When it comes to public policy, discussion is beneficial; rhetoric that insults our intelligence is not.
Such is the case with opinions about breaching four hydroelectric dams along the Lower Snake River. The issue has drawn increasing attention and has fueled increasingly contentious debates.
Advocates for dam removal say that a labyrinth of obstacles throughout the Columbia-Snake river system has reduced salmon populations and driven the iconic species close to extinction.
Advocates for maintaining the dams say the structures are essential to power production, flood control and river navigation, supporting our economic and environmental way of life.
Both arguments have merit and both also require some analysis of the opportunity costs. Removing the dams would require replacements for the electricity they produce and the water they provide for farmers and ranchers. Keeping the dams would require a sensible plan to conserve salmon — a plan that thus far has been elusive.
There are no easy answers. But when congressional members pretend that the dams have been beneficial for salmon, the discussion has moved beyond reasonable debate to the point of silliness.
“The truth is that the returns of the salmon have been improving — they’ve been increasing with these dams in place,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said Monday. Newhouse was joined by Republican representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Cliff Bentz of Oregon and Mike Collins of Georgia to advocate for keeping the dams in place. The press conference, next to the Snake River, was adorned with a sign containing the words “NORTHWEST AT RISK.”
According to The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review’s account of the event, McMorris Rodgers argued that dam-breaching advocates “are not being honest” and that fish ladders and slides have led to “improving” salmon runs.
“This is the inconvenient truth of the dam-breaching crowd,” McMorris Rodgers said. “So that’s why it’s important that we are here today to show the rest of the world what is possible when we unleash the potential of these dams. To use the facts, not rhetoric. To lead with science. To hear from the experts.”
Indeed, experts can reasonably disagree about the cause of declining salmon runs and the impact of dams. But to suggest that salmon runs are improving and that the situation is hunky-dory demonstrates a lack of leadership.
The people of the Northwest would be better served if elected officials would spend time considering the Columbia Basin Initiative proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. After spending three years meeting with stakeholders and hearing differing perspectives about the issue, Simpson in 2021 proposed legislation that calls for replacing the benefits of the dams and then removing them.
The $33.5 billion proposal is imperfect and has drawn pushback from both sides of the political aisle. But it provides an important blueprint for the start of serious discussions, taking into consideration the importance of electricity production, river navigation and irrigation. A report spearheaded by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray found that dam removal is possible, but not yet feasible; Simpson’s proposal lays out what is needed to make it work.
Any plan for the dams must include protections for fish and tribal interests, clean-energy solutions, and farm-to-market provisions for farmers without soaking taxpayers. That might be impossible to achieve, but it is a worthy goal.
And it is preferable to tropes that insult our intelligence.