By Don Schwerin
April 26, 2021
The Simpson Plan does everything the Ag and Rural Caucus asked for: 1) puts up dollars up front to mitigate all foreseeable costs on eastern Washington residents, 2) provides time to make good on the mitigation guarantees, and 3) seals off the mainstem of the Columbia from discussion.
Fish advocates get the dams breached. Farmers are guaranteed grain transportation at the same cost as using barges. Ports are bought out of stranded assets. Power supply is assured.
What’s not to like? Well, fish advocates are upset by the Plan’s moratorium on litigation. They are correct. The Plan reaches too far. So, fix it. The economic stakeholders do not believe the guarantees. So, work at making the guarantees iron-clad.
It is now time to talk and deal.
And it is time to lead, and remember not everyone has been heard. I was talking to folks in Pomeroy the other day and asked them what they thought about the Simpson Plan. They wanted to talk. Even when I thought I had anticipated their questions, they returned to saying what was on their minds. This conversation is going to take time. We need to start, now. People on Main Street need to catch up and we — advocates of dam breaching and proponents of the dams alike — need to engage them in constructive conversation. We do not need to reinforce their bias. We do need to sketch out paths forward.
And we need to be honest with people. Breaching dams may not restore the salmon runs. We are grasping for something to do. Fish passage is not the question it was even five years ago. The Corps has done everything we have asked to maximize survivability of smolt going downriver. Increased spill, yes. By-pass structures, yes. Releases from Dworshak to cool the pools, yes. We now critique the increased time for smolt from Idaho to transit the slack pools to the Columbia bar. Upstream passage has not been an issue for years. Fish ladders work predictably for adult salmon. There just are not enough salmon returning. We ratepayers via the Bonneville Power Administration have spent billions restoring habitat. We thought it was effective but apparently not effective enough.
Breaching the dams is a little like looking under the street lamp for your lost keys. We can do something about the dams. We cannot do much about climate change and its effect on ocean conditions for the salmon. The Gulf of Alaska is getting warmer and more acidic as its surface waters absorb excess carbon dioxide. Salmon runs up and down the coast are stressed regardless of whether they are dammed. The Snake run happens to be among the most stressed.
Being honest means acknowledging that removing the dams is not sufficient to restore the salmon. Being honest also means that we are not quite sure why dam removal is necessary but it is what we can do.
Why disable perfectly good dams? Good question, but the wrong one. The question is that when the courts remove the dams — because the salmon are listed under Endangered Species Act and are not surviving — what will we have? No one will stand in line to bail us out. We will not have a functioning alternative to barging. Power security may be iffy. The Port of Lewiston walks away from its seaport investment. Ice Harbor irrigators look to the banks to finance reconfiguring their intakes. This is what the Berk Consulting group this week called the “Litigation Risk: dam removal without commensurate investment.”
The same scenario plays out if shifting political winds beat the courts to it. We came close to political preemption when the survival of the orcas was laid on removal of the Lower Snake River dams. Will the next generation of statewide political leaders show the same deference to local sentiment? The future of the Lower Snake River dams rides more on the impatience of Puget Sound voters than on the stubbornness of eastern Washington politicians.
The logic of the Simpson Plan is to take the cost out of losing the dams. The Plan is not calling for our hearts and souls. It is a cool-headed proposal to use federal dollars to fund a smart strategic plan.
Don Schwerin chairs the Ag and Rural Caucus of the Washington State Democratic Party. The ARC's mission is education and advocacy. The views presented here are his, not necessarily of the Democratic Party. He lives in the Blue Mountains outside Walla Walla on his continuous crop, dryland farm.