WASHINGTON – House Republicans will hold a “field hearing” at Richland High School on Monday, far from their usual haunts at the U.S. Capitol, to defend the Lower Snake River dams against critics who say the four dams must be breached to help restore the salmon and steelhead that once flourished in the river and its tributaries.
The campaign to restore the river’s flow has gathered steam in recent years, especially since Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho unveiled a proposal in February 2021 to breach the dams and replace the hydropower, transportation and irrigation benefits they provide by investing $33 billion in new infrastructure. While most Northwest Democrats have stayed on the sidelines of the debate – wary of the delicate politics surrounding dams that provide low-carbon energy but threaten the fishing rights guaranteed to tribes – Simpson’s fellow Republicans from the region have rushed to defend the dams.
Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, who will join members of the House Natural Resources Committee at Monday’s event, have introduced legislation to prevent dam breaching along with Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents the western half of Idaho. An identical bill in the Senate is backed by GOP Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Steve Daines of Montana.
“Eastern Washington, we’re leading the way in showing the rest of America what’s possible when we unleash hydropower,” McMorris Rodgers said during an event at the Capitol on Wednesday. “The Columbia-Snake river system serves as the beating heart of our region and it helped transform our region from what was dry, barren sagebrush to one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.”
The stakes are high, according to both sides of the debate.
Members of the Nez Perce Tribe were in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for a screening of a documentary about the importance of salmon in their culture and an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government that guaranteed their right to harvest salmon throughout their traditional territory. That right can only be preserved, the tribe says, by breaching the dams that have turned a once fast-flowing river into a series of pools that slow juvenile fish on their journey to the ocean.
Meanwhile, the dams’ supporters say they play an indispensable role in the region by generating electricity, irrigating farmland and allowing barges to move cargo between Lewiston and the Pacific Ocean. Advances in fish passage technology, they argue, let enough salmon and steelhead survive the journey to and from the ocean. The title of Monday’s event reflects that perspective: “Northwest at Risk: The Environmentalist’s Effort to Destroy Navigation, Transportation, and Access to Reliable Power.”
The crux of the issue is whether salmon and steelhead can survive in the Snake River if the four dams remain in place, while the fish face other threats such as changing ocean conditions, overfishing, habitat degradation and growing numbers of sea lions and other predators.
Todd Myers, environment director at the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based think tank that opposes dam breaching, said the money it would take to breach the dams and replace their benefits would be better spent on other fish recovery efforts. He will testify at Monday’s event alongside witnesses from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Port of Lewiston, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and other groups.
“My basic argument is not that the dams don’t have an influence – of course they do,” Myers said, adding that they are just one of many human-caused factors that affect salmon populations. “The issue is that the cumulative impact of all of those various influences are the reason that salmon are struggling.”
Not all species of anadromous fish are affected by the dams to the same degree, said Dave Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries. He said the main reason to breach the dams is to restore steelhead and spring chinook salmon, for which the tribe’s fisheries department and its partners have done a lot of habitat restoration work.
Jay Hesse, director of biological services at the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries, said opponents of dam breaching often cite the percentage of fish that pass through each dam without being killed, but fail to consider the cumulative effects of the eight dams between Lewiston and the Pacific.
“As fish managers, we look at system-wide survival, not just one particular dam,” Hesse said.
Russ Thurow, an emeritus fisheries research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has spent four decades studying salmon and steelhead in Idaho, said that despite the debate over the fate of the dams, “The science is pretty clear.”
“There is a lot of misinformation out there, unfortunately,” he said. “The best way to sift through that is to really go to the rigorously peer-reviewed published science, and if you do that, I think you see a much more consistent story.”
Thurow pointed to a February 2021 letter to Northwest elected officials from 68 fisheries scientists, who wrote that the recovery of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Snake River Basin “cannot be accomplished” without breaching the Lower Snake River dams, “regardless of other environmental and management factors – including ocean conditions.”
He also cautioned against paying too much attention to short-term fluctuations in salmon and steelhead stocks, and losing sight of how dramatically things have changed since the four dams were constructed between 1957 and 1975. Despite the fact that the Middle Fork of the Salmon River has good habitat, low harvest rates and genetically diverse wild fish, today it has only about 1% to 3% of the population levels it did in the 1960s – suggesting that the dams have had a major impact.
As the debate over the dams heats up, policymakers will need reliable research and data to inform decisions that will have serious consequences across the Northwest. Kyle Smith, Snake River director at American Rivers, an environmental nonprofit that advocates breaching the dams, said his organization is working to assemble information that can help politicians and the public understand the complex science around the dams’ impact on salmon and steelhead.
“There’s a lot of distrust and obfuscating of facts, and we need to have an honest conversation about this, rather than kind of throwing grenades at each,” Smith said.
“We need to come together and agree where the holes in the data are, what we need to do to fill those holes and come to an agreement about what the facts are. But we have so little time to do that, so it’s a really challenging situation.”