BOISE — Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson flirted with backing the removal of the four lower Snake River dams during a conference here on salmon recovery Tuesday.
The veteran Republican lawmaker representing the state’s 2nd Congressional District stopped short of calling for the dams to be breached but said his search for a way to save both the financially strapped Bonneville Power Administration and the iconic fish has led him and his chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, to quietly ask difficult questions.
Many of the questions he highlighted during his hourlong address at the Andrus Center’s “Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community; Can We Come Together?” conference centered on life without the four lower Snake River Dams.
“We have been asking the ‘what if’ questions: If the dams were to come out, how would you address Lewiston; if the dams were to come out, how would you address the barging issue and the (concerns) grain growers have of getting wheat down the river: If the dams were to come out, how would you address the Washington farmers that have concerns they would have to lower all of their (irrigation) intake pipes and everything to farm?” he said. “There are an awful lot of questions that have to be asked, because you need to address these if you are going to solve this problem.”
Simpson spoke with conviction about his desire to see Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs recovered in his lifetime. He told the audience of his experience watching a single, female salmon attempt to spawn in Marsh Creek on the upper Salmon River. The futility of it made him question the region’s decadeslong attempt to recover the fish while leaving the dams in place.
That effort has focused on fixing salmon habitat throughout the Snake River Basin, reforms to salmon and steelhead hatcheries, spilling more water at the dams and sending more Idaho water downstream to boost flows that flush juvenile salmon and steelhead to the Pacific Ocean.
“She swam 900 miles to get back to Marsh Creek, an increase in elevation (of) about 1¼ miles, all to lay her eggs for the next generation of salmon, and you have to ask yourself after spending $16 billion on salmon recovery over the last however many years, is it working?” he said. “All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered. Look at the number of returning salmon, and the trend line is not going up; it’s going down.”
Simpson has no pending legislation aimed at salmon recovery and said he is not at the point of recommending dam removal. He also said there are other problems harming salmon, such as sea lion predation, degraded water quality and habitat, and downriver fishing pressure that need to be addressed.
He plans to continue to talk with people affected by the issue and also meet with other members of Congress representing the Pacific Northwest. He said it may be time to rewrite the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act that, among other things, obligated the BPA to fund mitigation for damage that federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers cause to fish and wildlife.
The agency faces unprecedented financial pressure that in part comes from changes to the energy market that have made the power it sells more expensive. In a few years, BPA officials will attempt to renew long-term contracts with public utilities throughout the Northwest. If the agency isn’t able to bring the price of its power down, many of those contracts may not be renewed.
“We need to stop thinking about what currently exists and ask ourselves what do we want the Northwest to look like in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” Simpson said.
The conference included four panel discussions and speakers representing a wide range of interests, including farmers and ranchers, power company and utility executives, environmental leaders, fishing outfitters and tribal leaders. Bonneville Power Administration head Elliot Mainzer spoke, as did Idaho Gov. Brad Little.
The governor announced he will convene collaborative stakeholders groups to discuss how to improve salmon recovery in Idaho. He too said the regional process to save the fish is not working. But he also said breaching is a “high hurdle” for him.
“I’m in favor of breaching the status quo,” Little teased during his opening remarks.
Many of the speakers talked about the need and desire for people on different sides of the salmon and dams debate to begin talking with each other to see if there are any areas of agreement. Mainzer spoke about the recent flexible spill agreement between the federal government, Nez Perce Tribe and state of Oregon that will see more water spilled at Snake and Columbia River dams this spring but reserve the BPA’s ability to produce power during times of high energy demand.
He said the negotiations between parties who battled often in court was difficult at first but ultimately produced fruit.
“It was very difficult, and there was a lot of skepticism and very little trust,” he said. “Slowly and surely, people started listening and thinking about the other person’s perspective.”
Mainzer said he views the Snake River dams as an integral part of the federal hydropower system that produces carbon-free electricity.
But Simpson’s remarks dominated the conference. Fish advocates were thrilled with his willingness to discuss breaching.
“This is the first time in 15 or 20 years, because of his leadership, that I feel positive that we can finally begin to sit down with these communities of interest that want to maintain the status quo and those of us want to see healthy, abundant, fishable populations of salmon back and come to an accord where nobody is left behind ,”said Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited.
McCoy Oatman, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said he left the conference more optimistic than he arrived in large part because of Simpson’s remarks.
“I think it feels like a new leaf is starting to be turned, and they are finally listening to what the tribe has always said,” Oatman said. “And Simpson in particular is pretty clear that he realizes there are changes that need to be done, dramatic changes, and I think the other users are realizing that as well.”
Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said she is willing to hear Simpson out.
“We are always open to conversations with the congressman,” Meira said. “He’s been open about these questions, and we will look forward to being part of the conversation.”
Barker may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.