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Tear Out the Snake River Dams

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I cannot overstate how huge this is, especially given who is making the proposal.

For nearly three decades, the region has been stuck in unending litigation and spiraling costs as salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers decline toward extinction. But in a sweeping $34 billion proposal from an unlikely source, at an auspicious moment, comes a chance for a fresh start.

Could Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from a conservative district in eastern Idaho, have launched a concept that will forever alter life on the Columbia and Snake — and finally honor tribal treaty fishing rights in the Columbia Basin?

His proposal includes removing the earthen berms adjacent to all four Lower Snake River hydroelectric dams to let the river run free, to help save salmon from extinction, while spending billions of dollars to replace the benefits of the dams for agriculture, energy and transportation.

Such a colossal proposal coming from a relatively unknown Republican is a shocker and the delegation is already giving it a look.

All four Democratic senators from Washington and Oregon issued a joint release Friday evening stating: “All communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond should be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region. Any process needs to balance the needs of communities in the Columbia River Basin, be transparent, be driven by stakeholders and follow the science.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, put out a statement in staunch opposition.  “These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington,” she said in a press release. “Spending $33 billion to breach them — with no guarantee that doing so will restore salmon populations — is a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take.” Washington’s three GOP House members also joined with a representative from Idaho on a proposed resolution supporting existing hydropower dams, and seeking expansion of hydropower in the region.

As you can see, the issue of these dams is highly partisan. That partisanship really gets at the very real difference what the parties value in the Pacific Northwest. These dams are a total disaster. They are horrifyingly awful for salmon migration. Their hydropower creation is not that great. A big part of the support for them is the utter pointlessness of Lewiston, Idaho being an inland port where ships can go to the Pacific Ocean. You would not believe how important this point is for the people of that area. The claim that Lewiston is some economic engine is pretty laughable, but the locals like being able to take the powerboats on the once free-flowing river that is now a giant lake. For Republicans, these dams are about progress and controlling nature for people. It’s the pioneer, frontier legacy. For Democrats, they are symbols of the arrogance of postwar planners when it came to the natural world and the enemy of a healthy ecosystem.

This is why it is so exceptional that Mike Simpson, of all people, is moving this ahead. There is absolutely nothing liberal about Mike Simpson. He’s about as conservative as they come. But I happen to agree with his framing here.

Simpson is careful to point out that what he has released is an overall concept that provides only broad spending targets for key initiatives. What he wants is a regional conversation about a new vision for the Northwest. What if we stopped debating whether the Lower Snake River dams are valuable, and recognize that they are, then figure out together how to replace those benefits?

The payoff, he says, is a gift to the future. Fishable runs of salmon. A clean energy system positioned for long-term stability, affordability and innovation. Transportation reconfigured to serve one of the most important agricultural centers in the world, and investments to keep farmers working some of the best irrigated ground anywhere.

He wants to boost tourism and recreation; enlist tribes, states and agriculture across the region in caring for salmon and other wildlife and finally end the region’s longest-running environmental litigation.

A lot of Democrats’ and enviros’ framing here is that these dams have no value. But that’s not really true. They have psychic value for locals if nothing else. So acknowledging that but tearing them down anyway as part of a larger infrastructure plan to reshape the region for the future? Yes, that’s a great idea.

Can’t believe I am agreeing so wholeheartedly with Mike Simpson on something. But hey, when’s he right, he’s right. There’s a lot more to this article, so check it out.

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