Idaho Congressman Proposes Breaching Snake River Dams to Restore Salmon

Idaho Congressman Proposes Breaching Snake River Dams to Restore Salmon

Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho, released a massive infrastructure proposal on Feb. 6 that would fundamentally restructure Pacific Northwest shipping and energy with the goal of rehabilitating Idaho’s remaining wild salmon and steelhead runs. Realizing a decades-long dream of anglers and tribes, the congressman is calling for the demolition of the four Lower Snake River dams that have rendered the water hot and slow and reduced anadromous salmonids to a fraction of their former abundance.

In a video statement, Rep. Simpson said that less than 4,000 wild chinook salmon returned to Idaho in 2019, about 4% of the historical total, despite the fact that federal, state, and tribal agencies have spent $17 billion on salmon recovery and management. Steelhead are doing even worse.

“The current system is clearly not working. So, we are asking some very difficult ‘what if’ questions,” he said. “What if the dams came out? What if we were able to replace the energy from the dams? What if we came up with different ways for transporting grain? What if we created new economic engines for our communities?”

Simpson’s proposal, intended for inclusion in President Biden’s forthcoming omnibus infrastructure package, calls for creating a $33.5 billion fund to address those questions. Trains could be used instead of barges for moving agricultural products to the Pacific. Wind and solar energy could replace the lost hydroelectric. The proposal suggests dedicating large sums to making sure all parties are made whole before the ultimate breaching of the detrimental dams beginning in 2030.

Ryan Callaghan, MeatEater’s director of conservation, wants to emphasize the historic nature of this infrastructure proposal.

“I am very excited to see the Snake River dam removal conversation take a step forward—it’s been a long time coming,” Ryan said. “Congressman Simpson’s willingness to take on a complex issue such as this on behalf of Idahoans, tribes, and salmon should be applauded.”

Those dams in Southeast Washington—Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor—since their construction in the 1960s have turned what was once a free-flowing river into a series of stagnant reservoirs. The water often gets warm enough to kill both outmigrating smolts and returning adults. Predators like northern pikeminnow, smallmouth bass, and walleye have proliferated, decimating young fish alongside the hydroelectric turbines.

Salmon and steelhead populations have been collapsing for decades, in recent years leading to fishing season closures and bitter in-fighting among anglers.

The communities of Lewiston and Clarkston, the agriculture industry, and energy agencies have long battled the idea of breaching the dams, voicing concerns about losing the ability to ship grains and goods via barge and possible energy rate hikes. Simpson said he wants to address those concerns.

“My staff and I approached this challenge with the idea that there must be a way to restore Idaho salmon and keep the Lower Snake River dams,” he said. “But after exhausting dozens of possible solutions, we weren’t able to find one that could control poor ocean conditions, warming rivers, and the dams. In the end we realized there is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place.”

Simpson and his staff have conducted more than 300 meetings over the last three years with stakeholders on all sides and sectors.

“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, if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho’s salmon to extinction.”

Simpson is calling upon federal representatives from the Northwest, governors, state legislators, tribal leaders, industries, and conservation groups to work with this blueprint for recovering the region’s most important fishes.

“It would be a tragedy if future generations looked back and wished our generation of leaders and stakeholders would have taken the time to explore this opportunity to develop our own Northwest solution to protect stakeholders and save salmon.”

Feature image via David Dugan, WikiMedia Commons.

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