Opinion: Simpson’s salmon plan has many benefits

Later this year, Congress will look at how snow and rain made such a mess of Texas and pass a large, national infrastructure bill, the better to prepare our country for a change in the weather. Will a $34 billion plan from Congressman Mike Simpson to rebuild water, transportation and energy systems in the Pacific Northwest be part of it?

Simpson’s central purpose, as you know, is to save salmon and steelhead from extinction by taking out four earthen dams on the Lower Snake. Every fish biologist in the region says it’s now or the fish are gone. Yet what’s striking about the total plan is how comprehensive, broad-visioned and cost-effective it is.

The expense of removing the dams, surprisingly, is just 6% be invested in a stronger energy grid, cleaning up our water, bring crops to market and protect Idaho’s river-side towns and cities.

Let’s start with energy. Much has been made by Simpson’s critics of how firm, renewable, base-load power will be lost if the four dams come out. How much power? About 4% of Bonneville Power’s total.

How hard would that be to replace? In this decade, the prototype of Nu Scale’s small modular reactor will be built at Idaho National Laboratory. Simpson’s plan would put one of them near the Lower Snake in Washington state (plus add a research facility at Hanford). Problem solved. Big deal.

The plan is rich with other possibilities, however. When the first dam would come out in 2030, battery storage for wind and solar-generated power will unquestionably be part of BPA’s green power portfolio. Or, better yet, BPA — and its partners, such as Idaho Falls Power — could simply generate less by saving consumers’ power bills with weatherization, rewarding time-of-day consumption or all kinds of home-based conservation practices.

Years ago, regional business leaders and I created the forerunner of what is today the Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho or REDI. We did so because the site’s workforce was going to take a big hit. Today, lots of jobs have been created by REDI, but let’s be honest: There’s a reason an Idaho Falls street has been named for Mike Simpson. Simpson is responsible for many, if not most, of the new, higher-paying, longer-duration jobs that make INL what it is today.

Simpson’s latest legislation is like that: focused on serious needs of the future, this time for the entire Northwest, particularly energy and a healthy BPA.

Now let’s consider water — specifically in Magic Valley, in the middle Snake River. It is a mess. It has been called a sewer because there is no sewage system to dispose of the 50 million pounds of manure produced by more than 500,000 dairy cows above the river every day.

Disposing of the manure safely is so impossible that the dairy industry is right now asking the Idaho Legislature to jigger our environmental laws so it can put more waste in the Snake River. However, is there an alternative?

About 15 years ago, INL scientists tried to turn cow manure into electricity or natural gas using anaerobic digesters. Several were tried in Magic Valley, but they didn’t quite work. Now, Simpson’s legislation would create a research facility for this purpose at the University of Idaho and invest $750 million to clean up manure at the dairies, produce electricity and keep producing all that Chobani yogurt, advanced science. Benefits would eventually be nation-wide.

How could a $34 billion investment be cost-effective? Here’s how: In the last 20 years, BPA ratepayers (you and me) have paid $17 billion trying to save fish, largely without success. We will pay another $20 billion fruitlessly in the next 20 years, as matters stand. Total lost forever: $37 billion. That’s $3 billion more than Simpson’s plan, before calculating other net benefits.

I have run out of space to extoll the rest of the plan: how it would end decades of futile litigation over salmon and the dams; strengthen our transmission system; protecting BPA’s future; honor a new role for native-Americans; and revitalizing Lewiston, Salmon and Riggins. For starters.

This is a model for the nation, but it is so comprehensive you should enlist that super-smart student in your family to understand it. Pay them overtime.

Finally, are you as weary as I am of justifying absolutely everything in dollars and cents — as I have just tried to do? The creator has endowed us with just one sweet earth. If we could clean up some water, keep food moving to market, end one endless contention and save some fish at a net savings, should we not consider it seriously?

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