Snake river dams (copy)

Ice Harbor dam near Burbank, Wash., is one of four dams on the lower Snake River that would be taken out under a proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

It’s rare that farmers and environmental groups agree.

But both agricultural stakeholders and environmental organizations say Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposed $33.5 billion salmon recovery deal is a no-go.

A group of 17 environmental organizations say Simpson’s plan would speed up salmon extinction and harm human health, calling it “untenable.”

The group, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Spokane Riverkeeper, sent a letter March 16 to Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, all Democrats, opposing Simpson’s plan.

A representative for the Center for Biological Diversity has not returned calls seeking further comment.

Agricultural stakeholders and power companies also oppose Simpson’s plan.

Simpson, a Republican, has not introduced legislation, but in February unveiled a plan for salmon recovery that includes removing the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the lower Snake River in 2030 and 2031.

His proposal includes a 35-year extension of the license of all remaining dams in the Columbia River Basin greater than 5 megawatts and a 35-year moratorium on litigation related to anadromous fish under the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act.

“Each of our organizations strongly supports the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams to help restore the region’s culturally significant wild salmon and steelhead, and we fully support aiding every community impacted by the removal of the dams,” the letter states.

“However, this goal cannot be achieved by suspending the protections of our bedrock environmental laws for a generation or more, along with an unprecedented attack on environmental justice for millions of people that live across the Columbia River basin,” the letter continues. “The proposed suspension of core environmental laws is the most sweeping we have ever encountered and is unacceptable.”

The groups claim in their letter that breaching the dams could save four of the most endangered salmonid species from extinction. But Simpson’s proposal demands “the most extensive rollback of environmental safeguards in the modern environmental era.”

“Rep. Simpson is asking millions of the region’s residents to sacrifice their clean water protections and is risking the future of many other endangered, threatened, or sensitive species in the Northwest as the price for removing these four dams,” the letter states. “Moreover, this deal would set a terrible and dangerous precedent for the rest of the nation, creating a model wherein environmental progress can only occur by sacrificing human health and environmental protections elsewhere.”

“Cynically, Rep. Simpson’s proposal continues the false narrative that environmental safeguards are to blame for declining wild salmon populations,” the letter states. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“While we support providing funds and resources to help the communities that would be impacted by the removal of the Snake River dams, Rep. Simpson proposes to spend $34 billion with virtually no accountability on how those funds would be spent,” the letter states.

The groups say that under Simpson’s proposal, most funding would go towards “special interests and large agribusiness,” claiming that funding would go towards “large factory farm agribusinesses to further subsidize operations that already cause massive water and air pollution and other environmental ills” and a “vague list of other infrastructure projects including unproven hydrogen storage and small modular nuclear reactors that have little to do with the Snake River dams.” The letter argues that “Rep. Simpson would be the sole arbiter who picks winners and losers for decades to come.”

“The entire purpose of breaching the Snake River dams is to rescue populations of wild fish,” the groups write to the legislators. “But, perversely, Rep. Simpson’s proposal would jeopardize those very same fish by removing their legal protection from other major sources of harm.”

The groups “applaud any effort to get the ball rolling on dam removal and welcome a robust conversation on how to make that happen in the near term,” the letter states.

Simpson told the Capital Press his concept is designed to improve water quality and quantity of all watersheds in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana. He wants producers and stakeholders who voluntarily participate in watershed partnerships to be able to work proactively without the threat of litigation from tribes, conservationists and states, he said.

“I believe conservationists giving up lawsuits for 25 years against agriculture is a fair trade if it means saving Idaho’s endangered wild salmon and steelhead from certain extinction,” Simpson said. “It seems conservation groups who call my concept a ‘non-starter’ and ‘dead wrong’ are more concerned about ending litigation against Northwest dams and agriculture than actually helping the fish and improving the watershed.”

Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which advocates for maintaining the dams, said agriculture agrees with the environmental groups that salmon recovery needs to be addressed through existing federal laws, regulations, policies and processes that protect and balance both environmental and human interests.

“We do not agree that breaching the Lower Snake River dams is the silver bullet that will address the complexities of recovering our region’s wild salmon and steelhead,” Meira said.

NOAA Fisheries, in partnership with tribal and state governments and a variety of economic and environmental interests, has already established agreed-upon goals for recovery of the region’s salmon and steelhead, with “comprehensive” science-based plans for achieving those goals, Meira said.

“We look forward to working together as a region to accomplish this challenging but achievable work,” she said.

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