Leaders from 12 Idaho communities urge swift action to recover salmon before it’s too late

Leaders from 12 Idaho communities urge swift action to recover salmon before it’s too late

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BOISE — Leaders of 12 central Idaho communities urged Idaho’s congressional delegation and Gov. Brad Little to take the lead to recover Idaho endangered salmon and steelhead they say are critical to their economies.

Mayors, city council members and chamber of commerce executives signed the letter, which called on state leaders to acknowledge the extinction crisis and to bring all of the groups together to develop a solution.

The communities represented in the letter included Orofino, Stanley, Challis, Salmon, Riggins, McCall, Mackay, Stites, Kamiah, Kooskia, Ketchum and White Bird.

They hope that will lead to the recovery of the fish, whose numbers were so low in 2019 that the steelhead season was closed in the Clearwater River.

“When the season closes (unexpectedly) or runs are worse than normal, restaurants, hotels, guides and our entire community suffers,” Orofino Mayor Ryan Smathers said in a press release. “We sacrifice the Dworshak reservoir water to help the fish and cool the river, and it’s not helping.”

The letter comes as Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson confronted the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite on Tuesday at a hearing before the House subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies in Washington, D.C.

Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Sunnyside, Washington, farmer, praised the Corp and other federal agencies who just released a draft environmental study rejecting the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams in Washington. Biologists say the dams are the major threat to Idaho’s salmon and steelhead. Simpson said Newhouse left something out of their remarks.

“I noticed you all mentioned hydropower, irrigation and transportation and how important those are. Nobody mentioned fish,” Simpson said. “Nobody mentioned salmon that come back to Idaho, that in the next 15 years, if something isn’t done, they will be extinct.

“There is no doubt about that, they will be extinct,” Simpson said.

At a conference about salmon, power and agriculture in April, Simpson advocated that the Pacific Northwest do everything it can to restore healthy, sustainable wild salmon populations to Idaho. He stopped short of calling for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. But Simpson asked all interested parties to consider “what if?” What if those dams — which provide grain shipping from the Palouse in Idaho and Washington, as well as electricity and backup for wind and solar power in the region — come down?

“Those dams produce 3,000 megawatts of power. You can put small modular reactors or other things in there. You can produce (power) differently. Everything we do, we can do differently,” Simpson said to the committee Tuesday. “Salmon need one thing — they need a river.”

Newhouse said he also wants to save salmon but in a way that keeps the four dams in place. That would continue to allow barge shipping from Lewiston and irrigation from one of the reservoirs. But he suggested that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game historically built barriers that prevented salmon from spawning upriver.

“So when they get through all the dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington, guess what, through much of the system they run into concrete barriers because spawning salmon just don’t want to take a hook, and (Fish and Game) wanted trout, so decisions were made way back in history,” Newhouse said.

What he didn’t say was that those barriers on Pettit and Alturas lakes in the Sawtooths were removed more than 30 years ago and only affected sockeye salmon that spawn in those lakes today. Simpson said any plan the agencies complete in September “had better recover salmon.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch and Republican U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher said in press releases they support the federal agencies’ preferred alternative, which proposes keeping the dams in place.

“The challenges related to salmon and steelhead recovery are complex, and robust analysis makes it clear that dam breaching is not a viable option for the species recovery while maintaining the vital Congressionally authorized purposes of the system,” Risch said in a statement.

Instead of breaching, the federal plan calls for increasing the amount of water that is spilled over the dams away from hydropower turbines. It was part of an agreement with Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe that allows full power production when the electricity is most needed.

Simpson did not express support or opposition to the so-called flex-spill plan.

“The one thing it will not do is speed up the migration of salmon to the Pacific Ocean, which is now about twice as long as it used to be,” he said Tuesday. Fulcher had concerns about flex-spill in a different way.

“The recommended spill level may be too high and could cause serious harm to fish while also increasing energy costs,” Fulcher said in his statement.

Instead of simply looking at what is done now, Simpson urged the agencies and the region to look into the kind of river system they need in the future.

“We are trying to preserve what exists instead of saying, ‘What do we want to do for the next 20 or 40 years? What do we want this to look like in 20 or 40 years?’ ” he said.

Orofino Mayor Smathers called for solutions that benefit everyone

“It’s time to work together toward solutions we can all live with,” he said.

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