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Countering dam removal proposal, Cantwell hints at her ideas for Snake River salmon during Senate hearing

UPDATED: Thu., May 20, 2021

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is shown on Capitol Hill Jan. 21.  (Bloomberg)
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is shown on Capitol Hill Jan. 21. (Bloomberg)
By Nico Portuondo For The Spokesman-Review

In the midst of renewed controversy over the potential removal of Snake River dams to restore salmon populations, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell stuck to less drastic salmon conservation ideas like fixing culverts and better habitat management during a Senate hearing Thursday.

Salmon conservation in the Columbia Basin is again a hot issue after Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, announced a $33.5 billion proposal to breach the four lower Snake River dams . Simpson has said he hopes his proposal will be included in President Joe Biden’s unfinished infrastructure and jobs bill.

Environmentalists have argued that removing the dams would be one of the most important steps in recovering Snake River salmon species, all of which are at risk of extinction.

But a bipartisan group of Pacific Northwest lawmakers has pushed back against Simpson’s dramatic proposal, officially titled “the Columbia Basin Initiative,” arguing that salmon recovery is possible without removal of the dams.

Cantwell in Thursday’s hearing didn’t mention Simpson’s proposal, but discussed how habitat restoration, managing stormwater runoff, pollution control and replacing or fixing culverts could be effective in protecting and restoring salmon populations.

Cantwell said all of these measures can come together to form effective “salmon infrastructure.”

Culverts allow water to move under highways and other infrastructure but can block salmon from reaching tributaries where they lay eggs. Cantwell, who chaired the Thursday Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, discussed replacing or fixing culverts to ensure fish can pass through them

“We believe that since culverts have had such a dramatic effect, that when we’re looking at new transportation infrastructure investment, we should be thinking about these things,” Cantwell said.

Simpson’s proposal also allocates $14 billion for clean energy technology to replace the potential loss in hydropower and includes additional funding for salmon recovery efforts.

Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a joint statement last week arguing that Simpson’s bill is not the solution to recovering salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

“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,” Inslee and Murray said in the statement.

Some conservative politicians also have voiced opposition to the plan.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that some see removing the Lower Snake River dams as the measure of success. I’m focused on recovering salmon,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said in a statement. Rodgers also pointed to rising Fall Snake River Chinook population numbers with the dams still in place.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., echoed Rodgers’s concerns, calling the dam-breaching proposal misguided and dangerous to the Pacific Northwestern way of life in a speech last week at Boise State University.

Despite the heavy backlash, leadership from the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation support Simpson’s plan. A dozen other tribes in the Columbia Basin also released a statement last month expressing their desire for some kind of legislative action to restore the salmon species that indigenous people have relied on for thousands of years.

Although Simpson’s proposal may fail to find bipartisan support, it has reinvigorated the decadeslong debate over the fate of salmon in the Columbia Basin. Lawmakers from across the aisle will feel the pressure from indigenous and conservation groups to come up with some sort of solution before Biden finalizes his infrastructure and jobs plan.

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