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Inslee, Murray, Cantwell reject Simpson’s dam-breaching proposal

UPDATED: Fri., May 14, 2021

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021. Murray and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday issued a joint statement rejecting Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's proposal to save Idaho's salmon runs by breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.   (Susan Walsh)
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021. Murray and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday issued a joint statement rejecting Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's proposal to save Idaho's salmon runs by breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.  (Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – After months of relative silence since Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson unveiled his proposal to breach the four Lower Snake River dams, on Friday Gov. Jay Inslee and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell made their clearest statements yet rejecting the Idaho Republican’s plan to save Idaho’s dwindling salmon runs.

Simpson, who represents most of Boise and the areas east of the Idaho capital, has been angling to include $33.5 billion to fund his proposal in an infrastructure package Congress is crafting, even if the details of the proposal would need to be hammered out in future legislation. But in a joint statement Friday morning, Inslee and Murray said they “do not believe the Simpson proposal can be included in the proposed federal infrastructure package.”

“Regional collaboration on a comprehensive, long-term solution to protect and bring back salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin and throughout the Pacific Northwest is needed now more than ever,” Inslee and Murray wrote. “However, a solution must ensure those who rely on the river in the Basin and across the Pacific Northwest are part of the process.”

Cantwell, who told The Spokesman-Review in March she didn’t think Simpson’s plan would be part of the infrastructure package, was not part of the joint statement. But in a statement to the Seattle Times, Cantwell joined her fellow Washington Democrats in opposing the GOP congressman’s pitch, though she suggested the infrastructure bill could include pieces of the Simpson proposal.

“This proposal has some things we should focus on; diversifying beyond hydro is a great idea, planning for new investment is a great idea, but the rest is not well thought out enough at this point,” Cantwell said.

Since Simpson released his proposal in February, it has shaken up the Northwest’s long-simmering “salmon wars.” It drove a wedge between otherwise simpatico GOP lawmakers, with Washington Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler taking a strong stance against the plan and Simpson’s collaboration with Oregon Democrats, including Gov. Kate Brown and Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

The statement came a day after Simpson, speaking at a virtual event held by the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, called for those who don’t support his plan to come up with their own ideas to save salmon and modernize the region’s power infrastructure.

“What I have asked everyone I have talked to, whether it was Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers or others in the delegation or any user group, if you’ve got alternatives that will work, let me know, tell me about them, I’m interested in hearing them,” Simpson said, per the Lewiston Tribune. “So far, it’s just been silence.”

Newhouse, speaking in the same virtual event on Thursday, likened Simpson’s proposal to a Washington lawmaker proposing that the Boise airport be closed to combat climate change. All four of the Lower Snake River dams lie in Eastern Washington’s 5th congressional district, which McMorris Rodgers represents, but two of the dams also straddle the border of Newhouse’s 4th district in Central Washington.

After making his point about overstepping the bounds of congressional jurisdiction, Newhouse went on to call for a broader view of the salmon problem, pointing to the lack of fish ladders at Idaho dams and the state’s earlier efforts to eradicate ocean-going fish from some Idaho lakes.

“This is a complex system, and it faces a great multitude of complex and difficult challenges,” Newhouse said. “Any effort to boil this down to simple half-truths or deal with this issue in absolutes, or to assume a solution can be developed solely upon one main facet, must be called out for its intellectual dishonesty.”

Rifts also emerged between environmentalist groups over a provision that would put a 35-year moratorium on dam-related lawsuits, along with a 25-year freeze on agriculture-related litigation, throughout the Columbia Basin in exchange for removing the earthen portions of the four dams on a single river.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that favors breaching the dams but opposes Simpson’s proposal, welcomed the Washington Democrats’ clear stance. The group had previously criticized Northwest Democrats for not being more proactive and leaving an opening for the Idaho Republican to take the lead on ending the salmon wars.

“Gov. Inslee and Washington’s two senators are right to reject Rep. Simpson’s deeply flawed proposal to remove the four lower Snake River dams,” said Sophia Ressler, the group’s Washington wildlife attorney. “But we hope they work quickly toward a path to removing them, as it’s absolutely critical to saving salmon and the Southern Resident killer whales.”

Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a group that supports Simpson’s plan, said she was happy to see the “language of urgency used in the statement” and hopes the process Inslee and Murray called for begins in “months, not years.”

“Whether there are salmon in the Snake River 20 or 30 years from now is really resting on our elected leaders,” Mace said.

In a joint statement, Save Our Wild Salmon and eight other conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and Columbia Riverkeeper, characterized Murray and Inslee’s statement as a “proposal” in and of itself.

“We hear Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee making an unequivocal commitment that salmon will not go extinct on their watch,” the groups wrote. “We will hold them to that promise starting today.”

Northwest tribes have largely backed Simpson’s proposal, especially the Nez Perce Tribe, which released a study earlier this month that shows Snake River chinook salmon are nearing extinction, with steelhead similarly threatened. The Nez Perce, whose ancestors occupied parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, were guaranteed fishing rights in exchange for land in an 1855 treaty.

The Nez Perce, who were forced onto an even smaller reservation in what is now Idaho by a subsequent treaty but retained their fishing rights, contend that the disappearance of the salmon as a result of the dams constitutes a treaty violation.

In their joint statement, Murray and Inslee nodded to this reality, writing, “Any solution must honor Tribal Treaty Rights.”

But in response, newly elected Nez Perce Chairman Samuel Penney expressed frustration with the lack of specifics in the Democrats’ statement.

“Gov. Inslee and Senators Murray and Cantwell have stated what they’re against, providing no substance with respect to what they’re for,” Penney said in a statement. “This is not a time for generic statements of support for treaty rights and Northwest Tribes. Northwest Tribes are united and asking for genuine support.”

“The Nez Perce Tribe welcomes the opportunity to meet with Senators Murray and Cantwell to discuss this issue in more detail,” Penney said. “Time is short, but together we can take this unique opportunity to ensure a better, stronger Northwest for all. We stand ready to work with the congressional leaders of the Northwest on that effort.”

While making their opposition to Simpson’s approach clear, Inslee and Murray did not rule out the most controversial aspect of the Idaho Republican’s proposal.

“Importantly, it is critical that this process takes all options into consideration,” they wrote, “including the potential breaching of the Lower Four Snake River Dams.”

The Democrats called for an initiative led by the four governors of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana to be accelerated, and suggested they support many of the components of Simpson’s proposal, including investments in clean energy storage, habitat restoration, transportation infrastructure, agriculture and more.

“We are ready to work with our Northwest Tribes, states, and all the communities that rely on the river system to achieve a solution promptly,” Murray and Inslee said. “We, too, want action and a resolution that restores salmon runs and works for all the stakeholders and communities in the Columbia River Basin.”

Eli Francovich contributed reporting to this story.


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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