At Pasco, Wash., the Snake River flows into the Columbia, and east of Pasco, is Ice Harbor Dam — the first and westernmost of the four lower Snake River dams that have stood since the mid-1970s both as what Washington Congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, called “the beating heart of eastern Washington’s economy” and as a hinderance to oceangoing fish, which hold enormous value to people in Idaho, including those of North Central Idaho’s river towns and the Nez Perce Tribe.

Wild fish counts dipped precipitously during the early 1980s and mid-90s; litigation ensued; dams throughout the Columbia River system remained in place, and the counts showed signs of rebounding during the early 2000s. Thus an uneasy status quo endured for a generation, as enough wild salmon returned to Idaho year after year to forestall what in 2019 re-emerged as an existential crisis. Fewer than 3,800 wild adult spring Chinook made it back to spawn in North Central Idaho that year, despite $17 billion spent on salmon recovery and management.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little convened a workgroup last year to identify every step all sides agreed ought to be taken, bringing together hydropower, transportation, agriculture, environmental, recreation, tribal, governmental, general public and other interest stakeholders for talks that lasted a year. The workgroup reported consensus across seven broad categories — but not on the future of the dams.

The wild chinook count ticked slightly higher in 2020, but a key number — smolt-to-adult return — remained below replacement level and on course for calamity.

In the absence of consensus, the dwindling is likely to lead to yet more litigation under the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, which would subject the dams — and all the interrelated ways that people use the rivers — to federal court fights and federal court orders.

Earlier this month, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson published findings of his own hard look into the issue, and described the crisis as an opportunity for Idahoans to have a say.

“Passing on this opportunity will mean we are letting the chips fall where they may for some judge, future administration or future congress to decide our fate on their terms,” he wrote on his official website, https://simpson.house.gov/salmon. “They will be picking winners and losers, not creating solutions.”

“My staff and I approached this challenge with the idea that there must be a way to restore Idaho’s salmon and keep the four lower Snake River dams,” Simpson said in a Feb. 6 video statement through his website, “but after exhausting dozens of possible solutions, we weren’t able to find one that could control poor ocean conditions, warming rivers and the four lower Snake dams. In the end we realized that there is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place.”

“I want to be clear that I’m not certain that removing these dams will restore Idaho’s salmon and prevent their extinction,” he said, “but I am certain that if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho’s salmon to extinction.”

The Simpson concept calls for keeping all interests whole and calls for a $33.5 billion federal fund to do so. This includes $10 billion to replace the energy presently provided by the hydropower dams, another $4 billion to replace hydropower spill, and a 35-year moratorium on dam litigation, which would begin after the breaching of the fourth dam, as early as 2031. It would also provide liability protections and extend the licenses of the public and private dams in the Columbia River system that produce five or more megawatts of electricity.

Funding would provide $3 billion for watershed improvement partnerships, $1.6 billion for agricultural waste management, $1.5 billion to reconfigure grain transportation, $1.25 billion for advanced energy storage, as well as billions of new borrowing authority for the Bonneville Power Administration and tens to hundreds of millions for each of many other interest-specific mitigations.

Early responses have mostly seen the interest groups decamp in defense of positions they’ve maintained for decades. The McMorris Rodgers statement flagged earlier in this article, for instance, came by way of opposing Simpson’s call to action. Twists have included backlash in the post-millennium bareknuckle style, as Simpson was called a “traitor” online by Idaho District 6 statehouse Rep. Aaron Von Ehlinger, according to the Lewiston Tribune.

The most ardent statement of support came from the Nez Perce Tribe: “We view restoring the lower Snake River — a living being to us, and one that is injured — as urgent and overdue. Congressman Simpson, in focusing on the facts and on a solution, speaks the truth — that restoring salmon and the lower Snake River can also reunite and strengthen regional communities and economies. We will support Congressman Simpson’s initiative and we respect the courage and vision he is showing the region. This is an opportunity for multiple regional interests to align with a better future for the Northwest: river restoration and salmon recovery; local and regional economic investment and infrastructure improvement; and long-term legal resolution and certainty,” stated chairman Shannon Wheeler.

Citing chinook fishing as an economic driver for Riggins — one capable of generating $10 million in that town during a three-month season — Idaho River Community Alliance (IRCA) founder Roy Akins said that community has felt “devastating economic repercussions” due to the loss of fishing opportunity.

IRCA’s Jon Kittel described how guides — and the town — have struggled. “Reduced bag limits and in some cases season closures had negatively affected our work opportunities, businesses and communities,” he said by way of the same release. “I appreciate that Congressman Simpson is seriously working to address this issue in a way that ensures that my friends, neighbors, and fellow statesmen will not be forced into the hardships we have been facing as fishing guides. ... As a Riggins community member, this reduction in work availability has pushed me to look for other work, as fish guiding was no longer a full-time option for me. I have seen my town negatively affected as bars, restaurants and hotels are not able to fill their establishments with people coming to town to go fishing.”

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