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Biden-Harris Administration Releases Report Highlighting Historic and Ongoing Negative Impacts of Federal Columbia River Dams on Tribal Communities

June 18, 2024

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Interior Department analysis is part of broader effort to support Tribally led efforts to restore salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin

WASHINGTON  As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s unprecedented agreement to restore wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin, the Department of the Interior today released a report documenting the historic, ongoing and cumulative impacts of federal Columbia River dams on Columbia River Basin Tribes. The report also provides recommendations for how the federal government can further its treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribes by acknowledging and integrating these impacts in future actions. It marks the first time that the U.S. government has comprehensively detailed the harms that federal dams have and continue to inflict on Tribes in the Pacific Northwest. 

Today’s report – which fulfills a commitment made by the Department as part of stayed litigation in National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 3:01-cv-640-SI (D. Or.) – is part of a broader effort from the Biden-Harris administration to support Tribally led efforts to restore healthy and abundant populations of salmon and other native fish in the Columbia River Basin. In September 2023, President Biden issued a presidential memorandum to advance these efforts, and the Administration announced an agreement to restore salmon populations in the Upper Basin. In December 2023, the Administration also announced an historic agreement to restore salmon populations in the Lower Basin, expand Tribally sponsored clean energy production, and provide stability for communities that depend on the Columbia River System for agriculture, energy, recreation and transportation. 

“Since time immemorial, Tribes along the Columbia River and its tributaries have relied on Pacific salmon, steelhead and other native fish species for sustenance and their cultural and spiritual ways of life. Acknowledging the devastating impact of federal hydropower dams on Tribal communities is essential to our efforts to heal and ensure that salmon are restored to their ancestral waters,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “As part of our ongoing commitment to honoring our federal commitments to Tribal Nations, the Interior Department will continue to pursue comprehensive and collaborative basin-wide solutions to restore native fish populations, empower Tribes, and meet the many resilience needs of communities across the region.” 

The Columbia River Basin historically supported abundant wild salmon, steelhead and native resident fish, which contributed to thriving Tribal cultures and communities. Historically, up to 16 million wild salmon and steelhead returned to Pacific Northwest tributaries each year, providing food for over 130 wildlife species and sustenance to Tribal people. Since time immemorial, members of these Tribes and their ancestors stewarded these native species and relied upon their abundance as the staples of their daily diets and ceremony.  

The construction of large multipurpose, hydroelectric dams throughout the Columbia River Basin beginning at the turn of the 20th century blocked anadromous fish from migrating into certain reaches of the Basin, flooded thousands of acres of land, sacred sites, and ancestral burial grounds, and transformed the ecosystem. As a result, many Tribal communities lost access to anadromous fish in their communities. The report outlines how these profound losses have had traumatic impacts on Tribal communities, including by altering traditional diets, depriving Tribal members of the ability to exercise traditional ways of life, and fundamentally changing how Tribal members teach and raise children in the cultural and spiritual beliefs that center around these fish.    

Federal dams and reservoirs in the Columbia River Basin have impacted all of the Basin Tribes. Pursuant to commitments related to the litigation, the Department’s report considers the impacts of 11 specific dams from across the basin on eight of the basin’s Tribal Nations most immediately affected: Coeur D’Alene Tribe of Indians, The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribes, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation, and Spokane Tribe of Indians.  

The report also offers several recommendations to further the federal government’s trust responsibility and achieve a healthy and resilient Columbia River Basin for generations to come. Recommendations to further these responsibilities include fully considering and integrating the unique inequities Tribes have suffered as a result of federal dam construction and operation into future National Environmental Policy Act reviews, as well as further pursuing co-stewardship and co-management agreements; continuing efforts to consolidate Tribal homelands; and incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into decision making.