When U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson announced he has been studying ways to recover Snake River salmon and largely viewing the solution through the lens of dam breaching, it overwhelmed other discussions at an Andrus Center conference in Boise this week.

The “Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community: Can We Come Together?” conference at Boise State University Tuesday was billed as a sort of collaborative brainstorming session and discussion on how to recover threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead populations.

Conference leader John Freemuth, the Cecil D. Andrus Chairman for Environment and Public Lands at the BSU Andrus Center for Public Policy, said the focus of the conference was not dam breaching — a position supported by many salmon advocates, the Nez Perce Tribe and state of Oregon, but bitterly opposed by grain farmers, ports and power interests.

But after Simpson, a Republican representing Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, said he has been asking “what if” questions framed around the idea of mitigating for the eventual removal of Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, it was tough to see it otherwise.

Simpson, who did not formally endorse breaching, questioned how to make Lewiston whole if the dams were removed, how to help grain growers get their crops to market and how to replace the 3,000 megawatts of carbon-free electricity the dams are capable of producing.

He also shared some potential answers. What if grain growers who now rely on barge transportation to get their crops to market collectively owned their own railroad? What if small portable nuclear plants were used to replace the lost hydropower? What if Lewis-Clark State College, the University of Idaho and Washington State University joined forces to create a high-tech corridor in the region to foster job growth?

And what if the Northwest Power Act were rewritten to save the financially strapped agency that both markets power produced at federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and funds projects designed to mitigate for the harm those dams cause to fish and wildlife

“Strangely enough, I think the challenges facing the (Bonneville Power Administration) also creates the opportunity for us to solve the salmon crises. The reality is you cannot write a new BPA act — a new Northwest Power Planning Act — without addressing the salmon issue, and you can’t address the salmon issue without addressing the dams,” Simpson said.

The question is, what happens now? Simpson doesn’t have a course of action laid out. His spokeswoman, Nikki Wallace, said in the near-term he plans to continue meeting with stakeholders and talking with other members of Congress representing Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana.

“He just wants to talk to people and look at options,” Wallace said.

Other Northwest members of Congress gave Simpson’s remarks mixed reviews, with some of them outright rejecting his focus on dams and others giving at least tepid support.

In a statement, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said Simpson’s desire to engage parties on all sides of the salmon and dams debate is the right course to take.

“The ultimate solution will be the achievement of a regional consensus that will be taken to Congress for enactment and implementation,” Crapo said.

When asked if he was concerned that Simpson framed his “what if” questions around mitigating for Snake River dam removal, Crapo’s spokesman, Lindsay Nothern, said no.

“Crapo has said everything should be on the table, and he still feels that way,” Nothern said.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said through a statement he supports talks aimed at finding a solution to the salmon recovery problem, but only with the dams in place.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, said he has spoken with Simpson but believes the cost of dam breaching on the 1st Congressional District is too high.

“Since economic indicators and constituent feedback have strongly indicated that dam breaching would not be a viable option for stakeholders in the 1st District, it is even more imperative that alternative solutions receive thorough review,” Fulcher said.

Author: Eric Barker

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