provided so that our People can continue to conduct commercial, ceremonial, cultural, and subsistence fishing within this tributary.”

“The Cowlitz Indian Tribe are the Forever People. Since the beginning of time, we have nurtured our community by stewarding our land and rivers,” said Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chairman David Barnett. “It is our legacy, and we stand ready and eager to collaborate with PacifiCorp and other parties to the settlement on the important work of implementing full fish passage throughout the entire Lewis River.”

The Services have committed to engaging the Licensees and other settlement agreement signatories (including WDFW, the Cowlitz Tribe, Yakama Nation, Trout Unlimited, and American Rivers) to develop the path forward.

“We look forward to working with PacifiCorp on forthcoming efforts to implement fish passage and honor commitments to local communities in a timely manner,” said Kessina Lee, Southwest Regional Director for WDFW. “Providing full fish passage past the dams on the Lewis River will significantly contribute to salmon recovery in the lower Columbia River, and it serves as a beacon of hope and progress for salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest.”

“We are encouraged by the Services’ return to the stipulations laid out under the 2004 Settlement Agreement,” said Wendy McDermott, Puget Sound-Columbia Basin Director for American Rivers. “By signing the agreement, PacifiCorp committed to building fish passage for the benefit of salmon and steelhead recovery in the Lewis and Columbia rivers. We are eager to see these fish return to their historical habitat and look forward to working with all parties to accomplish this license condition.”