March 21, 2021
At the risk of bastardizing a cliche, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to solve the conundrum of Lower Snake River dams.
But a plan from Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson is a thoughtful approach that warrants additional study. The Republican and his staff spent years listening to the concerns of stakeholders in devising a complex proposal that balances disparate desires.
Environmentalists long have pushed for the removal of four dams along the river, largely out of a desire to invigorate salmon runs throughout the river system. Salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean must swim as far as 900 miles while navigating eight hydroelectric dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers to reach their spawning grounds.
Removing the dams, however, would come with social and economic costs. They provide hydroelectric power, irrigation for agriculture, navigation and flood control.
Any potential plan must include protections for fish and tribal interests, clean-energy solutions, and farm-to-market provisions for farmers without soaking taxpayers. That balance might be impossible to achieve, but Simpson has eagerly attempted to thread the needle.
“Washington welcomes Rep. Simpson’s willingness to think boldly about how to recover Columbia and Snake River salmon in a way that works for the entire region and invests – at a potentially transformative level – in clean energy, transportation and agriculture,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.
Simpson’s $33.5 billion proposal would breach the dams by 2030 and would pay for ways to replace the dams’ function in energy, agriculture and transportation. About $1.4 billion would go to breaching the dams; the rest would invest in other areas.
“I want to be clear that I’m not certain removing these dams will restore Idaho salmon and prevent their extinction,” Simpson said. “But I am certain if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho salmon to extinction.”
The proposal has drawn pushback from both sides of the political aisle. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, called it “a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take.” Environmental groups called it a “nonstarter,” taking issue with key provisions such as a 35-year moratorium on dam-related lawsuits and a 25-year moratorium on agriculture-related lawsuits in the area. Indeed, the notion of prohibiting citizens from exercising their right to petition the government for a redress of grievances seems capricious – as well as constitutionally questionable.
Simpson’s plan also would extend licensing for other major dams in the Columbia River Basin by at least 35 years, give agriculture interests a larger role in watershed improvement and transfer fish management responsibility from the Bonneville Power Administration to a joint council of states and tribes.
All stakeholders can find something to like in the proposal – as well as reason for opposition. That highlights the complexity of the issue while reinforcing the fact that decades of salmon recovery efforts are falling short. Those efforts have become even more critical with dwindling orca populations, which rely on salmon for sustenance.
Salmon recovery initiatives over the years have cost an estimated $17 billion with negligible results; runs are continuing to decline. While Simpson’s proposal must be scrutinized, it is the most detailed recommendation thus far, comprised of thoughtful examination rather than wishful thinking. It warrants consideration.