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‘Salmon Reckoning’ investigates Congressman Simpson’s plan to save salmon, breach Snake River dams

Idaho Public Television brings a timely documentary, Salmon Reckoning, to Outdoor Idaho, which will air on Thursday, Oct. 14. (Courtesy of Idaho Public Television)
Idaho Public Television brings a timely documentary, Salmon Reckoning, to Outdoor Idaho, which will air on Thursday, Oct. 14. (Courtesy of Idaho Public Television)

Idaho Public Television program to air Thursday, Oct. 14 and again on Sunday, Oct. 17

Idaho Public Television brings a timely documentary, “Salmon Reckoning,” to Outdoor Idaho, which will air Thursday, Oct. 14.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, wants to dismantle four Snake River dams while compensating farmers and businesses with taxpayer funds and financially bolster the Lewiston, Idaho, and Tri-Cities, Washington, areas.

Simpson’s district encompasses the Sawtooth Valley, where salmon breed and die after spending several years in the Pacific Ocean. He said: “To me, the science is clear. You’ve got to remove the dams.”

Most importantly, his effort here is a bid to end litigation over endangered salmon. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of lawsuits. Pacific Northwest leaders are at loggerheads over preserving, protecting and propagating the iconic Snake River salmon and steelhead.

Simpson’s proposal means the four dams on the lower Snake River would be breached. These dams offer a tangible value to the farmers, but their existence has helped slide salmon and steelhead toward extinction while impoverishing Native American tribes.

Politicians, Nez Perce tribal biologists, sportspeople, energy officials, corporations, farmers, grain shippers, river communities, and conservation groups from across the Columbia River Basin are all ears and ready to fight for their point of view. Simpson’s allies hoping to rid the Snake River of these lower four dams to save the salmon and steelhead include the Northwest Native American tribes.

The growing population of Idaho demands more power, and the dam removal forces the hands of the Northwest electric utilities to come up with a green solution to keep the capability and capacity at current levels or higher. This conversation also involved Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee, along with Simpson.

Most people agree that Idaho’s salmon need our help. However, many biologists argue that extinction is just around the corner. Should we care? And what should be our response? The result is explored in the upcoming Outdoor Idaho episode, “Salmon Reckoning.”

Simpson’s call for breaching the four lower Snake River dams, all located in Washington, includes a compensation package for all those impacted by the loss of the dams, approximately costing $33.5 billion.

“That’s a bold proposal for someone from one of the reddest Congressional districts in the nation,” says Outdoor Idaho host Bruce Reichert in a press release to Idaho Capital Sun. “We decided to examine his comprehensive proposal in the first show of our 39th season.” Telling this story is thanks to the hard work of producers Aaron Kunz, Forrest Burger and Reichert.

Lewiston, Idaho, will take a hit. Breaching the four dams would seriously affect the “seaport” there and the barging of Palouse wheat. The Northwest will lose 1,000 megawatts of clean power. Simpson believes there are ways around these issues but that the Northwest “has to accept change.”

“Change is coming,” said Simpson. “Are we going to take advantage of it? Are we going to design our future, or are we going to have it imposed on us? I think we can do a better job designing it ourselves. I think we can save salmon.”

Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda Mapes was shocked when she learned Congressman Simpson got involved in the debate. “All of a sudden, onto the scene comes somebody named Mike Simpson. I had to keep looking up his name. Who is he? Republican out of Idaho. Whoever would have thunk it!”

Mapes said: “They would rather shape that change themselves through the Simpson proposal, or something like it. A Northwest decision by Northwesterners, rather than something imposed from a courtroom.”

Stakeholders see Idaho’s salmon recovery differently

The most prominent opponents of Simpson’s proposal are the Palouse wheat farmers. “The Snake River system is integral to the economy of north-central Idaho. This is our highway to international markets,” said David Doeringsfeld, the Port of Lewiston manager. “If we lost that river system, it would dramatically change what we grow in this area,” Doeringsfeld says that barging is the most cost-effective way to get soft white wheat to places like Portland.

The four dams also provide a clean source of energy. “It’s a big deal. For us, hydro is over 80% of our power supply; the Snake River dams provide 10% of that,” explains Rick Dunn, manager of Benton PUD in Washington. Dunn and Doeringsfeld believe science should determine whether the dams stay or go.

“There is no surprise to me that these four lower Snake dams are creating the problem they are,” says Virgil Moore, former director of Idaho’s Fish and Game Department.

He has studied Idaho’s salmon for 40 years. “We spent the last 20 years narrowing that uncertainty down to the point where folks like Congressman Simpson can now come out and say there is very little if any uncertainty about the fact that we can’t get functional recovery with these dams in place.”

Idaho anglers also veer on the side of dam removal.

“The conditions are so complex,” said retired Idaho lawmaker Stephen Hartgen. “Changing currents, weather patterns, climate change. Salmon were here before we got here, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay here. So were dodo birds.”

Federal courts give the Northwest tribes such as the Coeur d’Alene Tribe a significant voice in what happens next. Another advocate for breaching the four Snake River dams is longtime salmon advocate Ed Chaney, who said: “The salmon have run out of time. The extinction train is still rolling down the tracks. And if we don’t do something, it’s over. Those dams don’t even pay for their own maintenance. They’re zombie money-losing dams.”

“This is certainly one of our most controversial programs ever,” said Outdoor Idaho host and producer Bruce Reichert. “As we say in our show, Idaho’s star will shine more brightly if these fish can continue to return to central Idaho, just like they’ve done for thousands of years.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.