Bravo to Congressman Mike Simpson for his recent proposal to breach the four lower Snake River dams and restore Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead runs. His courage and leadership are commendable. The issue is fraught with complexity and difficulty. The effort will be long and hard-fought. But it is simply the right thing to do for Idaho.
Nothing else is so uniquely tied to Idaho’s identity as those wild runs of giant fish. They swim over 800 miles each way, from the headwaters of the Salmon River at 7,000 feet where they are born to the ocean and back again, in an endless cycle that has happened for thousands of years. No other fish on earth travel so far and so high to spawn. It’s nothing short of a miracle, a wonder of the natural world. When you see for yourself an enormous spawning pair of them wavering in ankle-deep water, digging their nest and laying their eggs in the gravel of some small stream in the high lonesome wilds of central Idaho, something remarkable happens, something almost spiritual. Future generations of Idahoans should never lose the opportunity to see it for themselves.
Some say dam breaching will not work. But it already has worked, and it will work again. Most recently, dam removal worked in spectacular fashion on the Elwha River in Washington state, where fish are returning in record numbers as I write this. Long ago, it also worked right here in Idaho. For 24 years, Sunbeam Dam blocked fish passage to the spawning grounds in Stanley Basin and the Sawtooth Valley. After that dam was breached in 1934, the fish also returned to those spawning beds in large numbers, including giant chinook and the blood-red sockeye that gave Redfish Lake its name.
Then the four lower Snake dams were built in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, completing the 325-mile slack water pond that exists today all the way to Lewiston. It was simply too much slack water, too many impediments, and the wild fish returning to Idaho declined precipitously. By 1995, only a single sockeye, nicknamed “lonesome Larry” by the media, returned to Redfish Lake.
I watched the decline myself growing up, working and recreating all over the Salmon River basin. Over the years, fewer and fewer giant fish were rolling in the eddylines, fewer were spawning in the gravel beds, fewer were jumping at Dagger Falls and other difficult places in the river. There is simply no doubt. The correlation between building those four dams and the tremendous decline in Idaho’s wild fish is direct, irrefutable and consequential. Breaching them will help restore Idaho’s wild fish populations to their former glory so future Idahoans can forever witness the miracle themselves.
I should note that Congressman Simpson’s proposal includes far more than simply breaching the dams. He envisions nothing less than a transformation of the northwest in terms of energy production and management, infrastructure and economic enhancement, and the like. I encourage everyone to go to his website at simpson.house.gov and review the entire proposal and his video.
But for me, saving Idaho’s wild fish for future generations to know and to love lies at the heart of it all. So this is the proposal. Now is the time. Please contact your elected officials and express your support for Congressman Simpson’s proposal. Thanks for the effort.