In a bid to recover Snake River salmon and end decades of conflict, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson is proposing a $33 billion infrastructure and community investment strategy that would breach the four lower Snake River dams and reorder much of the fish, energy and commodity transportation systems of the Pacific Northwest.

If turned into legislation, passed and implemented according to Simpson’s timeline, Lower Granite Dam would be breached in the summer of 2030 and the river that was swallowed by slackwater 55 years earlier would reemerge. The breaching of Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams would follow and the entire stretch of the river would return to its free-flowing state by 2031.

The eastern Idaho Republican representing Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District announced his intentions in a recorded video posted to his website Saturday night — nearly two years after he vowed at an Andrus Center conference in Boise to live long enough to see Redfish Lake once again team with spawning sockeye. His chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, shared the concept with dozens of stakeholders and the Lewiston Tribune prior to the announcement.

Mitigation proposed for disrupted economies and communities

According to many fisheries scientists, removing the dams will boost survival of protected Snake River salmon and steelhead and allow the depleted runs to rebuild. Breaching would also help Pacific lamprey, endangered southern resident killer whales in the Puget Sound region and be a boon to fishing economies and cultures from Astoria, Ore., to Stanley, Idaho.

But the loss of slackwater would turn some industries upside down and dramatically reshape the waterfronts of Lewiston and Clarkston. Tug-and-barge transportation between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities would cease and hydropower would no longer be produced on the lower Snake River.

Simpson is proposing mitigation for disrupted economies and communities. Lewiston and the surrounding area, along with agriculture, transportation, tourism and energy sectors would receive billions of dollars in funding to help with the transition.

The concept would compensate industries most hurt by dam removal and make significant investments in Lewiston, Clarkston and the Tri-Cities in an effort to ensure no one is left behind. It would protect the large dams that remain and make investments in fish habitat and water quality throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Once the idea is translated into legislation it would be wrapped into what is expected to be a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package pursued by the Biden administration later this year.

In the video, Simpson said he and his team set out to solve the salmon issue and at first believed they could do so while leaving the dams in place. He noted they provide clean, reliable and cheap energy, efficient transportation of grain and myriad recreational opportunities.

But the dams also slow the migration of juvenile salmon and steelhead, cause them injury and stress, allow predators to flourish and contribute to the river reaching summertime temperatures that are unhealthy for salmonids.

“In the end we realized there is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place. I don’t claim to know what the best answer is for each sector, however, I do know if we give the farmers, bargers, ports, BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) and communities the necessary resources each sector can develop a certainty and security putting the Northwest’s and Idaho’s salmon on a path to sustained viability,” he said. “Working together as a delegation and with the governors, stakeholders and conservationists, we can create a Northwest solution that ends the salmon wars and puts the Northwest and our energy systems on a certain, secure and viable path for decades and restores Idaho’s salmon.”

The stakes are high, he said, but the only sure bet is the results of sticking with the status quo.

“I want to be clear that I’m not certain removing these dams will restore Idaho’s salmon and prevent their extinction but I am certain that if we do not take this course of action we are condemning Idaho’s salmon to extinction.”

Lewiston-Clarkston Valley would see share of compensation plan

Rather than dictate how each entity or sector would operate in the absence of dams, Simpson is proposing to give them the resources to create their own solutions. The money would come out of a Columbia Basin Fund, administered by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Richland.

As proposed, it would include $1.4 billion for dam removal. It would make available $16 billion to replace lost hydropower production with renewable energy, pay for continued spill at lower Columbia River dams and to upgrade the region’s electric transmission system.

Farmers would get $1.5 billion to invest in things like high-speed unit loader trains to replace barge transportation. Agriculture cooperatives that operate riverside grain storage facilities would have access to $300 million to help transition to rail and shipping companies that work on the lower Snake River would receive as much as $1 billion in compensation. The ports of Lewiston, Clarkston and Wilma would share $200 million to help adjust to the loss of barge transportation.

The cities of Lewiston and Clarkston would share $150 million for waterfront restoration, $100 million for economic development and $50 million for tourism promotion. There would be $75 million available for marina relocation and a $50 million recreation compensation fund to help people with boats designed for slackwater.

The concept includes $1.25 billion to establish the Snake River Center for Advanced Energy Storage, a Department of Energy research facility that would be headquartered at PNNL but have its main $275 million campus in the Lewiston area. Its mission would be to foster development of technologies to capture and store energy from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro. It would partner with Lewis-Clark State College, Washington State University, University of Idaho, University of Washington, Boise State University and Montana State University.

The deal would extend Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses for remaining dams in the Columbia River basin for 35 years and also institute a 35-year blackout for additional salmon and dams litigation in the region.

Clearwater Paper would have access to $275 million to reconfigure its wastewater effluent pipes and perform additional odor abatement at its Lewiston pulp mill. The odor abatement work is being viewed as a tool to help the town be more appealing to families and businesses.

The Snake River between its mouth at the Tri-Cities to Clarkston would become a National Recreation Area administered by the Bureau of Land Management and a $125 million fund would pay for restoration and management of the 140-mile-long river corridor.

The Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council would lose their missions overseeing mitigation for damage the federal hydropower system causes to anadromous fish and other wildlife. That responsibility would shift to a Northwest Fish and Wildlife Council composed of the Columbia River tribes and the four Northwest states. The council would be funded with an annual payment of $600 million from BPA.

There would be funding to fix deteriorating federal fish hatcheries, help the sport fishing industry if there are short-term impacts to angling immediately after breaching, reintroduce salmon and steelhead in the upper Snake and Columbia rivers, improve water quality in all four Northwest states, help ports and irrigators in the Tri-Cities, fix roads and railroad beds damaged by reservoir drawdown and to develop animal waste digesters that convert cow excrement to energy in the Willamette, Snake and Columbia river basins.

Strength of Northwest congressional delegation may help

The sweeping package would depend on winning a level of grassroots support and heavy lifting from senior members of the Northwest congressional delegation.

“This is a regional issue and the region’s congressional delegation is at the apex of their power right now,” said Rick Johnson, the retired executive director of the Idaho Conservation League and now consultant for the Open Rivers Fund, who has worked with Simpson’s team on the concept. “This is their moment for a big lift and it’s those kinds of big lifts where great things get done.”

Johnson sees the concept as the region’s best and maybe only chance to both remove dams and have the legislative power to ensure negative impacts to industries and communities are mitigated.

“My feeling is this moment will pass and if you want to keep the status quo you can fight and kill this and probably succeed but you will never have the opportunity for all stakeholders to come out whole again.”

For many fish advocates, the concept is something they have pursued for decades. Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, praised Simpson for his bravery. Salmon, steelhead and lamprey are central to the tribe’s culture and it has been a leader in habitat restoration, hatcheries and other fisheries work. The tribe has long called for the dams to be breached.

Wheeler said the resulting return of abundant fish could be a unifying force that benefits both the regional economy and the environment.

“I think courageous is a good word to describe (Simpson), and leadership. I think courageous leadership is exactly what he is doing here,” he said. “I think his father and mother and grandfather and grandmother will look at him and be proud of him for stepping up and looking at the problem and saying the truth.”

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, represents public power cooperatives and river transportation interests that have long lobbied against dam removal. Miller said Simpson has crafted a serious proposal that is worthy of study. In its broad strokes, it appears thorough, he said, and to have at least considered the needs of the many different interest groups in the region.

While Miller is happy the concept recognizes the value of the dams, he wants more details on some of its critical pieces.

“We want to be thoughtful about and not retrench into traditional positions but give it a fair shot and at the same time approach it with a critical eye — one that makes sure the questions get answered.”

Key questions he wants to explore include the legality of the proposed 35-year moratorium on lawsuits and whether it applies just to Endangered Species Act or if it would also cover lawsuits based on the Clean Water Act, the degree to which the elimination of barge transportation would lead to a net increase in carbon via increased highway and rail traffic and if that might prove an obstacle in Congress.

He said some of the proposed power sources that would be used to replace electricity generated at the dams, such as battery storage and small modular nuclear reactors, rely on technology that is still under development. Finally, he wants some level of certainty the massive investment and sacrifice would lead to healthy numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to the Snake River and beyond.

“We appreciate the proposal and think it’s definitely worthy of discussion, but we also urge caution because there are really a lot of details that have to be ironed out.”

Port of Lewiston Manager David Doeringsfeld issued a statement saying the port supports the benefits of the current river system and strongly opposes Simpson’s concept.

“Congressman Simpson’s proposal to end salmon litigation by breaching the four lower Snake River dams does little to restore abundant fish runs,” Doeringsfeld said. “His proposal throws billions of taxpayer dollars at unproven ideas and provides no explanation on how his ideas would be implemented.

“We hope Congressman Simpson will join with leaders throughout Idaho and support sound salmon recovery measures such as those recently outlined in Governor Little’s Salmon Work Group. The port is in discussion with the congressman on his proposal.”

How did we get here?

The gates of Lower Granite Dam, the last of the four to be constructed on the lower Snake River, closed in 1975 and pushed slackwater all the way to Lewiston. It transformed the town into a seaport and promised to bring economic prosperity via a bustling trade in goods shipped up and down the river and by bolstering the Northwest’s already robust hydropower system. The federal government said fish ladders at the dams would allow salmon and steelhead to continue to thrive.

But just 15 years later, sockeye salmon were protected under the Endangered Species Act. Protections for spring chinook, fall chinook and steelhead soon followed. Since that time, the federal government has spent about $17 billion in multiple efforts to recover the fish. Those largely unsuccessful attempts have included barging juvenile fish past the dams, improving spawning and rearing habitat far upstream of the lower Snake River, fishing restrictions, planting of hatchery salmon and steelhead and spilling water over the dams to help smolts avoid turbines and fish bypass systems.

Following ESA protections, wild salmon and steelhead advocates, including the Nez Perce Tribe and environmental groups, went to court claiming the government wasn’t doing enough to help the iconic fish. They also pushed the once preposterous idea that breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River as the best and likely only way to save the fish.

Plaintiffs won suit after suit and repeatedly forced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with the Army Corps of Engineers, BPA and Bureau of Reclamation to rewrite their plans aimed at balancing the needs of fish with dam operations.

The agencies released their latest version last year. It focuses on spilling water at the dams and continues actions such as rehabilitating habitat and reducing predators. The agencies considered but once again rejected breaching the lower Snake River dams even though they found doing so would give the fish the best chance at recovery. They said breaching, which requires congressional authorization, fell outside their authority and would be too expensive.

But the strategy backed by many fisheries scientists has continued to garner support, especially as other measures have failed. At the same time, trade on the river has fallen. While once envisioned as a waterborne super highway moving a wide array of goods to market, it is now used mainly to ship wheat to downriver ports and eventually to overseas markets. While the region still relies on hydropower, other sources, like wind turbine farms, now produce more energy than the Snake River dams.

In the past two years, various adversaries in the decades-long salmon and dams debate — what Simpson calls the salmon wars — have started to talk. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration convened the Columbia River Partnership Task Force that authored robust salmon and recovery goals. Idaho Gov. Brad Little empowered the Idaho Salmon Work Group that adopted the same fish abundance goals. Now Northwest states and tribes are poised to begin talks that could go even further. Simpson views his concept as a catalyst for those discussions and the discussions as a rare opportunity for the region to solve the salmon problem “on our terms.”

“The stars are lined up right now if we are going to do something about this and resolve this issue,” Simpson told the Tribune. “I don’t know when those stars will be lined up again.”

Enter Congressman Simpson

How did a conservative Republican come to champion a salmon-saving strategy that essentially undoes what was once billed as a source of pride -- humans harnessing nature to move goods and power a region?

According to those close to the former dentist, Simpson was not a typical lover of Idaho’s outdoor bounty. He preferred golf over hiking, fishing and camping. But he fell in love with the state’s natural beauty during his 15-year fight to win wilderness designation for the Boulder White Clouds, said environmental activist Johnson. He also relished a new challenge, an intractable problem to solve.

“In falling in love with Idaho, you develop a great sophistication for what is missing and the salmon are what is missing,” Johnson said.

In recent years, Simpson has made annual journeys to Marsh Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, to watch spawning chinook salmon.

“I believe watching Idaho salmon spawn was a deeply powerful experience for him,” said Johnson.

With his grand plan now out, the congressman is asking people to earnestly examine it with an eye toward how they would like the Northwest to look two or three decades into the future and with the knowledge that humans can shape that future and adapt to changing conditions.

“It’s just choices we make,” Simpson said. “The one thing salmon don’t have is choices. They need a river.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.