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Fate of Republican Mike Simpson’s plan to remove Snake River dams lies with Democrats and Biden infrastructure package

UPDATED: Mon., March 8, 2021

WASHINGTON – The first time someone approached Rep. Mike Simpson with the idea of breaching dams on the Snake River to save Idaho’s salmon, he started laughing.

“I thought, that’s just crazy,” Simpson recalled. “I said at the time, ‘You need to do everything you can to try to restore salmon runs, every alternative, before you look at taking out dams.’ ”

That was about 25 years ago, when the Republican lawmaker was serving as speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives. Over the more than two decades since he was elected to represent the eastern half of the state in Congress, Simpson gradually came to what he describes as a clear-eyed conclusion.

“The reality,” he said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review, “is we’ve tried everything else.”

After three years and more than 300 meetings with stakeholders in the region, Simpson unveiled a proposal Feb. 6 to end the decadeslong “salmon wars” between tribes, farmers, conservationists, businesses and electric utilities over the fish and the dams that threaten their continued existence.

While reactions from the region’s congressional Democrats have so far been lukewarm – with key senators calling for more deliberation – Simpson insists there is no time for further delay.

In a curious set of political circumstances, the veteran GOP lawmaker is planning to hitch his wagon to a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package President Joe Biden and his allies plan to move forward in a matter of weeks.

“Simpson’s plan clearly banks on a big federal infrastructure package,” said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. “The region has gotten together and talked about this for years, but the region has never had the resources to do this. Never has the region said, ‘Let’s go find $33.5 billion.’ ”

Simpson’s proposal outlines $33.5 billion in federal spending to breach four dams on the lower Snake River in 2030 – removing earthen berms to restore the river’s flow – and to replace the transportation, irrigation and power generation the dams provide.

“It’s the first proposal that looks at the big picture,” Simpson said. “Not just the question of ‘take dams out’ or ‘don’t take dams out,’ but if you take dams out, what are the consequences? We’re the first to admit those dams are valuable, and so if you’re going to take them out, how are you going to make the stakeholders whole?”

Other provisions in his plan would give agriculture a bigger role in watershed improvement and transfer fish management responsibility from the Bonneville Power Administration to a joint council of states and tribes.

The remaining major dams in the Columbia River Basin would get license extensions of 35 to 50 years, along with a 35-year moratorium on lawsuits related to the dams. Simpson cites $17 billion from taxpayers and BPA ratepayers spent on fish recovery efforts since Idaho’s salmon and steelhead were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.

“A judge can’t order you to take the dams out – only Congress can do that,” Simpson said. “But the reality is a judge can make it so damned expensive to keep the dams that the only alternative is to remove them.”

After a federal study recommended against breaching the four lower Snake River dams last year, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups went to court in January to ask a judge to intervene.

Four dams on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border are slated for removal after years of litigation over dwindling salmon runs. Pointing to the lack of compensation for those on the losing side of that legal fight, Simpson said his plan aims to ensure a fair resolution for all the region’s stakeholders.

In addition to keeping those stakeholders whole, a fundamental part of Simpson’s plan is a recognition of what the dams already have taken from tribes throughout the Columbia Basin.

“The impacts of the dams as a whole have affected our people economically, culturally, spiritually and physically as well,” said Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Wheeler said the Nimiipuu people – the members of the Nez Perce Tribe – traditionally followed the salmon runs upstream, relying on the fish for food and developing their culture around the seasonal migration.

In the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla, they ceded most of their land to the United States in exchange for “the exclusive right of taking fish in the streams running through and bordering” the Nez Perce Reservation.

“If you look throughout history,” Simpson said, “the United States has not always kept its treaty obligations with tribes. In fact, you could say we rarely have kept our treaty obligations. One of the treaty obligations we have with tribes is to maintain the fishing rights that they have. You can’t do that if you don’t have fish.”

Wheeler points to Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution – known as the Supremacy Clause – which stipulates that treaties “shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby.”

“We made a bargain,” Wheeler said. “It secured our way of life and granted the United States rights in our areas, and that’s enshrined in the Constitution. … We’re confident that we would be successful in court, but we would rather have this issue solved by everyone that’s involved in it.”

Other tribes in the region have hailed Simpson’s proposal, including the Spokane and Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Yakama Nation and Umatilla Reservation. Conservationist and fishing groups have similarly welcomed it, but so far Simpson hasn’t received the support from other members of Congress he will likely need for his plan to succeed.

In a joint statement released Feb. 5, a day before Simpson even unveiled his plan, GOP Reps. Russ Fulcher of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington endorsed the region’s hydroelectric dams and issued a dire warning.

“The hydropower developed in the Pacific Northwest benefits every resident, family, and business in our region,” the Republicans wrote. “The clean, renewable power generated by the dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers supplies half of the Pacific Northwest’s energy and is critical for a reliable power grid. Without it, life as we know it in our region would cease to exist.”

Simpson is quick to point out his plan aims to shore up the bulk of the region’s hydropower generation, ensuring the most productive dams continue to operate. The four lower Snake River dams together generate less than one-tenth of the Columbia Basin dams’ power output, and dam-breaching proponents argue the electricity they generate is getting increasingly costly relative to other energy sources.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said he has been hearing from farmers, ranchers and other Idahoans who staunchly oppose Simpson’s proposal.

“To his credit, Simpson has said that he doesn’t know if doing this is going to save the salmon,” Risch said in an interview. “I’m not chiding Congressman Simpson for doing this. He’s doing it in good faith. He strongly, strongly believes he wants to save the salmon, and I think we all do.”

“But if you’re going to do that, what you really ought to do is pursue something where you can stand up, beat your chest and say, ‘Look, do this with me and we’re going to save the salmon.’ And he starts off from the proposition that, yeah, there’s a lot of pain here, but it still might not save the salmon.”

Risch also questioned the lack of specifics in Simpson’s plan for replacing the power generated by the four dams. In the proposal, a section on energy replacement lists three possibilities: “1. BPA owns and operates the firm power replacement; 2. A third-party Northwest entity owns and operates the replacement power; 3. Other Ideas?”

Simpson said his concept is open-ended by design. “I’m open to anything, but give me some idea of what you would do that we haven’t already tried.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has expressed skepticism while welcoming Simpson’s proposal as a catalyst for ongoing regional talks over saving anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead. As the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, the Idaho senator could play a key role in deciding what ends up in the infrastructure package.

“I commend Mike for trying to bring people to the table to discuss this and find these solutions,” Crapo told Idaho radio host Neal Larson on Feb. 24. “But we haven’t got that kind of consensus yet. I think that we should use Mike’s suggestion here to jump-start and maybe give some additional fuel to the efforts to build that kind of collaborative solution.”

Simpson said all he asks is that his fellow Northwest lawmakers read his whole proposal before forming an opinion.

“I knew when we did it that there would be the ‘hell no’ people,” he said, “and there would be people who think that they had reached nirvana and this was the solution to everything. It’s neither of those things. It’s a compromise that we think will save salmon and make the stakeholders whole.”

In response to Simpson’s proposal, four Democratic senators who will play key roles in crafting the infrastructure package – Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington, and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon – released a joint statement calling for a measured approach.

“All communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond should be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region,” the senators wrote. “Any process needs to balance the needs of communities in the Columbia River Basin, be transparent, be driven by stakeholders, and follow the science.”

The question of whether to breach the Snake River dams has been a top political issue in Eastern Washington for decades. In that time, Murray and Cantwell have never supported breaching dams. But they’ve also faced intense criticism from Republicans for never ruling out the possibility.

Spokespeople for Cantwell, Murray and Wyden declined to elaborate on the joint statement. Merkley spokeswoman Sara Hottman said the Oregon Democrat’s “initial reaction was that it’s the first serious effort he’s seen to look at all of the effects in this massively complicated issue, so he’s having his team look at it.”

“Sen. Merkley has compared his immersion in the effort to remove four Klamath River dams to removal of the Snake River dams,” Hottman wrote in an email. “With the Klamath dams, the impacts are modest, but it’s still been incredibly difficult to move forward. The Snake River dams, however, have massive impacts on transportation, power, flood control, recreation, etc.”

Simpson’s plan drew more praise from Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who said in a Feb. 9 statement his state “welcomes Rep. Simpson’s willingness to think boldly about how to recover Columbia and Snake River salmon in a way that works for the entire region and invests – at a potentially transformative level – in clean energy, transportation and agriculture.”

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, also a Democrat, said in a Feb. 8 statement Simpson’s proposal “will help us to build on the economic opportunities of the Columbia Basin and invest in a clean energy future.”

Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, said in a Feb. 18 statement breaching the dams is not “a silver bullet for salmon recovery” and “would have devastating impacts on Idahoans and vital segments of Idaho’s economy.”

All three governors pointed to an October 2020 agreement between Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana “to define a future collaborative framework to rebuild salmon and steelhead stocks,” but Simpson said the time for those plodding deliberations has passed.

“We’ve been debating this for 25 years,” he said. “I would like to think we could discuss this for the next two or three years, but I don’t think salmon have that much time.”

The key to Simpson’s plan for swifter action is the infrastructure package the White House has dubbed the “Build Back Better” plan, borrowing a Biden campaign slogan.

After the president met with Republican and Democratic lawmakers about the plan on Thursday, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said Biden is “very, very set on getting it done, and getting it done pretty damn soon.”

Pressed by reporters, DeFazio said he plans to have the bill ready for a vote in the House in May.

Biden has said he wants Congress to craft a bipartisan infrastructure package, but prospects for wide GOP support are grim. Democrats see the legislation as a chance to enact Biden’s campaign promise of a massive investment to create jobs in clean energy industries.

Before the meeting, DeFazio told CNBC he would propose splitting the legislation in two, with one bill designed to attract GOP support for specific infrastructure projects and another to appropriate trillions to pay for them, which Republicans are unlikely to back.

The White House has so far declined to say how expensive the infrastructure package will be, but Simpson said he has heard rumors of $2 to $3 trillion. Even at the low end of that range, he pointed out, his $33.5 billion proposal would account for less than 2% of the total cost.

“I don’t think that’s too much to ask for the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

The second part of DeFazio’s plan would require Senate Democrats to use a process called budget reconciliation, which would allow them to pass the spending bill with just 51 all-Democratic votes rather than the bipartisan 60-vote majority required to pass most legislation in the Senate.

Asked how he feels about the prospect of funding his proposal through a Senate process likely to have no Republican support, Simpson said, “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do. … It’s important to me, I think it’s important to the Pacific Northwest, and it’s important to my district, that’s for sure.”

While Simpson’s proposal had been in the works for years, he saw an opening when Democrats gained a narrow majority in the Senate after two unlikely victories in Georgia’s runoff election in January. While budget bills take shape in the House, a GOP-controlled Senate would have been likely to block most of Biden’s spending priorities.

Several Northwest lawmakers are also in key positions. In addition to DeFazio’s lead role in crafting the infrastructure package, Cantwell chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Wyden and Crapo are the top Democrat and Republican, respectively, on the Senate Finance Committee, and Murray is the third-ranking member of Senate Democratic leadership.

“The stars are kind of aligning,” Simpson said. “We’re probably stronger as a Pacific Northwest delegation than we’ve ever been.”

Simpson said he will work to make sure the funding for his proposal gets into the House version of the infrastructure package. As the top Republican on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development, he is well positioned to do so.

Spokespeople for the four Washington and Oregon senators did not respond directly when asked whether the senators would attempt to block funding for Simpson’s plan if it makes its way to the Senate. Despite any misgivings they may have about the aggressive timeline of the Idaho Republican’s plan, stripping the funding from the infrastructure bill would draw the ire of tribes and conservationists.

Wheeler said the Nez Perce Tribe is gearing up to start meeting with lawmakers in the coming weeks.

“We are at such a critical juncture, we can’t let this pass us by,” the chairman said. “I think if we have forward-looking senators, they can see that this is the future. We have confidence that will happen, because it is the right thing to do.”

For his part, Simpson said he is just asking everyone to get past their first impressions of his proposal and “think outside the box.”

“Think about not just what we currently do, but what do we want the Pacific Northwest to look like in 20 or 30 or 50 years?” he said. “Everything we do on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers we can do differently. It’s our choice. Salmon need a river. They don’t have a choice, and right now they don’t have a river.”

“The lower Snake River is not a river anymore, it is just a series of pools that are ever-warming, that endanger the salmon, and they’re going to go extinct if we don’t do something. To some people, that’s OK. It’s not to me.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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