In 1950 almost 130,000 adult Chinook salmon returned to the Snake River to reproduce. By 2017, there were fewer than 10,000.
Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, is giving hope to many who are concerned about endangered salmon populations in the Northwest. Simpson has created a comprehensive plan to remove four dams along the Lower Snake River, which inhibit salmon from returning upstream to spawn.
Simpson’s Columbia River Basin Initiative comes from three years of research. He and his team held some 300 meetings with key stakeholders in the debate, including conservationists, tribal leaders, farmers, members of the Bonneville Power Administration, and other community stakeholders. These efforts are reflected in the proposal’s complexity. The initiative includes an action plan to support the needs of stakeholders who currently rely on the dams for water, recreation, and transportation.
The initiative would cost a whopping $33.5 billion dollars and is designed to be a part of the $2 trillion dollar infrastructure package that President Biden proposed in March. Simpson admits that the plan is expensive, but argues that the job of restoring salmon will only get more expensive with time. At least $17 billion have already been invested in restoring salmon populations in the United States, without much success.
Details of The Columbia River Basin Initiative
Simpson’s proposal calls for the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams by 2031. This operation is estimated to cost $1.4 billion, only a small piece of the plan’s $33.5 billion dollar budget. The rest of the funds are dedicated to supporting the communities that currently rely on the dams.
For example, Simpson allocates $10 billion dollars to replace the hydroelectric dams with an alternative renewable energy source. $4 billion dollars are set aside to compensate for energy lost by allowing water to spill over the dams to facilitate salmon migration before the dams are breached. Another $400 million dollars are set aside to study and mitigate any damage done by sediment from the dams flowing downstream.
More funds are provided to help replace the systems of transportation and irrigation that currently make use of the four dams. Simpson estimated that $4.2 billion dollars must be reserved for agricultural handlers and adjustments in transportation with an additional $750 million dollars to restructure irrigation systems.
Simpson allocates $425 million dollars to promote tourism, relocate marinas, and provide contingency funds for impacted sports fishing.
In short, most of Simpson’s budget is dedicated to the interest groups that would be negatively affected by the removal of the Lower Snake River Dams. The result is a proposal that is both expensive and expansive. Simpson’s proposed budget demonstrates the value that the Snake River dams provide to their communities. The dams would be expensive to remove; however, Simpson’s message is clear: Chinook salmon will not recover while the Snake River Dams remain.
Are Chinook Salmon At Risk?
The Snake River is one of the three major tributaries to the Columbia River, along with the Yakima River and the John Day River. Salmon returning to the John Day River must pass through three of the four dams on the Columbia River, while salmon headed for the Yakima must pass all four dams. For salmon headed to the Snake River, the path home is even more rigorous. Not only do these populations have to pass through the four Columbia River dams; they also must pass through four dams on the Lower Snake River.
To monitor the health of salmon in the Columbia River Basin, the Fish Passage Center (FPC) publishes a yearly report that measures the percentage of juvenile salmon returning to their birthplace as adults to spawn. According to the FPC, a healthy smolt-to-adult return (SAR) would range between 2-6%. The FPC’s 2020 report noted that the average SAR was 3.5% for the John Day River, 2.4% for the Yakima, and only 0.8% for the Lower Snake River. Under current conditions, the Snake River Chinook salmon populations are on a route to extinction.
Congressman Simpson says removing the Lower Snake River dams by 2031 cannot guarantee the revival of Chinook salmon. However, he insists that Chinook salmon do not stand a chance of recovery while the dams remain: “If we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho salmon to extinction.”
Support From Tribal Representatives
Simpson’s plan would be a step toward tribal justice. For generations, salmon has been an integral part of life for the tribes in the Columbia River Basin. In a press release from the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, Chairman Shannon Wheeler commented: “We view restoring the lower Snake River — a living being to us, and one that is injured — as urgent and overdue.”
Congressman Simpson’s plan would also give the Columbia Basin Tribes and Northwest governors an equal amount of votes on the Northwest State and Tribal Fish and Wildlife Council. Four votes would be allocated to each of the Columbia Basin Tribes (the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation) and four votes to the Northwest state governors (Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington).
The Nez Perce Tribe supports Simpson’s proposal. Chairman Wheeler stated: “We will support Congressman Simpson’s initiative and we respect the courage and vision he is showing the region.”
Voices of Opposition
Not all are convinced that removing the Lower Snake River Dams is the best course of action. Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers voiced concern that Simpson’s plan is misguided: “These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington and provide the entire Pacific Northwest with clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy. Spending more than $33 billion to breach them – with no guarantee that doing so will restore salmon populations – is a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take.”
Rodgers argues that hydropower is a valuable resource to the Pacific Northwest that should be expanded rather than diminished. Simpson’s proposal offers three options for energy replacement of the dams, but they are vague: “1. BPA owns and operates the firm power replacement; 2. A third-party Northwest entity owns and operates the replacement power; 3. Other Ideas?”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray also oppose Simpson’s plan. In a joint statement, they stated: “While we appreciate Rep. Simpson’s efforts and the conversations we have had so far with Tribes and stakeholders, it is clear more work within the Pacific Northwest is necessary to create a lasting, comprehensive solution, and we do not believe the Simpson proposal can be included in the proposed federal infrastructure package.”
Alternatives to Restoring Salmon Populations
While Simpson is focused on removing the dams on the Lower Snake River, other members of the Pacific Northwest Delegation argue for alternative approaches to restore salmon populations.
“These dams are not the greatest threat to fish survival,” says Rodgers. “Our oceans are, coupled with predation and habitat loss. We need to focus on solutions that will get results, like cleaning up Puget Sound and restoring salmon runs there.”
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell points to restoring habitats as a potential, as well as repairing culverts, pipes that carry streams under roads. Culverts that are blocked or damaged can prevent salmon from moving upstream.
Washington Representative Dan Newhouse commented that the four Lower Snake River Dams, which reside in Washington, all “have state-of-the-art fish passage” such as fish ladders, so that fish can migrate both upstream and downstream. On the other hand, the dams located in Idaho have no methods for fish passage. Newhouse critiques Simpson for advocating to remove dams that reside in Washington before making sure that the dams in his own state are equipped for fish passage.
Congressman Simpson’s proposal has pushed the issue of salmon restoration to the front of politics in the Pacific Northwest. While Simpson has initiated the first major steps, he has not created a final product. To move forward, Simpson needs the support of the rest of the Pacific Northwest delegation.
“I have not drafted legislation and I am not currently drafting legislation,” Simpson notes. “A concept like this will take all the Northwest delegation, governors, tribes, and stakeholders working together to draft a solution.”
Congressman Simpson concludes his initiative by reflecting on the historical significance of the situation: “It would be a tragedy if future generations looked back and wished that we current Northwest leaders and stakeholders would have at least taken the time to explore this opportunity to develop our own Northwest solution to protect stakeholders and save salmon.”
Whether or not Simpson’s plan will garner support remains unclear. Regardless, preserving salmon has become a priority on both sides of the aisle, as conservationists and advocates for tribal justice push the issue forward.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh.