September 29, 2019
By Marty Trillhaase You could understand why people attending the Andrus Center’s forum on salmon recovery left Boise in April on such a high note. Gov. Brad Little announced he would do what others had talked about by setting a table with room for every conceivable interest group affected. Little’s Salmon Working Group offered hope that it would help establish what Idaho does next. Meanwhile, Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, signaled his own intentions: “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to stay alive long enough to see the salmon returned in healthy populations in Idaho.” That was five months ago. What’s happened since? Between its listening tour and Little’s inconsistent signals about whether dam breaching is off the table, the task force seems to be in terminal tentative mode. Simpson has been lobbying his colleagues extensively on his concerns. Even so, he remains one of 435 House members — and part of the GOP congressional minority to boot. So why not scale things back a bit. Rather than answering the big questions, how about framing them first? For instance, how about this constant seesaw between those who favor dam breaching and those who disagree? Pity the poor average Idahoan who endures the dispute. How can he not be confused when virtually every study that promotes breaching suffers the same result. The source — whether it’s the Independent Scientific Group (1999), the American Fisheries Society Western Division (1999, 2004 and 2011), or a collection of concerned scientists — is challenged as biased. And typically, scientists resort to the language of probability. They’ll refer to the dams as threats or breaching as a way to improve the prospects for fish recovery — rather than resort to the black-and-white language of species survival. Why not set this as a goal for Little’s working group: Don’t recommend the decision; just define the choice. If, as some assert, that the region can have both dams and limited fish runs, then the question becomes how to best manage those assets. However, if the region must decide one way or the other, then the irrigators, farmers, port operators and shipping interests on Little’s panel would be free to argue that dams are worth sacrificing the remaining fish runs to extinction. At the same time, the conservationists, Indian tribes and outfitters Little placed at the table would have the opportunity to make their case that saving the fish warrants ending a half-century of slackwater. It’s not a matter of reinventing the wheel. Much of this already was spelled out at the Andrus Center conclave. A white paper due out shortly could provide the Little working group with a road map. Either way, the prestige of Little’s office and the broad-base of interests participating on the panel would move the discussion to the next realm. People aren’t stupid. An honest broker of information would allow them to break the gridlock. For his part, Simpson has the ability to clarify matters on a fundamental question: Are the four dams on the lower Snake River delivering a return on the investment taxpayers and ratepayers have made in maintaining shipping channels and upgrading and/or replacing infrastructure? Has the decline of barging and the slumping market for hydropower changed the cost-benefit equation? Dam advocates will raise earlier studies conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fish advocates will cite the recent ECONorthwest report. But what’s needed is an objective review conducted by a credible entity.None comes closer to meeting that qualification than the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development has jurisdiction over the Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Simpson is the ranking Republican on that panel. As such, he has the wherewithal to get a GAO investigation launched. If the results show these dams are national assets, then the debate will go in one direction; if it turns out they are demanding financial as well as natural resource sacrifices, then the discussion would go another way. To those who have spent decades advocating one side or the other, such incremental steps would be maddening. But breaking the fog of dispute will be difficult enough. Clearing away the ambiguity while there is still time to act would be a meaningful, ifnot fully satisfying, contribution on both the governor’s and congressman’s parts. Why must the perfect be the enemy of the good?