Snake River Day

Snake River.

May was a busy month for Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), and his $33.5 billion proposal to breach four lower Snake River dams and compensate those who rely on them, with announcements from elected officials, and virtual forums to discuss the plan.

The plan got its first quasi-endorsement from a member of the Northwest congressional delegation from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who announced his support to constituents on May 4, followed by a virtual discussion with Simpson about the concept the next day.

On May 5, three fellow Republicans in the House—Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz—issued a joint statement accusing Simpson of collaborating with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office for months before releasing his plan to the public.

Then, on May 14, under mounting pressure to include funding for it in a federal infrastructure package, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), issued a joint statement rejecting the idea of including it in the funding bill.

"While we appreciate Representative 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 craft a lasting, comprehensive solution, and we do not believe the Simpson proposal can be included in the proposed federal infrastructure package," the statement said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) had already expressed doubt that the proposal would be included in President Joe Biden's infrastructure bill.

At the end of May, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians—which represents 57 tribes in seven states—passed a resolution asking that federal funds be set aside to implement the proposal.

Their resolution also asks the Biden administration to "withdraw any federal court defense of the prior Administration's flawed 2020 Columbia River System EIS, biological opinion and [record of decision] as otherwise a defense of methods and conclusions inconsistent with the new Administration's environmental and tribal principles and priorities."

The ATNI resolution, which is being forwarded to the National Congress of American Indians, asks Biden and Congress to ensure salmon restoration is prioritized and funded, and calls for convening a salmon and orca summit between tribes, administration officials and Northwest congressional delegation members.

The joint statement from Inslee and Murray called instead on a "formal, regional process that is based on science, consensus, and ensuring all voices in the region are heard. Importantly, it is critical that this process takes all options into consideration, including the potential breaching of the Lower Four Snake River Dams," it said.

The statement identified a newly created process involving Northwest tribes and four states—called the Columbia Basin Collaborative—to create a plan that achieves consensus and collaboration. That collaborative will host its second organizational workshop on June 10.

Inslee and Murray said that process should be accelerated, and result in detailed proposals. Investments in clean energy, storage, habitat restoration, transportation, waterway management and agriculture must be part of the solution, they said.

"Washington state has a history of successfully bringing diverse groups together to develop solutions that benefit all stakeholders. This must be the model for the management of the Columbia River Basin," the joint statement said.

Meanwhile, Blumenauer, in his statement of support for the proposal, wrote "Mr. Simpson's proposal, which proposes to remove the four lower Snake River dams and make substantial investments in fish restoration, energy, agriculture, transportation, communities, and recreation, is a bold starting point to address this and deserves thoughtful consideration from all sides."

During a virtual conversation with Simpson, he said he has "grave reservations" about the plan's litigation moratorium and FERC license extensions. "I think it raises more problems than it solves," he said. But it also centers on environmental justice concerns and core commitments to indigenous people, which are becoming more important, he said.

Blumenauer said he's cautiously optimistic that by building trust, listening to each other and exploring alternatives, a solution can be found. "Most important is for people to understand the path that we are on, in terms of limited water, in terms of what's going to happen to the species, in terms of what are going to be the needs for industry and agriculture in the future. So, I'm looking forward to seeing if we can hammer something out."

Simpson said his reason for including the litigation moratorium was to provide certainty that removing the Snake River dams won't be followed by a call to remove more. "If someone's got better ideas on how to do that, how to end the salmon wars, how to provide certainty so somebody's not going to get sued every time they turn around, that's a valuable part of this," he said.

Simpson also said the concept is so complicated, it will take a year or longer to write, and that he has just begun to get feedback and incorporate new ideas. But he would like to see money set aside so when a solution is found, the resources will be there to implement it. The fundamental and essential parts of the plan are to make Bonneville Power Administration competitive into the future, and restore salmon runs.

He said that removing the dams will take time, as new energy sources have to be in place, and dredging will have to be done prior to removal. "Twenty to 30 years is about the quickest you can do it, and do it responsibly," he said.

After his virtual conversation with Blumenauer, Simpson got into a press-release exchange with members of his own party, who had issued a joint statement about an April 9 public records request by the Center for Biological Diversity, one of 17 environmental groups publicly opposing the Simpson plan due to the proposed moratorium on litigation.

The emails showed Simpson's office spent months communicating with representatives from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, many of them setting up telephone or internet meetings to discuss Simpson's proposal before he released it on Feb. 6. The emails indicate a desire by Simpson's office to "keep it under the radar for the time being," and show Simpson and Oregon collaborated on a "roll-out strategy and outreach to electeds."

In the joint statement, Newhouse, Bentz and McMorris Rodgers said the emails detail a hidden coordination with Brown's staff to shepherd his proposal through Congress with little or no support from Pacific Northwest representatives from either party.

"[W]e have to ask, why is he building his plan around the Governor of Oregon's perspective—not his own state's? And why do so behind closed doors? Not only does this have harmful impacts on our regional dialogue, but it also raises questions about the viability of the 'Four Governors' agreement signed last year which was purportedly intended to formalize a collaborative platform to work together to address these important issues in the Northwest," it states.

"It's clear this proposal is not just a starting point, but rather a radical and fully-baked plan he is actively seeking to put into law," the joint statement said.

Simpson shot back with a response explaining he needed to fully develop the plan before releasing it.

"I expected pushback when this all started," he said. "What I did not expect was colleagues with whom I have worked for a number of years on a number of issues to question my integrity, to insinuate I have lied about my motivation and in fact have nefarious intentions—to—what? Sabotage the economy of my own state?"

In a lengthy response, Simpson said he knew there would be strong reactions to the dam breaching proposal, and that the plan needed to be completed to be credible.

"I did not want to release the Columbia Basin Initiative until all the extremely complicated aspects of the plan came together. As I have mentioned, I have been working on this for THREE YEARS. How is that secret?" his statement says.

He also states, "My colleagues say that my discussions with Governor Brown's office have a 'harmful effect on regional dialogue.' I would argue that nothing undermines regional dialogue more than refusing to talk, That, combined with making harmful, untrue and personal accusations about someone that is simply trying to solve an issue that they themselves agree needs to be solved. That is both irresponsible and offensive."

The emails also indicate Mike Edmondson, interim director of the Idaho Governor's Office of Species Conservation, was informed of the concept by Dec. 3, and that representatives from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife were invited to be apprised of the proposal on Dec. 23.

The lack of congressional support was also raised at recent forums, including a CleanTech Alliance panel discussion on breaching the Snake River dams on May 6, and at a half-day conference on the Simpson plan held May 13 at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where several speakers at the conference said the plan had new momentum, and was gaining traction.

"A month ago, I would have sworn it would be gone by now. It does not seem to be going that way," panelist Debra Smith, Seattle City Light's CEO and general manager, said.

The conference included a panel discussion and keynote speeches from Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, and Reps. Simpson, Blumenauer and Newhouse. Moderator Rocky Barker, an Idaho journalist and author, commented that Simpson's plan seems to come down to getting the Northwest's Democrats to join in the effort, and asked Wheeler how those efforts were going.

In his keynote speech, Wheeler said he was continuing to ask for those conversations. "We would just like the opportunity to speak to the senators in Washington and Oregon—to have a candid conversation," he said. He noted that he has had "some luck" reaching out to the Biden administration, and added, "We feel more momentum moving toward Congressman Simpson's plan."

"We must act now," he added.

After getting little response from the Northwest delegation, Simpson began pushing to get the funding into Biden's infrastructure package, with the idea that details of how it is spent could be worked out later.

He touched on that idea again at the conference, saying he'd like to see the funding in the infrastructure bill which would be "walled off" until details of his plan are worked out.

Blumenauer said he believes the proposal is getting traction. "It's on the radar screen with the Biden administration," he said, but also said he has not had detailed conversations with the Northwest congressional delegation, explaining that the message needed to be brought to the people in the Pacific Northwest first.

Panelist Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, indicated the importance of getting the funds earmarked in Biden's infrastructure bill. "We have a chance now to have a $33 billion solution that we can all sit down and figure out over time," he said. Wood said this kind of opportunity will never arise again, and there's little chance of getting a funding bill solely for Northwest salmon through Congress, "no matter how powerful the delegation is."

If it doesn't get into the bill, he said, "I think we're going to keep winning in the courts and keep losing in the river. These fish are slowly going extinct.

A CleanTech Alliance's panel discussion on removing the dams featured panelists Nancy Hirsh, executive director of NW Energy Coalition; Kristin Meira, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association; Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners; and Sam Mace, inland Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon coalition.

"I think the politics on the infrastructure bill are changing," Hirsh said in response to a question about whether controversial parts of the Simpson proposal could be shed to develop a plan everyone can support. "I think there's going to be new interest among congressional members in the delegation to try and take a fresh look at not just, quote, the Simpson proposal, but the delegation needs to turn this into their proposal and come together, which is I think what Representative Blumenauer is looking to do."

Meira said she thinks the work NOAA Fisheries has done to develop salmon recovery plans has been largely left out of the conversation. "Those salmon recovery plans for every single listed run are developed in strong collaboration with fish managers from our states, our tribes, our communities, experts from the utilities, irrigators and other communities," she said, and asked, "What are we doing to actually fund the projects and fund the efforts that it would take to get to the finish line?"

Miller said he hopes the larger issues surrounding salmon recovery—which involves many more runs than those in the Snake River—are addressed in the infrastructure bill. Improvements to estuaries which provide important habitat for smolts, investments in marine science to find out more about why so much mortality occurs in the ocean, and other research can be done without degrading the hydrosystem, he said.

He also said he'd like to see the National Academy of Sciences—which has called on Congress to preserve all existing nuclear and hydroelectric resources—address some of the scientific disagreements in the basin that have become so politicized.

Mace agreed that many other things could be done to help recover fish, but her coalition is concerned about what can be done in a shorter amount of time to avoid the extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead.

"Ocean conditions are a concern," she said, adding, "One of the most important things that the scientists are telling us is give them an easier trip down the river from their headwaters up in Idaho to the ocean, and then back. And it is critical. Is it the only thing we have to do for these fish? No, but it is the cornerstone."

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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.