Initial reaction to an Idaho congressman’s proposal to save Idaho salmon by breaching the four lower Snake River dams while investing in affected industries and communities broadly fell along three lines Monday.
There were “hallelujahs.” There were “hell nos.” And there were “huhs?” The last group was made up of people who seemed uneasy with breaching but curious enough to give it a second look.
That concept comes from Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District. On Sunday, he announced his $33 billion strategy that would couple breaching with investments in renewable energy, upgrades to rail transportation, and give communities, businesses and others the resources to adjust to life without the dams.
Lewiston and Clarkston would have access to hundreds of millions of dollars for economic development, waterfront and riparian area restoration, recreation and tourism promotion. Ports and farmers would be given resources to keep crops and other goods moving.
None of his fellow members of the Pacific Northwest Congressional Delegation enthusiastically embraced Simpson’s idea and some of them dismissed it outright. Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, joined with eastern Washington representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler, all Republicans, in staunch opposition.
“The four lower Snake River dams produce essential, carbon-free hydropower, provide flood control protection, recreational opportunities, and support critical irrigation systems,” Fulcher said in written statement. “These dams also enable the Lewiston port to provide an efficient route to market for Idaho exports. Our focus needs to be on solutions that prioritize both salmon, and human needs.”
Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in Washington and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon issued a measured statement that walked a line between support and opposition.
“All communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond should be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region.”
Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch also staked out middle ground. Crapo pledged to study the proposal and said any solution must be collaborative and based on regional consensus. Risch reiterated his opposition to breaching but also said he would give Simpson’s idea a look.
“The concept for addressing it has a tremendous number of variables and will require a great deal of time and analysis,” Risch said in a written statement. “I am reviewing the proposal and listening to Idahoans from every background on the topic, as I always have, and will continue to look for effective ways to improve anadromous fish runs.”
Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, said the governor is reviewing the proposal and “looks forward to engaging with regional stakeholders as well as Congressman Simpson and his colleagues as we work to improve salmon and steelhead populations while keeping Idaho industries whole.”
Political leaders in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley reacted similarly. None of them endorsed the plan and some said it was dead on arrival.
Clarkston Mayor Monika Lawrence said even with a $33 billion price tag, it would be “grossly inadequate” to address negative impacts to Clarkston, Lewiston and Asotin.
“As we learn more and more about the impacts of dam breaching, we realize that our community can expect a significant detrimental cascading financial effect to occur,” she said.
Asotin County Commissioner Brian Shinn rejects Simpson’s position that dams must be breached to prevent the extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead.
“I think the whole thing is kind of a fairy tale on so many levels. There are plenty of scientists that don’t agree with his conclusion.”
Shinn doubted the concept would be supported by any of the county commissioners in southeastern Washington and called breaching a risky gamble.
“Are we going to destroy our entire economy and infrastructure in the hope removing the dams returns salmon. There is no guarantee and there is no science that says it’s guaranteed.”
Lewiston City Manager Alan Nygaard and Valley Vision Executive Director Scott Corbitt said breaching would carry many negative impacts and the plan needs to be studied and its details understood.
“I think we need to look at it with an open mind,” Corbitt said. “We need to look and examine all pieces of that before we say ‘Oh, it’s impossible’ or ‘Absolutely not.’ ”
Nygaard noted federal study of dams and salmon last year found breaching to be massively expensive and while it would benefit the fish, federal scientists thought measures short of breaching would also provide benefits.
“It’s something we will have to take a deep dive into,” he said.
No deep dive needed for port leaders, shippers and farmers. In a statement that was released even before Simpson’s plan became public, Port of Clarkston Manager Wanda Keifer called the dams critical to the economy and culture of the region.
“In order to fully understand the impacts of what he is proposing and its degradation to our economy and quality of life, he should engage with community leaders from the entire region.”
Farmer and Idaho Wheat Commission member Joseph Anderson said river transportation helps keep shipping prices reasonable.
“Multiple modes of transportation to Portland help us better serve our customers and be regarded as a reliable supplier throughout the world.”
Many conservation and fishing groups have been pushing dam breaching for more than two decades. They were generally all in with Simpson’s concept, which they said doesn’t leave any stakeholders without resources.
“Not only will the plan recover wild salmon and steelhead to abundance, but also appropriates dedicated funding for each industry to develop their own path forward,” said Idaho Rivers United Executive Director Nic Nelson.
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