Snake River dams

Ice Harbor Dam on the Lower Snake River holds back Lake Sacajawea, the source of irrigation water for 47,000 acres of farmland. An Idaho congressman has proposed breaching it and three other dams.

In crafting his plan for the removal of the dams on the lower Snake River, Rep. Mike Simpson has managed to forge consensus between farm, shipping and environmental interests on his idea. They all hate it.

Blessed are the peacemakers. They may be children of God, but often find surprisingly little support at home.

Simpson, R-Idaho, has not proposed legislation, but on Feb. 7 released a $33.5 billion concept for salmon recovery, which includes removing the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the lower Snake River in 2030 and 2031.

It is a bold plan, a grand compromise that seeks to address the competing needs of those who want the dams removed and those who depend on the status quo for their livelihoods, electrical energy, transportation and irrigation.

In short, Simpsons plan would:

• Require that the electrical power generated by the dams be replaced, and that the new infrastructure would be operational before the dams are breached.

• Provide money for river restoration, the development of transportation infrastructure to replace barge traffic, economic development for communities impacted by the breaching, watershed projects and irrigation infrastructure.

• Require that all other dams in the Columbia Basin that generate more than 5 megawatts of electricity be granted an automatic 35-year license extension.

• Prohibit for 35 years any litigation related to anadromous fish within the Columbia River system under the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act or the Clean Water Act, and stay any ongoing litigation.

As we said, a grand compromise, but one that none of the major stakeholders will accept.

Despite promises that their concerns will be addressed, farmers and ranchers worry about whether they will get the water they need, or will be able to ship product. Electric utilities worry they won’t have a reliable source of power and barge interests worry about their jobs disappearing.

Environmental interests love the idea of breaching the dams, but leaving the others unchallenged for 35 years is crazy talk. And filing lawsuits is their raison d’etre.

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

In releasing the plan, Simpson said he didn’t draft legislation because an ambitious concept such as he proposed needs to involve all the stakeholders and the states impacted.

We don’t think the plan as proposed ever had a chance, but Simpson should be given credit for starting a conversation. Does anyone want to talk?

We know what everyone doesn’t want and what they won’t accept, but what do they want and what will they accept?

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