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Idaho officials criticize new report on breaching Snake River dams

June 9, 2022 Updated Fri., June 10, 2022 at 4:42 p.m.

The Lower Granite Dam, photographed on Oct. 19, 2016, is situated on the Snake River west of Clarkston, Washington, one of a handful of dams that provide barriers to anadromous fish, like salmon.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Lower Granite Dam, photographed on Oct. 19, 2016, is situated on the Snake River west of Clarkston, Washington, one of a handful of dams that provide barriers to anadromous fish, like salmon. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

A new report shows breaching the dams on the lower Snake River, while incurring a steep price tag, could benefit endangered fish. But the Democrat-released report will be a hard sell for Idaho politicians to get behind, despite one congressman’s advocacy for dam breaching.

On Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a draft of a report they commissioned to determine the costs and effects of breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington. Last year, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, proposed a plan to breach the dams that was largely criticized by other Idaho politicians.

Idaho’s U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said in a statement Thursday that he is “flatly opposed” to breaching the dams, calling the report a “politically-motivated review of cherry-picked information.”

“Not even two years ago, the federal government completed a comprehensive and scientific multi-year study of the lower Snake River dams,” Risch said, referring to a study by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Association.

“The study’s findings were resounding: The lower Snake River dams should not be breached. The benefits these dams provide our region far outweigh arguments for their removal.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher said in a statement Friday that the report “relies heavily on divisive rhetoric – not substance – to paint a narrative that is overwhelmingly void of reality.”

Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s office told the Idaho Statesman in an emailed statement that his stance on breaching dams had not changed. The statement echoed language from comments Little made on Simpson’s proposal last year, saying “he remains unconvinced that breaching the dams is a silver bullet for salmon recovery.”

Little’s statement said he would continue to work with stakeholders to find a solution.

“While a lot remains to be done, (Little) is confident we are moving in the right direction,” the statement said.

Simpson told the Statesman through a spokesperson that he plans to take time to review the report. In May, Simpson told the Statesman he was “certain” salmon would go extinct if the dams are not removed.

Democrats’ report: Dam breach would benefit salmon

The new report concluded that removing the dams would benefit endangered salmon and local Native American tribes but could cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion. That cost would include replacing barging and hydropower, two major industries that rely on the dams. Simpson’s proposal put the cost around $33 billion.

Inslee and Murray said they would take public comment on the report for 30 days and implement that feedback before issuing a final conclusion. However, their report already has its supporters and detractors in Idaho.

Several groups, many of whom pushed back against the study Risch mentioned and lauded Simpson’s proposal, applauded the new Washington report. In a statement from a cadre of groups including Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, the Idaho Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited, stakeholders said this report proves dam breaching is doable.

“The report proves we can breach the dams and meet the needs of agriculture, energy production, fish and fish reliant communities,” said Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, in a news release. “It’s unconscionable to see the two paths before us and choose the one that leaves so many of us behind.”

Idaho outdoor industry figures, including outfitter Roy Akins and fishing guide Jon Kittell, both of Riggins, also voiced support for the analysis in the news release.

“We have been struggling as fishing guides. Reduced bag limits and in some cases season closures had negatively affected our work opportunities, businesses and communities,” Kittell said. “I appreciate that Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee in Washington are stepping forward alongside Idaho Congressman Simpson with efforts to address this issue in a way that ensures that my friends, neighbors, and fellow statesmen will not be forced into the hardships we have been facing as fishing guides.”

Statesman reporters Ian Stevenson and Kevin Fixler contributed.

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