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Poll finds most Washington voters support plan to breach Snake River dams

The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Wash., in Whitman County is one of four lower Snake River dams at the center of a controversy over their impact on salmon recovery.  (SSR)
The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Wash., in Whitman County is one of four lower Snake River dams at the center of a controversy over their impact on salmon recovery. (SSR)

WASHINGTON – A new survey conducted on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups found a majority of Washington state voters are open to an effort to restore salmon runs by breaching the Lower Snake River dams while replacing the energy, transportation and irrigation they provide.

The questionnaire describes a plan similar to the proposal put forward in February by Rep. Mike Simpson, without naming the Idaho Republican, and comes as tribes and conservationists that favor dam breaching await news of an alternative approach announced by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray in May.

Inslee and Murray, Washington Democrats, have said all options should be on the table, including removing earthen berms to restore the river’s natural flow between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities.

The survey, funded by the California-based Water Foundation, was released Thursday by the environmental advocacy group Washington Conservation Voters. The Mellman Group, a D.C.-based polling firm, interviewed 800 Washington voters by phone in late July.

While 56% of those surveyed had heard “not too much” or “nothing at all” about Simpson’s proposal, a 59% majority favored the plan after it was described to them, with 27% opposing. Another 14% of respondents said they were unsure.

“What we learned from this is that voters across Washington are adamant that they do not want salmon to go extinct,” said Alyssa Macy, CEO of Washington Conservation Voters.

Macy, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said the poll results should give elected officials at all levels – from local public utility districts to Congress – a clearer idea of what voters think about a proposal that has been met with strong rebukes from Simpson’s fellow Northwest Republicans and relative silence from area Democrats.

“I think this will generate some conversation and perhaps some willingness to start to engage in this more, and to step forward and to be courageous in this space and to lead, because we need our leadership to do that,” Macy said.

The dam-breaching proposal draws the widest support from Democrats, 71%, and a narrower majority of independents, 55%. Support among Republicans is split, with 44% in favor of Simpson’s plan and 42% opposed. Support is stronger on the West Side, at 63%, than in Eastern Washington, at 47%.

Other findings are less favorable to those who support dam breaching. Voters who agreed with the statement “there are other effective ways to restore the salmon population while keeping the dams in place” outnumbered those who said dam breaching was necessary by a margin of 45% to 29%, with the rest saying they were not sure or had no opinion.

The survey asked voters how concerned they were about problems related to the environment, politics and society. When told “salmon are going extinct,” 62% of respondents said they worried at least “a great deal.”

A study released by the Nez Perce Tribe in May warned most spring and summer chinook runs in the Snake River Basin will be perilously close to extinction by 2025. Other salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia Basin are faring better, largely because they have to traverse fewer dams.

The problem that generated the widest concern, however, was “Our elected officials are too busy fighting each other and can’t get anything done.”

Inslee and Murray have not revealed when they will divulge their plan, but in a joint statement in May they 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.”

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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