Built from 1962 through 1975, the dams that would be removed are the Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and the Lower Granite Dam.
The Snake River used to boast robust returns of fish. For instance, in 1962, wild “B” run index steelhead returning to the Snake River totaled almost 43,200 adults. By 2017 that run had shrank to 751 adults.
Conservationists allege that the dam’s turbines kill outgoing juvenile salmon and steelhead, and the reservoirs warm the water beyond what the fish can tolerate. The dams also allegedly delay downstream passage, among other issues.
Data presented by Columbia River Tribes to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on May 5 suggest that 44 percent of Snake River steelhead populations are predicted to be at or below 50 spawners by 2025. The data also suggests that 77 percent of Snake River summer/spring Chinook are in the same condition. Biologists for the tribes say this is a path for extinction.
Advocates for the dams point to carbon-neutral power production, low-cost transportation through barging, and irrigation for farmers as economic benefits of keeping the dams in place.
The basics of Simpson’s proposal include:
- Invest nearly $5 billion in new transportation infrastructure to transport inland products like grain to market.
- Invest over $14 billion in new energy infrastructure; including $2 billion for Northwest grid resiliency/optimization, $1.25 billion for energy storage, and $10 billion in replacement energy for the lower Snake River dams.
- Provide Snake/Columbia River communities with over $1.5 billion for economic development.
- Place fish restoration under the direction of tribes and states.
- Invest in restoring the lower Snake River by breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
- Invest in restoring non-ESA listed fish above blocked areas.
- Allocate over $5 billion in other salmon conservation actions throughout the Basin; and provide legal certainty on Columbia River dams for 35 years.
In an online virtual discussion held on May 4, Simpson said his proposal could end the ongoing legal battles over the dams.
“I’d like to quit spending all this money in court, and try to end the salmon wars that go on and on and on,” Simpson said.
He is quick to point out that this effort is not about removing the Columbia River dams.
“That’s not our goal here,” he said. “This is to provide some certainty and security for the remaining Columbia River dams.”
Opponents of the proposal include Kurt Miller, the executive director of the Northwest River Partners, a coalition of hydropower advocates. Miller said removing the dams would leave the Northwest power grid vulnerable.
Many Northwest Dams have been removed, with positive results for fisheries.
The question of ocean conditions is another factor that Miller pointed to as far as holding back recovery. He believes that without good ocean conditions, the runs cannot recover, with dams or not. Proponents of dam breaching contend that ocean conditions are beyond the management of fisheries agencies, leaving freshwater conditions as the only factor the agencies can manage.
Miller would like to see more studies done to establish a stronger correlation between breaching and fish recovery. However, Hamilton believes the fish have run out of time.
“We’ve spent decades making minor improvements and adjustments that simply haven’t worked, and what we really need is serious funding and a major overhaul,” Hamilton said. “Judge Malcolm Marsh said this about salmon and the Columbia hydroelectric system in 1993 and it’s just as true today.”
Whether the proposal can gain momentum and eventually become legislation, and overcome the very strong resistance from its detractors, will be seen in the months ahead.
The full Simpson proposal can be found here: https://simpson.house.gov/salmon/