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Idaho Congressman Breathes New Life Into Dam Breaching Debate

Screenshot from Rep. Simpson video

Dam breaching is back on the negotiating table in the Northwest and the latest person to propose it might be considered an unlikely source. He’s using a potential clean energy stimulus package as a way to reopen a sometimes intractable discussion.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) says he and his staff have spent the last three years talking with people in the region about the fate of salmon in the Northwest. In a new video, he says the region has spent billions over the last generation or more on a wide variety of measures meant to increase fish populations, without much success.

“The current system is clearly not working. So we are asking some very difficult ‘what if?’ questions. What if the dams came out? What if we were able to replace the energy from the dams? What if we came up with different ways of transporting grain? What if we created new economic engines for our communities?” he asked.

Credit Screenshot from Rep. Simpson video

He says the group has explored a wide range of solutions that would allow the four lower Snake River dams to continue operating.

“In the end we realized there is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place," Simpson said. "I don’t claim to know what the best answer is for each sector, however, I do know that if we give the farmers, bargers, ports, BPA and communities the necessary resources, each sector could develop a certainty and security, putting the Northwest and Idaho salmon on a sustained path to viability.”

Simpson proposes using federal money from a clean energy stimulus package that President Biden has talked about as a way to pay for potential changes. He has put the regional price tag somewhere in the $30-35 billion range. It means perhaps digging channels around the dams so that water would flow more freely and salmon would have clear paths back to their spawning grounds.

Conservation groups, such as Idaho Outfitters and Guides, led by Aaron Lieberman, are all in.

“There’s an opportunity here for us to change the way we think about this entire issue, from us versus them and from compromises and tradeoffs to a context in which we can all be made better. That’s not just so many words. That is actually true," he said.

Others range between no and hell no. Simpson’s Washington Republican colleagues, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, are fierce advocates for the dams.

Others are keeping an open mind.

“The idea of trying to bring these parties together at a unique time, in terms of potential stimulus dollars available and try to resolve that issue, that’s commendable," said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners.

But there are lots of details Miller says the region needs to work through before a solution so drastic could gain regional consensus. He says Simpson has tried to put a value on the hydropower created by those dams, which is a good start.

“While we don’t like the idea as an organization of breaching or removing four very productive dams with excellent fish passage, at least now I feel like if we have a conversation about that topic, we can do so in a much fairer way," he said.

Miller says the proposal could be part of an energy stimulus package that could be floated later in the year, giving the region time to digest and discuss it before decisions are made.