ENTERPRISE — Every single salmon and steelhead that spawns in Wallowa County streams must navigate the four dams on the Lower Snake River twice — once as a smolt en route to the ocean and again as an adult returning to its natal stream.
On Feb. 6, Idaho 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mike Simpson, an 11-term Republican, called for a $33.5 billion, decade-long program that would breach those dams and provide support for local economies to save Idaho — and also Wallowa County — salmon and steelhead.
“I’m not certain that removing these dams will restore Idaho salmon and prevent their extinction,” he said. “But I am certain that if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho salmon to extinction.”
Simpson’s district includes Boise, Stanley and sockeye salmon home-base, Redfish Lake, where last year only 27 mature sockeye salmon of 660,000 released juvenile hatchery fish completed their 1,800-mile round-trip journey to and from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.
“Congressman Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative is the largest salmon-recovery proposal in our lifetime,” Joseph Office Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries Field Office Supervisor Jim Harbeck said. “It has the potential to restore anadromous fish populations in the Snake River Basin including our Chinook and Coho salmon, steelhead, lamprey and future sockeye right here in Wallowa County.”
But it’s more than just removing four dams, he said.
“It is unique in that it gives visionary and equal consideration for infrastructure, agriculture, energy and transportation in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “It really is a far-reaching regional fix that relies upon the icon of the Pacific Northwest — the salmon, ‘Nac’ox’ — to benefit us all.”
Simpson and his staff have devoted three years and more than 300 meetings with stakeholders, tribes, elected representatives, agriculturalists, barge companies and others, trying to find a solution to the problems posed by the four Lower Snake River dams that works for all. According to a statement on his website, those meetings, in part, addressed the issues of what benefits they received from the dams’ presence, how those benefits might be replaced if the dams were removed and how expensive it would be to ensure that they continued.
Ensuring that communities whose economies depend upon the dams continue to prosper is critically important, Simpson said.
Simpson’s congressional website proposes a “concept” that outlines some advantages to planning dam removal now, and also proposes a timeline.
The advantages of planning dam-breaching now, he noted, include the presence of Oregon, Idaho and Washington legislators in senior congressional positions, and a potential multi-billion-dollar federal infrastructure and clean-energy stimulus package that could provide funding for his estimated $33.5 billion program.
Simpson’s outlined concept includes developing replacement power sources such as small modular reactors as well as increasing transmission capacity. He proposes that the breaching of all four dams be completed by the summer/fall of 2031.
As part of his concept, Simpson also is calling for a 35-year extension on licenses for all remaining large power-generating dams in the Columbia Basin, a 35-year moratorium on fish passage-related lawsuits in the Columbia Basin and funding for irrigation, agriculture and other measures to support and bolster the regional economy.
“I have found that replacing the benefits of the four Lower Snake River dams would be very expensive at a minimum of $33.5 billion,” he said. “However, this may prove to be a bargain when compared to what it may cost in out-of-pocket dollars for fish recovery and future costs put on stakeholders. Despite spending over $17 billion on fish-recovery efforts, Idaho salmon and steelhead numbers are not improving and will continue to get worse. Will we spend $20 billion more in the next 30 years only to have them go extinct anyway? The worse they get, the more we will spend.”
Reaction to Simpson’s “concept” has been mixed.
“These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington and provide the entire Pacific Northwest with clean, renewable, reliable and affordable energy,” Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said. “Spending more than $33 billion to breach them — with no guarantee that doing so will restore salmon populations — is a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take. I look forward to continued conversations with my colleagues on the importance of the Lower Snake River dams and solutions that will benefit all users of the Columbia River System.”
Conservation organizations and the Nez Perce Tribe support Simpson’s proposal.
In a statement released Feb. 6, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Shannon F. Wheeler said, “We view restoring the Lower Snake River — a living being to us, and one that is injured — as urgent and overdue. Congressman Simpson, in focusing on the facts and on a solution, speaks the truth — that restoring salmon and the Lower Snake River can also reunite and strengthen regional communities and economies. We will support Congressman Simpson’s initiative and we respect the courage and vision he is showing the region. This is an opportunity for multiple regional interests to align with a better future for the Northwest: river restoration and salmon recovery, local and regional economic investment and infrastructure improvement and long-term legal resolution and certainty,”
“It would be a tragedy,” Simpson said, “if future generations looked back and wished our generation of leaders and stakeholders would have taken the time to explore this opportunity to develop our own Northwest solution to protect stakeholders and save salmon.”