TWIN FALLS — U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson wants to remove the four Lower Snake River dams to end the salmon wars.
Simpson’s $33.5 billion proposal has been applauded by conservation groups and criticized by many Idaho agricultural interests. His idea entails breaching dams that stand in the way of salmon recovery and provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of households.
This proposal won’t necessarily save Idaho’s salmon or steelhead trout, Simpson said, but the Idaho Republican explained he’s sure the fish are doomed to extinction if the dams stay.
Simpson’s plan could be part of a Biden administration infrastructure bill this year and it would set aside billions of dollars to replace lost hydroelectric power and compensate groups that rely on the dams. The goal, Simpson told the Times-News, is to make sure breaching the dams doesn’t negatively impact any group.
After decades of legal battles — the salmon wars — and spending $17 billion on unsuccessful salmon recovery efforts, it’s time to try this, Simpson said. If Idaho and other Northwestern states don’t start removing these four dams in 2030 as part of this plan, a federal judge could order the dams breached anyway.
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Simpson said that by doing it through his proposal, Idaho won’t be left unprepared. The state will have more certainty and won’t be at the mercy of a judge’s ruling. The time is now.
“You have to wait for the right moment,” Simpson said. “We’ve been kind of looking at the stars being aligned.”
If Simpson’s idea becomes a reality, it’ll have massive ramifications for Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. But what would the gargantuan proposal and the breaching of four dams all the way in southeastern Washington state mean for the Magic Valley hundreds of miles away?
There are a handful of reasons Simpson wants to breach the four dams — this isn’t just about saving salmon.
But to understand the proposal, you have to know a little bit about how the Northwest got to this point. Salmon are at the heart of the debate, lawsuits and controversy.
The fish are struggling and have been for decades. Chinook and sockeye salmon have been endangered since the 1990s, as have steelhead trout. There used to be between 8 and 16 million salmon and steelhead on the Snake and Columbia rivers every year.
As humans installed more and more dams along the salmon’s migration corridors, the fishes’ journey back and forth from the ocean became increasingly perilous. Now only a few thousand wild salmon and steelhead make it back to the Gem State every year.
For instance, back in the 1800s about 30,000 sockeye salmon made the 900-mile annual trek from the Pacific to central Idaho every year. Redfish Lake in Stanley got its name from the thousands of bright red sockeye that would swarm its waters. Now just a few hundred fish survive the journey back to the mountains, on average. A mere 27 made it back this fall.
Climate change and ocean predators are big factors contributing to paltry fish returns, but the eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers are the biggest obstacles for the three species. Each dam kills a small percentage of fish and the cumulative impacts from passing through all the dams has a major impact on the species’ survival rates. Most biologists say sockeye, Chinook and steelhead can’t maintain viable reproducing populations indefinitely unless the dams go.
The problem for salmon and steelhead is that humans rely heavily on the dams, primarily for energy and transportation. Hydroelectric energy from the four Lower Snake River dams Simpson wants to breach powers hundreds of thousands of homes — some rural Magic Valley households use electricity produced by the dams.
Plus, agriculture producers rely on the dams to transport grain and other goods on barges to Portland. Barges are the cheapest way to move grain. Without dams, the barges wouldn’t be able to make it down the river, and grain growers would probably lose markets and see much higher transportation costs. Agricultural producers often operate on small margins, so even a small increase in shipping prices could be disastrous.
Simpson said he knows how important the dams are for power and shipping. That’s why his plan includes billions of dollars to ensure no one gets financially clobbered by the dams’ removal.
There’s money in the plan for many different groups and the dollar amounts for each are massive. Communities along the Lower Snake River will get hundreds of millions of dollars to help their economies weather the dam breaching. There’s $10 billion to establish new wind, solar and nuclear projects that will make up for the loss of hydroelectric power. Grain producers will get $1.5 billion to develop new ways to get their products to market.
Some of the money could disproportionately benefit the Magic Valley. There’s $1.6 billion in the plan for “enhanced nutrient management funding.”
That money would, to a large extent, go toward research that would help the Magic Valley dairy industry better its manure management practices in an effort to improve water quality and prevent excess nutrients from getting into the Snake River.
There’s also $700 million for “Snake River Basin Watershed Partnerships.” That money’s designated for water quality improvement too.
Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes said that money’s significant, and called Simpson’s mid-Snake water quality plan “pretty spectacular.”
What would this mean for the Magic Valley?
Breaching the dams would undoubtedly impact south-central Idaho, it’s just a question of how much.
The Magic Valley is Idaho’s agricultural hub, and some of the state’s ag groups — Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and the Idaho Grain Producers Association, for instance — have strongly opposed Simpson’s plan. Simpson’s sticking his neck out to some extent as the lone member of Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation to support dam breaching.
Gov. Brad Little, a former rancher, has spoken against Simpson’s idea, as have many Magic Valley politicians, including state Reps. Laurie Lickley, Clark Kauffman, Scott Bedke, Lance Clow and former Rep. Steve Hartgen.
The Magic Valley probably wouldn’t stand to lose too much if the dams were breached, though. At least not directly. Fertilizer prices could increase for growers, since those products travel upriver on the barges.
Scoular, a grain and commodity company that sells feed ingredients and grain to Magic Valley dairies, doesn’t usually rely on the barges to ship its products. Scoular Trade Unit Manager Andy Hohwieler said breaching the dams would change how grain’s traded in Idaho, but it’s difficult to calculate any costs or benefits at this point.
Most of the Magic Valley’s grains don’t travel on the barges. Wheat farmers here are more likely to sell to the Ogden, Utah, flour mills or ship their wheat east to the cookie and cracker flour mills in Chicago. The same can’t be said for southwestern or northern Idaho growers, who rely on the barges more heavily.
Wheat’s generally a more important crop in northern Idaho as well. Farmers there often grow wheat season after season without rotating as often through other crops.
Buhl farmer Rick Pearson said that even though Magic Valley wheat farmers don’t specifically need these four dams for their grain he worries about the precedent dam removal could set.
“What if they take four dams out and it doesn’t do anything (to help salmon)?” Pearson said. “Do they take down the next four dams? Or do they come down to Idaho and take out some of our dams and destroy our way of life too?”
Pearson, who also serves on the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation Board, said if he felt confident Simpson’s plan would bring back salmon, he might be able to support it. But he isn’t confident.
He also said he feels he has to stick up for southwestern and northern Idaho farmers.
“You’ve got to kind of fight for them now and hope they fight for you later,” he said. But not all Magic Valley wheat farmers oppose removing the dams. Farmer Duane Grant of Grant 4-D Farms in Rupert said he thinks Simpson’s plan is a good one, especially in the long-term.
“In my opinion, the dams are already obsolete,” Grant said. “Other forms of energy … will deliver power at a lower cost in the future than the dams.”
As the dams begin to make less financial sense — they’re aging and in need of expensive repairs — there will come a time when the only argument for keeping them is barging grain, Grant said.
Grant also emphasized that Simpson’s wise to worry about a federal judge ordering the dams removed. He agrees it’s better for Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana to control the dam removal process themselves and have more certainty about the future.
“We’re literally as a Northwest community playing Russian roulette in court over and over again with the folks who are advocating to take the dams out,” Grant said.
On top of that, Grant said agriculture has to pay attention to what the general public wants — and he expects the average person overwhelmingly wants to help salmon even if it’s bad for some farmers.
“We’re not big enough or strong enough to ignore the demands of the public for some adherence to acceptable social norms,” Grant said. “That includes social norms in the environment. … Agriculture must have a social license in order to continue to exist.”
For decades, the dam breaching debate has been seen as a simple choice: Do you want salmon, or do you want cheap electricity and cheap shipping?
Pearson said if it’s a question between doing something that may or may not save the salmon, and helping Idaho farmers, he’s going to side with the farmers.
But Simpson said he doesn’t think that’s the choice. It’s possible to help salmon without hurting farmers, he said.
The congressman said there are still a lot of people he hopes to win over in the next few months. If people read the plan, he said, they won’t reject it quite so quickly.
“If they want to oppose it, that’s fine,” he said. “I just want them to be able to base their opinion on exactly what the proposal is and not what some myths are out there.”