Idaho Republican proposes initiative to breach four Snake River dams as part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill

Jessie Brandt, Staff Reporter

A Republican congressman has proposed that the four lower Snake River dams be breached. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s $35.5 billion Columbia Basin Initiative, put forward as part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill, is backed by multiple unexpected industry sectors. While many stakeholders agree on the urgency of the loss of salmon, there’s dispute over whether Simpson’s plan is the best way to restore the Columbia Basin river system.  

Rep. Simpson’s proposal places fish restoration under tribal and state direction, includes funding for salmon recovery efforts, allocates investment in alternative transportation infrastructure and commits over $14 billion to clean energy technology and storage. Simpson’s proposal is not in legislation yet, but one possible vehicle is President Biden’s proposed infrastructure package; the congressman will need Democratic members of the Pacific Northwest Delegation for the idea to be advanced. 

Whitman alumnus Kevin Scribner ‘75, a commercial fisherman who served three years on the federal Columbia River Partnership Task Force, highlighted its boldness; if a Democrat introduced the proposal, it may not have gotten its current backing. 

“It took a conservative Idaho Congressman to be able to put this forth because he wouldn’t just be laughed out by his other Republicans,” Scribner said. 

Rep. Simpson’s proposal has support from sectors such as dam operation, shipping, energy and agriculture. This is how the proposal differs crucially from past initiatives, according to Professor of Anthropology and Religion Stan Thayne, who lectures on salmon politics at Whitman. 

“[Rep. Simpson’s proposal] recognizes that the dams are important and valued by some stakeholders, and then proposes ways to replace and even improve on those services, rather than argue that the dams are obsolete, deadbeat, worn-out and worthless — which often spurs retrenchment on the other side,” Thayne said in an email to the The Wire.

Leadership from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe support Rep. Simpson’s plan — salmon are a central plank of first foods for Northwest tribes. The Columbia River Basin originally had 27 salmonid stocks; four have gone extinct. An essential food source for southern resident killer whales, 17 of the remaining 23 stocks are listed on the Endangered Species Act. 

Kayeloni Scott, Communications Manager for the Nez Perce Tribes, said that bringing back connectivity to the Salmon and Clearwater River basins may help restore salmon, steelhead and lamprey throughout the Columbia River Basin.

“The Nez Perce Tribe’s interconnected desire is to bring a measure of long-ignored environmental justice to our people and our homeland, given that the modern Northwest with its massive irrigation and hydropower systems was built from the 1930s on through the use and, frankly, destruction of the rivers and fisheries we have lived with and relied on for thousands of years,” Scott said in an email to The Wire. 

Scribner says both salmon and dams are symbols charged with intense, unshakable meaning.  

“You put them in the same room, and you can’t come out with simplistic answers.”

One main point of contention — and why some conservation groups have come out against Rep. Simpson’s plan is the proposed 35 to 50 year moratorium on Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Clean Water Act litigation for the other major dams in the Columbia River Basin.

“The ESA is used to mandate release at the lower Columbia River dams to create high spring flows for migrating juvenile salmon. How will a moratorium on ESA litigation affect those court-ordered mandates?” Thayne said. “How can we anticipate what changes and challenges might arise, especially with climate change?”

Others still stand behind Rep. Simpson’s proposal even with the legislative trade-off.

“The Nez Perce Tribe supports the legal compromise aspects of the Simpson proposal within the overall context of its benefits … Simpson’s proposal is not ‘anti-hydropower.’ It is arguably the reverse,” Scott said. “It would remove four non-critical dams to restore a critical Columbia Basin river corridor, but it would provide long-term legal protections, certainties and license extensions for essentially all of the remainder of the Columbia Basin hydropower system.”  

In addition to dam breaching, Scribner insisted that to account for the complexity of salmon loss, work must be done at a watershed scale to combat warming rivers and escalate habitat restoration. Because of climate change, stakeholders must think in the long run, too. In one possible future scenario, dams managed for salmon could mitigate low Columbia River Basin water levels due to loss of snowpack.

“Dams may be our way to help save the salmon, if we [first] manage them for salmon, not manage them for power and river transportation and then the salmon,” Scribner said. 

Walla Walla is ground zero for this debate because its District Army Corps of Engineers manages the dams. Jim Waddell is a retired Walla Walla Civil Engineer and strategist for DamSense, a coalition advocating for restoration of the lower Snake River. He underlined the need to act with haste, which Rep. Simpson’s proposal doesn’t guarantee. 

“Except for breaching [the dams], the rest of the concepts laid out will require significant effort for legislation to be written and authorized,” Waddell said in an email to The Wire. “Executive action can be done now, in a matter of months.” 

Everyone agrees that this is a critical moment. 

“We’ve been asking salmon to adapt to changes that they don’t have the evolutionary capacity to adapt to,” Scribner said. “We in our cultures, we can adjust. We can adjust at time periods much more quickly, if we’re incentivized.”