A Republican Congressman from Idaho is proposing removing four dams in an attempt to save the dwindling salmon population. It’ll take billions of dollars to get it done.

If you could stand on the shores of Idaho’s Redfish Lake 150 years ago, you might bear witness to the stunning glacial lake teeming red with spawning sockeye salmon.

The splashing of thousands upon thousands of sockeyes kept farmers awake as they migrated more than 900 miles upriver. And after a lifetime spent eating and swimming in the ocean, they returned to their original freshwater home. There, they leave their legacy of eggs and the nutrients of their bodies to start the cycle all over again.

In 2020, just 18 sockeyes returned to Redfish Lake. The incredibly diminished state of sockeye salmon is not unique to their species. The Columbia River basin used to be home to hordes of wild coho, steelhead, and Chinook as well. From more than 1 million salmonids ascending the Columbia and Snake rivers to mere thousands, the species are all in definitive trouble.

A Republican Congressman from Idaho has plans to change that. Or at the very least, give salmon a fighting chance.

The Hydroelectric Issue and Salmon

Ice Harbor Dam, idaho salmon
The Ice Harbor Dam (pictured) would be removed starting in 2030; photo credit: JewelsPics via Shutterstock

Currently, eight hydroelectric dams exist along the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. Four dams on the lower Snake provide low-carbon hydroelectric power to many in the Pacific Northwest. These include the Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite dams. But the behemoth blockages kill salmon by the thousands, reducing the annual migration at each obstacle along the corridor.

Additionally, nearly one-quarter of each customer’s electricity bill goes to wildlife mitigation mostly aimed at the salmon population, a 40-year $18 billion effort with minimal return. It’s estimated that each salmon that runs the river is worth thousands of dollars.

The clean energy produced by the dams is, of course, lauded in today’s era of climate change. The federally owned dams provide jobs, power, and an economy of agriculture that is dependent on water for both growth operations and grain transport along the rivers.

Different Stakeholders, Differing Needs

indigenous salmon run
Nov. 2, 2020: A Native American man fishing for salmon in the Deschutes River Rapids at Shearers Bridge with a dip net from a wooden platform, near Tygh Valley, Ore.; photo credit: Bob Pool

The $34 billion plan proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) takes the positive attributes of the dams into account. It also attempts to provide a solution for what he calls the “Salmon Wars,” an ongoing litigation battle for salmon between environmental groups, tribal groups, anglers, and the state of Oregon against the federal government.

Rep. Mike Simpson did his research, and it was in no small dose. More than 300 meetings held by Simpson covered every community touched by the impact of the four dams. This includes those on all sides of the argument, from the farmers dependent on the current system of dams to the biologists who understand the ecological complexity to tribal leaders and groups long dependent on the now-minuscule salmon runs.

The question, according to Simpson, is not simply “Salmon or dams?” It’s a nuanced conversation understanding the benefits to the dams and the communities impacted. And, of course, how much of an economic boost those communities would need to come up with new solutions. The dams are beneficial to many communities; the cost is high to replace those benefits.

But the Biden administration looks to pass a $2-3 trillion bill focused on building new infrastructure focused on clean energy for the future of the nation. The $34 billion plan proposed by Simpson would be less than 1-2% of that stimulus package.

A $34 Billion Plan for Salmon Salvation

Called the “Energy and Salmon Concept,” the plan encompasses a detailed breakdown of financial resources necessary to rebuild and rewire each sector affected by the breaching of the dams. Communities affected include agriculture, transportation, power utilities, outdoor recreation, irrigators, the Army Corps of Engineers’ removal plan, tribal rights to waterway management, and more.

The plan has not yet been drafted into legislation, but it does provide a framework for future legislation. It would be called the Columbia River Basin Fund. Further, the Department of Energy would manage the fund from the Tri-Cities area of Idaho.

“I want to be very clear; I have not drafted legislation and I am not currently drafting legislation,” Simpson said. “A concept like this will take all the Northwest delegation, governors, tribes, and stakeholders working together to draft a solution. It will be no easy task and on a very tight timeline.”

Considering the $17-18 billion spent over the past 40 years has not yet shown any significant return, the breaching of these four dams to benefit salmon of the Columbia River watershed does have scientific clout. And plenty of it.

In fact, the federal government recently released an environmental impact study that supported dam removal for species recovery. Additionally, the Northwest Energy Coalition found similar results, saying that breaching the dams would provide recovery for salmon species and a subspecies of wild orca dependent on Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea.

A Hail Mary for Salmon

The dams aren’t the only issue that salmon face in their 1,800-mile round-trip migration. Warming waters, poor ocean conditions, increased predation from seals, and more are stacked against the recovery of Idaho’s salmon populations.

But allowing the natural course of the lower Snake River to run as it once did could provide a safe haven for young salmon and migrating salmon alike.

“Idaho’s salmon are not doing well today, and I see no signs that ocean conditions or the climate will improve fast enough in the coming decades to avoid extinction,” Simpson said.

“While I cannot be certain that removing the four [dams] will bring back Idaho’s salmon, I am certain that if we do not remove them, our salmon and steelhead are on a certain path to extinction.”



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