WASHINGTON – Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray are exploring options to breach the lower Snake River dams and replace the benefits they provide, Inslee told a virtual gathering of Washington environmentalists Thursday.
Northwest tribes and conservation groups have ramped up efforts in recent months to have earthen berms removed from the four dams between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities in an effort to restore dwindling salmon runs, but the dams provide benefits to the region in the form of hydropower, barge transportation and irrigation.
In a virtual fundraiser organized by Washington Conservation Voters, the governor said he and Murray, his fellow Washington Democrat, are working on “a rigorous, robust and fast assessment of how to replace those services if we breach those dams.”
“The next step is for us to define how to replace the services of the Snake River dams if they are breached,” Inslee said. “We know that they are a salmon impediment, we know that the salmon are on the verge of extinction, and we also know that they do provide services upon which a lot of folks and our economy depends.”
The governor emphasized that the dams aren’t the only factor contributing to declining salmon runs, linking the problem with climate change and ocean acidification, which he called “the evil twin of global warming.”
Inslee offered no details, but the approach he outlined seems similar to that taken by Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican who turned up the heat on the region’s long-simmering “salmon wars” when he unveiled a proposal in February to breach the dams and invest $33.5 billion to replace their benefits and reshape the economies of Lewiston and the Tri-Cities.
Simpson sought to include his proposal in the infrastructure package the Senate approved in August, but that effort fell flat amid strong opposition from his fellow Northwest Republicans and a lukewarm reception from most of the region’s Democrats, including Inslee and Murray.
Speaking with Washington Conservation Voters CEO Alyssa Macy alongside Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Council and a prominent backer of Simpson’s plan, Inslee said the “main reason” for opposition to breaching the dams is “fear that all these services will all be disappeared, and nothing will replace them.”
“We ought to come up with a way of how to replace that relatively carbon-free electricity,” he said, as well as the irrigation and transportation the dams provide. “So I’m really happy to report that Sen. Murray and I are working on a process to do that.”
Simpson released his proposal after years of meetings with stakeholders throughout the Columbia Basin, but most of that work took place behind the scenes, and his recommendation to breach the dams was met with fierce opposition once he made it public.
Inslee signaled that he and Murray will gather input in the open. He added that a contractor will help lead the effort and produce a report by next summer.
“I’m not announcing a breaching decision today,” Inslee said, adding that Murray “will make some announcements in the next couple of weeks” about the next step in the process.
“I don’t want to prejudge that next step,” Inslee said, “but I do know what this state and country needs: We need an answer to those questions.”