Idaho congressman says federal government’s draft EIS doesn’t do enough for salmon and steelhead
By Eric Barker
March 11, 2020
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, made provocative statements about salmon recovery and the future of Snake River dams during an exchange with Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
Simpson also signaled what he thinks of the federal government’s draft environmental impact statement on the operation of the Columbia and Snake rivers hydropower system and its impacts on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. That study, which was released late last month, looked at, but dismissed, dam breaching as a salmon recovery measure. Instead, it backed a regime of spilling water over the dams combined with other actions as its preferred alternative.
The two Republicans squared off at an Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation budget request hearing before the House subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Simpson is the ranking member of the committee.Newhouse spent several minutes engaging with leaders of the Corps and bureau, praising their efforts to prepare the draft EIS and pushing regular citizens to comment on it. Newhouse, a farmer from Sunnyside, Wash., who represents Washington’s 4th Congressional District, is known as a staunch dam defender.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of the Corps, said the draft EIS and its effort to balance the hydropower system with the environment is a “very complicated situation. There is a lot of different variables and they all compete against each other.”
Without prompting, Semonite said the agencies were not likely to extend the 45-day comment period on the nearly 8,000-page draft EIS as some environmental groups have asked.
“At the end of the day, it’s about how do we balance the environment with all the other needs like navigation, hydropower and irrigation.”
Responding to Newhouse and the agency heads, Simpson said, “I noticed you all mentioned hydropower, irrigation and transportation and how important those are. Nobody mentioned fish. Nobody mentioned salmon that come back to Idaho, that in the next 15 years, if something isn’t done, they will be extinct. There is no doubt about that, they will be extinct.”
Last April, Simpson made waves at an Andrus Center Conference on salmon recovery at Boise State University when he announced his commitment to saving Idaho’s salmon and steelhead, and framed possible solutions around a future with a free-flowing Snake River. There, he talked about mitigation that would need to happen to help farmers harmed by breaching and ways to shore up power supplies.
Since then, he and his chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, have been quietly meeting with stakeholders as they seek to craft a plan to save the fish and the cash-strapped Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA markets hydropower produced at federal dams on both rivers.
At the congressional hearing, Simpson intimated he doesn’t think highly of the draft environmental impact statement.
“Any plan we come up with, any EIS, had better recover salmon. Now we’ve got a new plan out there, I can’t remember, the flexible spill thing. The one thing it will not do is speed up the migration of salmon to the Pacific Ocean, which is now about twice as long as it used to be.”
Just as he did in Boise, Simpson said Tuesday he wants people to look far into the future and envision what they want from the river system.
“We are trying to preserve what exists instead of saying, ‘What do we want to do for the next 20 or 40 years? What do we want this to look like in 20 or 40 years?’ ” he said.
When Newhouse was again up to speak, he declared he too wanted to save the fish, but in a way that also preserves the Snake River dams. Then he said salmon were once not welcome in Idaho, apparently referencing an Idaho Department of Fish and Game effort in the mid-20th century to construct migration barriers on some creeks in the Stanley Basin, and even poison some lakes to drive out the few remaining sockeye salmon and other fish in favor of planted trout.
“So when they get through all the dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington, guess what, through much of the system they run into concrete barriers because spawning salmon just don’t want to take a hook, and they (Fish and Game) wanted trout, so decisions were made way back in history,” Newhouse said.
When it was Simpson’s time to speak, he mentioned that he and Newhouse are friends, but they don’t always see eye to eye.
“We do have some differences on a couple of issues and, you know, discussing the 60-to-70-year-old history of what the Idaho Department of Fish and Game did doesn’t really help us recover salmon today.”
Simpson then said the region has several options to replace the benefits of the dams, but the fish have only one option.
“Those dams produce 3,000 megawatts of power. You can put small modular reactors or other things in there. You can produce (power) differently. Everything we do, we can do differently. Salmon need one thing — they need a river.”
The two-hour hearing can be viewed at http://bit.ly/39KMicW.
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.