The U.S. House had a chance this week to make a real mark on the effort to improve American infrastructure and keep salmon and steelhead from the Snake River basin from winking out of existence in the coming years. The body’s collective action on behalf of Snake River salmon when it honed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill it eventually sent to the Senate? It punted.
And doing so may have doomed the Snake River stocks of salmon and steelhead. Despite being home to the best spawning and rearing habitat in the Northwest, the upper reaches of the Snake River basin, including famed rivers like the Salmon, the Clearwater, the Lochsa and the Selway, may lose anadromous fish within just a few decades.
It was an Idaho Republican, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, not a Seattle liberal or a Portland Democrat, who floated the ambitious proposal to remove four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state. The last of those four dams was completed in 1975, and the lower Snake River complex, according to biologists, is to blame for a steady decline of anadromous fish returning to Idaho each year. Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs have dropped precipitously since the dams were constructed and a host of issues including climate change, introduced predators like smallmouth bass and walleye that flourish in the reservoirs behind the dams, and low water flows are contributing to a bleak future for the fish that swim almost 900 miles from the ocean to the base of the Sawtooths.
The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a sweeping infrastructure bill, and that bill now goes to the Senate minus Simpson’s proposal to remove the four dams and beef up rail and renewable power infrastructure along the Snake River corridor. Dam removal is believed by scientists to be the only way to stave off extinction of Idaho’s big chinook salmon, it’s fabled B-run steelhead and its dwindling population of sockeye salmon that gave Redfish Lake its name.
Taxpayers have spent upwards of $17 billion on efforts to get fish over dams during the last 30 years, and those efforts have produced no tangible benefits for the fish or for the people of the region, which includes several native American tribes that possess fishing treaty rights for salmon. Though the dams facilitate commodity traffic by providing barge passage from Lewiston, Idaho, to the sea, they offer no flood protection to their surrounding communities, and provide no meaningful irrigation to nearby agriculture. The dams do produce a modest amount of hydropower, but studies have shown the power they generate can easily and more economically be replaced by renewable sources like wind and solar. Simpson’s $33.5 billion proposal includes investments in water management and enhanced commodity transportation—which includes insurance for Snake River bargers and agricultural producers that use barges to get their products to market on the West Coast—and would counter lost power generation with cheaper and more efficient renewable energy projects.
Simpson acknowledges that his plan is pricey, but “it 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,” he said. As it is now, American taxpayers are on the hook for another $20 billion over the next 30 years, just to manage the aging dams that continue to block passage for ocean-going fish. And the likely outcome for salmon and steelhead? Extinction.
Simpson, a solidly red Republican from a solidly red state, knows that things aren’t going to magically get better. Climate change is resulting in lighter high-country snowpack that melts into salmon-pushing spring and summer flows. A warming planet is also contributing to hotter inland river currents—that the slackwater reservoirs behind the dams are now more hospitable to smallmouth, carp and walleye than they are to salmon and steelhead is testament to that impact.
Those who think Simpson’s plan was little more than a political stunt from a right-wing, red-state hard-liner would be well-served to think again. Simpson worked for decades to protect much of central Idaho—his decades-long push to protect the Boulder-White Clouds region resulted in the permanent protection and wilderness designation of 275,000 acres in 2015. His record suggests his rhetoric on the effort to protect Idaho salmon and steelhead from extinction is just as genuine.
“I’m going to stay alive long enough to get healthy salmon to Idaho,” Simpson, 70, told an audience earlier this year at an Andrus Center for Public Policy event at Boise State University.
To do so, he’ll have to beat back the usual suspects in D.C., and also counter more liberal lawmakers who many thought would muster the political courage to support the idea that keeping legendary runs of salmon and steelhead from going extinct matters.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who hails from the more radical wing of the GOP, is a predictable antagonist.
“I share the passion to recover endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest, but tearing out the Lower Snake River dams is a non-starter for me,” she said. “These amendments (in the infrastructure bill) further strengthen that position. I will not bend to the will of radical environmentalists whose goal is to tear out dams, no matter the consequences for our region.”
But Simpson faces opponents from a traditionally conservation-friendly wing of the Democratic party, too.
In May, Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has backed conservation efforts both from her home state of Washington to Alaska and beyond, chose not to back Simpson’s proposal, choosing instead to continue playing conservation Whack-a-Mole by addressing “salmon infrastructure” issues, like faulty culverts and stormwater runoff control.
What did Cantwell support in the infrastructure bill? She sponsored legislation that would allow the Bonneville Power Administration (the entity that operates the salmon-killing dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers) to increase its federal debt by $10 billion. According to E&E Daily, the BPA is already $14.5 billion in debt.
At the same time Cantwell was championing “salmon infrastructure,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, both Democrats, released a joint statement panning the Simpson proposal and declared that it shouldn’t be included in the federal infrastructure bill.
Simpson has the support of those “radical” environmentalists—moderate groups like Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League are on board with his proposal (as are several Northwest indigenous tribes) and they’re mobilizing their grassroots members and supporters to support it. TU President and CEO Chris Wood went so far as to challenge Cantwell’s BPA debt relief measure as a “get out of jail free card” for the utility, and noted that, “It’s a mistake to divorce BPA’s financial crisis from the salmon challenge.”
That’s a pretty bold statement—TU could be the beneficiary of millions of dollars in salmon and steelhead habitat work over the coming years, but Wood and his organization seem more interested in the “long game” of keeping the fish from going extinct. It doesn’t matter how intact the spawning and rearing habitat is if the fish can’t get home to build redds and make the next generation of ocean-going fish.
That Simpson took this issue on is a testament to his political mettle. He likes to battle and debate. He likes when the outcome makes sense, both fiscally and for the people of his state, just as protecting the Boulder-White Clouds provides economic certainty for his rural constituents thanks to the impact of the growing outdoor recreation economy. And dam removal makes sense to Simpson, who carefully considers economic and cultural options in his proposal.
But time is short. In the time it takes to spend billions of dollars barging fish around dams, retrofitting dams with better fish passage and working to improve spawning and rearing habitat in the Snake River headwaters, the salmon and steelhead from that watershed could be gone.
“It would be a tragedy if future generations looked back and wished that we current Northwest leaders and stakeholders would have at least taken the time to explore this opportunity to develop our own Northwest solution to protect stakeholders and save salmon,” Simpson said.
A tragedy, indeed.