A poll of 800 Washington state voters found that a majority support a plan to remove the four lower Snake River dams when combined with federal money for clean energy, transportation improvements and preserving irrigation—similar to the plan proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), as described by pollsters.

It also found that significantly more voters agree that "there are effective ways to restore the salmon population while keeping the dams in place" compared to those who do not agree that salmon and the Snake River dams can coexist.

The poll was conducted by Washington, D.C.-based pollsters, The Mellman Group, funded by the Water Foundation and limited results were provided by Washington Conservation Voters in an Oct. 7 news release.

The poll's release is just the latest in a series of efforts on both sides of the issue to turn up the heat on federal lawmakers and cabinet heads, seeking to convince them to breach, or not to breach.

Zachary DeWolf, spokesman for Washington Conservation Voters, said the poll is a strong show of support for breaching the dams, when accompanied by measures to replace the power with clean energy and provide investments in farming and transportation.

"From our perspective, it was really important to get an understanding of where voters across the state stood," he told Clearing Up. "We are really pleased—voters do not want salmon to go extinct," he added.

DeWolf said part of the reason for conducting the poll was to put pressure on leaders in the region to step up and resolve the crisis over dwindling salmon and steelhead returns. He said they're hoping for a response, especially from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who promised in May to work on a solution.

"We know they are currently working on a plan that addressed some of the shortfalls of the Simpson Plan," he told Clearing Up. That plan involves a $33.5 billion outline for removing the lower Snake River dams and pouring money into salmon recovery and compensating groups that are negatively affected by breaching the dams (CU No. 1990 [15]; 1990 [16]).

DeWolf said Washington Conservation Voters shared the results of the survey with Inslee and Murray, hoping that it will "provide motivation and inspiration to finally share the Murray-Inslee Plan."

In an email to Clearing Up, Inslee's office did not confirm or deny whether it is working on a plan separate from the Columbia Basin Collaborative—a four-state stakeholder process that will begin to hammer out issues over salmon recovery this fall. The email referred to a May 14 joint statement from Inslee and Murray (CU No. 2004 [10]). "Our office is aligned with Sen. Murray's and we are working together, and we're still collaborating with everyone else to find solutions as well. We hope to have more discussions with our various partners on this soon," the email from Inslee's spokesman Mike Faulk states.

The telephone poll was conducted in late July, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent, at a 95 percent rate of confidence.

DeWolf said other than the news release, information about results of the poll itself should come from the pollsters, who did not return a call from Clearing Up.

According to an article in the Spokesman-Review, 56 percent of those polled had either heard nothing or not too much about Simpson's proposal.

When it came to whether salmon and the lower Snake River dams can coexist, 45 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that: "There are other effective ways to restore the salmon population while keeping the dams in place," compared to 29 percent who did not agree, the Spokesman article said. Twenty-six percent of those polled were not sure or had no opinion.

That information was not in the Conservation Voters' news release, or in a memo from The Mellman Group to the Water Foundation linked in the release.

The memo did include results of a few of the questions, including support for breaching the dams under a plan similar to Simpson's and for breaching the dams under a collaborative process with stakeholders.

When told, "It has been proposed that the four Lower Snake River dams be removed to protect salmon, and that the federal government provide money to Washington State to increase the production of clean energy, improve transportation for the farm products affected by the removal of the dams, and preserve irrigation for those farms," 59 percent of those polled said they favored the plan, including 39 percent who strongly favored it. The proposal was opposed by 27 percent of the voters polled, with 20 percent strongly opposing. Fourteen percent were unsure.

That support included 63 percent in the Seattle market area and 47 percent in eastern Washington, the memo said. It received the largest support—71 percent—from Democrats and 55 percent support from Independents. Republicans were split with 44 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

Slightly fewer—58 percent—supported Snake River dam breaching as part of a recovery plan put forward by a collaborative stakeholder process, which still gained strong support at 38 percent. Opposition grew slightly if dam breaching was proposed under the stakeholder process, with 29 percent opposing, including 21 percent strongly opposing it.

The memo also shows that 62 percent of the Washington residents worry a great deal that salmon are going extinct, including 38 percent who said they worry most about salmon extinction.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said he thinks the important part of the poll is that 45 percent of voters agree there are effective ways to restore salmon other than removing the dams, while 29 percent do not. He told Clearing Up that those numbers line up with RiverPartner's own polling, which found, "A plurality if not a majority of people think the dams don't need to be breached."

"I think, overall, people would really like salmon and hydro to coexist. That's essentially verified by the actual numbers in that survey. The thing we would share with Murray and Inslee's office is: What could we do that would be really beneficial to salmon that doesn't set us back on our decarbonization goals?" he said.

He added that if more than half of those polled had not heard about Simpson's plan, but 59 percent favored it after it was described to them, their support likely depends a lot on how it was described.

Attempts to sway public opinion have also gained steam, with organizations from both sides of the debate taking out full-page ads in regional newspapers in recent months.

On Oct. 1, 64 groups opposed to breaching, including many public electric utilities, sent a letter to Biden administration officials explaining the role of the dams in achieving clean-energy goals, and noting that salmon populations throughout the Northwest and the world have been declining.

The letter was addressed to the U.S. secretaries of Interior, Energy, Commerce and Defense, and the Council on Environmental Quality chair, which also included signatures from several electric cooperatives, PUDs and organizations that represent them, along with ports, waterway operators and others.

"The primary threat to salmon is climate change," the letter argues, adding, "[T]he United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found a 50-year period of unabated ocean warming is to blame for the decline of marine fish populations across the globe."

That letter emphasized that the 2020 Columbia River System Operations EIS was a scientific analysis involving decades of work and should not be characterized as a "Trump plan," as some environmental groups are doing. The letter focused on the lack of scientific evidence to support that breaching the dams will help salmon recover, and noted that breaching the dams would have no effect on nine of the 13 salmon and steelhead runs listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia Basin.

In addition to co-signing the letter, Northwest RiverPartners has been doing its own work to pressure public officials and influence public opinion.

In September, the group published full-page ads supporting the lower Snake River dams in The Seattle Times, The Spokesman-Review and The Oregonian, along with a "Fast Facts" FAQ about the dams and a new video campaign demonstrating the importance of hydropower in the Northwest.

Tribes and environmental groups are also pressuring federal officials, asking them to support Simpson's plan.

In September, the Nez Perce Tribe launched the Salmon Orca Project, asking people to "Join Pacific Northwest Tribes in demanding action to restore the Snake River by replacing the four lower river dams." The website calls Simpson's plan a starting point, and urges people to send letters through their website to the White House and Department of Interior.

On Oct. 3, Save Our Wild Salmon published a full-page ad in The Spokesman-Review, Lewiston Morning Tribune and The Bulletin of Bend, Ore., noting that this year's wild steelhead returns to the Snake River are among the lowest ever. It urges readers to send letters to federal lawmakers.

"All eyes are now on Northwest senators," the ad states. "What will they do—before steelhead, our livelihoods, and our traditions go extinct forever?"

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.