Nearly two years ago, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) surprised a crowd of conference attendees in Boise when he revealed he was having behind-the-scenes conversations to figure out what it would take to breach the four lower Snake River dams.
In late January and early February, he was not-so-quietly meeting with utility leaders, environmental and fishing groups, tribes, irrigators, barge advocates and others to share a $33.5 billion proposal to finally resolve the Columbia Basin's salmon wars.
Those who were briefed call it an outline, an idea, a vision, a proposal, and the Northwest's worst-kept secret.
It's also widely seen as a starting point for conversations to come in the Columbia Basin Collaborative, a process initiated by the four Northwest governors that will work to come up with a solution for bringing the Columbia Basin's salmon and steelhead runs back to healthy and harvestable levels.
But that process would have to happen at lightning speed to get the funding included in a multitrillion-dollar clean energy infrastructure package before it's rolled out by President Joe Biden.
Publicly announced on Feb. 7, Simpson’s concept includes up to $10 billion to replace 1,000 average megawatts of the dams' lost power generation with clean energy resources, up to $4 billion to replace energy lost from spilling water over lower Columbia River dams to 125 percent total dissolved gas, and $2 billion to ensure transmission resiliency and optimization.
BPA and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council would determine how to replace the energy, which would largely be from clean energy sources such as new wind, solar and battery storage, pumped storage, increased transmission capacity, demand response, energy efficiency, and small modular nuclear reactors.
Replacement generation must be built and online before breaching begins in the summer or fall of 2030 at a cost of up to $1.4 billion.
The proposal also places a 35-year moratorium on litigation, and increases BPA's borrowing authority to $15 billion from its current $7.7 billion,
It also includes a 35-year extension on FERC licenses for private dams that produce 5 average megawatts or more, which would directly impact Idaho Power's ongoing relicensing of the Hells Canyon complex and provide other dam owners with assurance that their hydro facilities won't be targeted for breaching.
And, the proposal calls for creating a new tribal and state fish commission to oversee fish and wildlife spending in the basin, and caps BPA’s contribution to fish and wildlife funding at $600 million annually. The new commission would be headquartered at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the Tri-Cities, and headed by a U.S. Department of Energy special administrator.
Many people who spoke with NW Fishletter compared the significance of the proposal to the Northwest Power Act, some of which would have to be amended to make the plan work. Everyone agrees the plan is big, bold, has lots of moving parts and is evolving.
Many scientists say the best and perhaps only way to save some of the Snake River's salmon and steelhead runs is to breach or remove the dams. But breaching the dams means the loss of a clean energy source that's already in place and producing enough electricity for a city the size of Seattle. The dams can fill in when the region's solar or wind resources aren't producing, and they provide more than 2,000 megawatts of sustained peaking capabilities during the winter, and a quarter of the federal power system's current reserves-holding capability.
Their removal would impact not just energy and salmon. Wheat growers and other producers rely on the river's barging system to transport goods. Communities near the dams would also be heavily impacted by their removal.
Simpson's proposal looked at all of it.
"They've done a lot of homework and had a lot of conversations," Mike Edmondson, interim administrator for Idaho's Office of Species Conservation said. "It's all meant to kick a conversation off," he noted, adding, "If the Northwest delegation picks it up, and the governors pick it up, we'll see what happens."
Edmondson helped lead the Idaho Governor's Salmon Workgroup and has been working to launch the Columbia Basin Collaborative. “It’s a very big conversation," he said, noting it will be a "big lift" to get the idea off the ground. He said that with some 450 members in the U.S. House of Representatives and 100 U.S. Senators, "One representative from Idaho isn't going to be able to make anything happen. They can start the conversation," he said.
At a fraction of historical numbers, Snake River sockeye, Chinook and steelhead are all listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and were among the first fish in the Columbia Basin to be listed, some listings dating back to 1991.
According to the Idaho Governor's Salmon Workgroup, spring-summer Chinook had a historical population of about 1 million adults, and now number about 7,000 returning adults. Fall Chinook once numbered 500,000, and now number 8,360. The river's 600,000 steelhead that once returned have dwindled to about 28,000 adult fish. And the run of sockeye, the only endangered fish, have had returns of 100 or fewer, but were once 84,000 strong.
Scientists in the region say to rebuild the stocks, the smolt-to-adult return rates need to be in the 2- to 6-percent range with an average of 4 percent. Those goals are included in the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program. SARs for Idaho's listed stocks have been below that in recent years.
The workgroup and other entities in the region have set a goal to return stocks to "healthy and harvestable" levels, which is beyond the goal of recovery from their current threatened or endangered status.
For the past 25 years, Northwest public power utilities have stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of the lower Snake River dams. That solidarity will likely be tested by Simpson's proposal, many sources said.
Roger Gray, president and CEO of PNGC Power, said he would oppose dam breaching as a "stand alone concept," but said the region needs to weigh the risks of Simpson's proposal with the status quo.
"The risk of the status quo is that public power's supply is controlled by a federal court and packs of attorneys," Gray said. "I don't want to stake my future on that."
Simpson's current idea for breaching the dams is to remove earth around the dams to create a free-flowing river. The infrastructure could be mothballed in case it needs to be re-energized later.
Matt Rabe, director of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told NW Fishletter that without the dams, commercial navigation on the lower Snake River would effectively be eliminated.
Rabe said in an email that based on modeling in the Columbia River System Operations EIS, shipping costs would increase by 10 to 33 percent, and potentially more for individual shippers. Cruise ships, which currently serve about 18,000 passengers annually and bring in $15 million to local communities, would also be eliminated.
Reservoir elevations, and potentially groundwater elevations, would drop, impacting irrigators and several communities that rely on them for municipal water supply.
Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, said his irrigators are open-minded about the proposal, and very open to continuing the discussion. "We're obviously no big fans of dam breaching, but we're not going to pretend the legal and environmental climate we're in doesn't exist," he said.
Simpson's plan offers up to $750 million to meet or exceed the financial levels for mitigating the impact of Snake River dam breaching for irrigators, which CSRIA analyzed in a mitigation white paper. The organization estimated that between $466 million and $622 million would be needed as compensation. "Quite frankly, I was extraordinarily pleased they spent some time studying our reports," Olsen said.
Rabe said he wasn't sure whether the Corps had been formally briefed on Simpson's proposal, but the agency knows the discussions have been happening since Simpson brought it up at the Boise conference.
He noted that the EIS took a comprehensive look at all aspects of the Columbia River system of 14 dams, and found that they can be operated for all of their purposes—including hydropower, navigation, irrigation and recreation—while still providing safe, effective passage for both juvenile and adult salmon.
Rabe noted that the Corps has a long history of executing the objectives identified by Congress, and endorsed and directed by the U.S. president. "If we were to receive direction to review or study or even remove the dams, we would do so, as it is our job," he said.