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Simpson’s salmon plan: Once in a generation opportunity or no path forward?

The Ice Harbor dam in Washington is one of four dams that would be breached under U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's salmon recovery plan. Photo by James Perkins via Creative Commons/Flickr
The Ice Harbor dam in Washington is one of four dams that would be breached under U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's salmon recovery plan. Photo by James Perkins via Creative Commons/Flickr

Stakeholder groups weigh in on Rep. Mike Simpson’s salmon recovery plan

Two of the major hurdles to U.S. Rep Mike Simpson’s proposed salmon recovery plan: people and money.

In an effort to save endangered and threatened salmon, Simpson, R-Idaho, unveiled the Columbia Basin Initiative in February after he and his staff said they participated in 300 meetings over the past three years on the topic.

The plan calls for breaching four lower Snake River hydroelectric dams, replacing the energy generated by the dams, restoration efforts around the river and investments in the people, communities and industries tied to the river.

But complicating his plan are the money involved, and the different people and groups affected throughout the Northwest.

“I have found that replacing the benefits of the four (dams) would be very expensive at a minimum of $33.5 billion,” Simpson said in a statement on his website. “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.”

None of the four dams are in Idaho. The Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams are all located in Washington. The proposal doesn’t call for destroying the massive hydroelectric dams. Instead, it calls for removing their earthen berms so the water would essentially flow around the dams.

Simpson and conservationists hope the plan will save Idaho’s wild salmon. After salmon are born in Idaho, they follow the Snake and Columbia rivers for 900 miles or more to the Pacific Ocean where they live and eat. Near the end of their lives, salmon migrate back to central Idaho, another 900 miles and up 7,000 vertical feet, to spawn and die in places like Redfish Lake or the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

The Idaho fish pass through eight dams on their migration, where they could be injured or killed going through turbines or a sluiceway, or bogged down in slackwater behind a dam and preyed upon.

“I am not certain removing these dams will restore Idaho’ salmon and prevent their extinction,” Simpson saidin a video posted to his YouTube channelin February. “But I am certain if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho’s salmon to extinction.”

On his website, Simpson says he is not drafting legislation on the proposal, saying instead it will take all the groups, tribes, governors and the region’s congressional delegation to work toward a solution. Conservation groups say Simpon’s best shot may be to get the proposal included in President Joe Biden’s forthcoming infrastructure package.

“It will be no easy task, and on a very tight timeline,” Simpson wrote on his webpage.

The Idaho Capital Sun has made numerous unsuccessful requests starting March 16 to interview Simpson and his staff about the salmon proposal.

Here’s a look at how some of the major groups at the table view the proposal. Idaho Gov. Brad Little andthe Idaho Legislature have already come out against the proposal.

In addition to the following groups, there are other stakeholders, including grain farmers who use the river system to ship their products, which can then be loaded on oceangoing ships and brought to international markets. The Port of Lewiston is another stakeholder, as well.

In March, the Idaho Water Users Association adopted a resolution opposing breaching the lower Snake River Dams.

The association cited the 2004 Snake River Water Rights Agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe and federal government. The agreement settled the Nez Perce’s water rights claims in the Snake River Basin and launched fish habitat restoration and management initiatives in the Salmon and Clearwater river basins to improve flows and fish habitat.

Alan Kelsch, the chairman of the Idaho Water Users Association’s Federal Instream Flow coalition, said water users are unsure about how breaching the dams would affect the flow augmentation program and water users’ protections under the agreement.

“We are very cautious about any sort of major change that could affect that original agreement,” Kelsch said in a telephone interview.

Secondarily, water users are protective of the infrastructure for power production and storage purposes throughout the Paciific Northwest.

“It’s such a huge system our position has always been, we are opposed to any sort of dam breaching,” Kelsch said.

Formed in 1937, the Idaho Water Users Association is made up of more than 300 irrigation districts, canal companies, groundwater districts, agribusiness and water supply organizations. The association represents irrigation water users, municipalities, hydropower, businesses and individuals.

The association prides itself on its effectiveness in representing its users and being the source of water information in Idaho.

The association has a quote from Simpson on its website, with the congressman calling the association the preeminent authority on water issues in Idaho.

“I depend on their information when making decisions on water issues,” Simpson says on the association website.

Paul Arrington, executive director and general counsel for the Idaho Water Users Association, said water users are appreciative of the time Simpson and his staff put into developing the plan. Arrington said members want to be part of the solution to what he called “this never ending stream of litigation.”

The water users appreciate some of the watershed-partnership components of Simpson’s plan, which include $700 million to improve water quality and quantity in the Snake River.

But Arrington is not optimistic about a big agreement being reached.

“There are too many groups that are hell bent and convinced that breaching is the only solution here,” Arrington said. “You see this on all sides of the issue, where folks are just convinced their view of the world is the only right view of the world and no other person can convince them otherwise. I’m not sure there is a path.”

Pacific Northwest tribes unite in support of salmon proposal
In April, representatives from 12 tribes in the Northwest gathered to discuss Simpson’s proposal. In May, they jointly released a statement and declaration of unity pledging support for the endangered salmon, the region’s rivers and Simpson’s proposal.

The tribes have signed treaties with the U.S. government that establish fishing rights for tribes that view fish as an important part of their culture and survival.

Shannon F. Wheeler, the vice chairman of Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee that governs the tribe, said 44% of the waters in Nez Perce Country have experienced quasi-extinction thresholds where 50 or fewer natural spawners return to the waters for four consecutive years. Wheeler said the trajectory is looking much worse going forward.

“In return for the salmon giving themselves to us, our connection was that we would always be a voice to the salmon after that point in time,” Wheeler said in a telephone interview. “For us to carry that story for thousands of years and to reach this critical point in time and juncture of the salmon, it seems that now the salmon are needing us as their voice because they couldn’t speak for themselves.”

Wheeler said the salmon are connected to the Nez Perce’s history and culture, and he believes Simpson’s plan can save the fish. He also believes there is a positive connection with the salmon that can benefit Orca whales, which can be found in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

“You have to recognize, we have been studying and studying and talking about this for decades,” Wheeler said. “The time for talking is over and the time for action is now, and that is what Congressman Simpson is bringing to the table. The tribe appreciates Congressman Simpson’s bravery to address a complex problem with solutions to the issues.”

When asked, Wheeler said he did not believe breaching the dams would affect or threaten the 2004 Snake River Water Rights Agreement that the water users cited as cause for concern.

Idaho Conservation League supports “once-in-a-generation” opportunity
The Idaho Conservation League came out in support of Simpson’s proposal in February, calling it a bold plan that is comprehensive and urgently needed.

Even so, Justin Hayes, the conservation league’s executive director, calls it a big lift.

“Change is scary for a lot of folks, but moving out of the status quo is what’s needed to move this issue,” he said in an interview.

Hayes thinks Simpson’s shot is to get the proposal folded into Biden’s forthcoming infrastructure package, which could total trillions of dollars.

“There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity around funding and once-in-a-generation leadership from a conservative member of Congress who is starting to find some support from more liberal members of Congress from other states.”

The Idaho Conservation League knows Simpson well, after working with him when Simpson pushed the law that created the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness areas, which then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2015.

Hayes said the thing that makes Simpson’s salmon proposal promising is that it brings in resources and funding to support those who are affected by the changes. Hayes also believes Simpson is sincere about caring for the fish and listening to the people affected.

“The proposal he put together is so very different than the proposals that have been floated before, and he is so very different than the people who have sought to lead on this in the past,” Hayes said. “His commitment to the communities in his district and the people of the Northwest is very apparent by the scope and scale of this thing.”

One of Idaho Falls Power’s biggest concerns is avoiding rate increases for its customers.

“When we have a rate increase, that hits our most vulnerable and lower income customers the hardest,” Idaho Falls Power General Manager Bear Prairie said in a telephone interview.

Idaho Falls Power is a municipal power utility located along the Snake River in eastern Idaho. Although Idaho Falls Power does produce a small percentage of the city’s electric requirements through its own hydro projects, it relies on contracts with Bonneville Power Administration to meet about 67% of its electric requirements.

This is a good deal for Idaho Falls Power customers, Prairie said, because the city has a statutory right to buy the electricity at cost from Bonneville Power Administration. That works out to about $35 a megawatt. Without the Bonneville Power Administration agreement, costs could easily double, Prairie said.

That’s Idaho Falls Power’s stake in the discussion.

Prairie said the four dams that would be removed under the plan represent about 20% of Bonneville Power Administration’s portfolio. On top of that, because of the large size of the hydroelectric projects, the dams in question are responsible for some of the lowest-cost megawatts of the portfolio, aside from the main stem Columbia River dams.

“It’s not like it’s inconsequential to Bonneville Power,” Prairie said in a telephone interview.

This is where Prairie gives Simpson credit for “rolling up his sleeves.”

Simpson’s plan includes $16 billion for energy replacement.

Rather than demolishing the dams, the plan calls for diverting water around them, so if the salmon go extinct anyway, they could fill in the earthen portion of the dam and go back to using it for power production.

The plan also caps the fish mitigation costs for Bonneville Power Administration with an annual payment of $600 million and essentially doubles Bonneville’s borrowing cap with the U.S. Treasury, up from $7.7 billion to $15 billion.

“Right now, 13 cents of every dollar of our customers goes to pay for fish and wildlife mitigation to Bonneville,” Prairie said. “We are already paying a lot of money for this. And I’m hearing constantly from the various environmental groups that they are frustrated and it’s not enough and it’s not working.”

In the end, Prairie thinks there is an opportunity here.

“I’d rather have the difficult conversation than have everybody look the other way,” Prairie said. “It’s good we are working and have conversations with the states and the tribes and environmental groups and we are all, hopefully, looking at each other’s positions respectfully and considering the impact these decisions have.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.