Washington state’s U.S. senators and its governor have joined forces against a proposal from U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River and replace their benefits as part of a multitrillion dollar infrastructure bill being crafted by the Biden administration.

The proposal had gained the support of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., as well as many tribes, after it was announced last winter.

But Republican members of Washington’s congressional delegation opposed Simpson’s plan before it was even officially released, and the state’s top Democratic elected officials were largely mum until Thursday.

“While we appreciate Rep. Simpson’s efforts and the conversations we have had so far with Tribes and stakeholders, it is clear more work within the Pacific Northwest is necessary to create a lasting, comprehensive solution, and we do not believe the Simpson proposal can be included in the proposed federal infrastructure package,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee said in a joint statement provided to The Seattle Times.

The two Democratic leaders added that regional collaboration on a comprehensive, long-term solution to protect and bring back salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin and throughout the Pacific Northwest is needed now more than ever.

But they urged a process to a solution that would honor tribal treaty rights, ensure reliable transportation and use of the river, ongoing access for anglers and sport fishers and the continued delivery of reliable hydropower.

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“Washington state has a history of successfully bringing diverse groups together to develop solutions that benefit all stakeholders. This must be the model for the management of the Columbia River Basin,” the two continued in their statement.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell also told The Seattle Times she does not support the Simpson proposal, though she does support salmon recovery not only in the Columbia Basin, but across the region, and collaborative processes to get there.

“This proposal has some things we should focus on; diversifying beyond hydro is a great idea, planning for new investment is a great idea, but the rest is not well thought out enough at this point,” Cantwell said of the Simpson proposal.

“Very, very valuable salmon recovery needs to happen and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity of this infrastructure bill to do that, and Puget Sound, being a powerhouse of salmon recovery opportunity, should be focused on. We should be clear that we are maximizing those opportunities.”

Money to help pay for removal and replacement of highway culverts that block salmon passage is just one such investment that could be made in the federal infrastructure package, Cantwell said.

Feds ramp up spill over dams to help salmon

The statements came as the region undertakes unprecedented steps to rescue Snake River Chinook salmon runs that are headed to extinction.

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Federal agencies recently agreed to an operating plan for the dams that includes a broad suite of actions, including spilling large amounts of water over spillways at Columbia and Lower Snake River dams to help push young salmon now migrating to the sea downriver — and route them around, rather than through, powerhouses.

The spill program was initiated on an experimental basis in 2019 and has so far shown promise. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the region’s federal hydropower dams, was able to end last year in the black even while spilling water over the dams for fish instead of generating power. And customers suffered no compromise in reliability even as the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, directed spill rates of nearly 90% of the river flow at some times.

The program is in place at four mainstem dams on the Columbia River and four on the Lower Snake. The system is run during the migration season to optimize spill 16 hours a day. The rest of the time, BPA picks the most profitable time of day to run water through power turbines.

Early results show that young fish have been able to reduce their travel time to the sea, and are not traumatized by the spill. But the real results won’t be known for years, when adults come back to spawn.

The most recent environmental assessment of dam operations for survival of fragile populations projects continued declines for Snake River salmon in poor years, such as will be more common under climate change.

Climate change is severely challenging salmon, cold water animals that can become diseased or even be killed outright in temperatures above 68 degrees if the temperatures remain high enough long enough.

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Warmer sea surface temperatures caused by climate change also are predicted in recent published scientific research to particularly stress Snake River spring and summer Chinook, endangering them with extinction and requiring an even more intense effort to support their survival in all life stages.

Snake River spring and summer Chinook are in dire shape, analysis by the Nez Perce Tribe shows. Many populations of Chinook already meet the threshold of quasi-extinction, meaning 50 or fewer adult spawners are making it back to their home streams, said Jay Hesse, director of biological services for the tribe.

Simpson’s big pitch

Into this logjam stepped Simpson last winter, with a proposal to breach the four Lower Snake River dams, digging out the earthen berms around them and leaving the dams in a mothballed status.

To replace the benefits of the dams he proposes creation of a $34 billion Columbia Basin Fund within the national infrastructure bill, from getting agricultural products to market, to reconfiguring irrigation infrastructure, buying replacement power and modernizing the electric grid to accommodate more and diverse sources of clean energy.

A dozen tribes across the Columbia Basin also issued statements last month in support of a legislative solution to the Columbia Basin salmon crisis.

Some of the tribes were enemies with one another long ago, and even today have very different interests. But they are united in their commitment to salmon recovery, noted Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe and a proponent of the Simpson proposal.

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For tribes, salmon are a matter of cultural survival ensured as part of the bargain made in the treaties with the United States, Wheeler said. The Nez Perce reserved their rights to fish in all of their accustomed places in their treaty of 1855. “We ceded 13 million acres to protect a way of life,” Wheeler said.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians also is going to consider a resolution in support of the Simpson proposal, said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the ATNI.

Simpson said in an interview he has pivoted to a new strategy to provide the money for a Columbia Basin Fund in the national bill, but work out over the next year or two the writing of legislation to implement it.

He acknowledged the proposal is a politically difficult lift — and said he’s been censured by the Republican Party in his own state for his efforts.

But, Simpson said, he remains undeterred: “I think we were elected to solve problems.”