Driving north out of the Great Basin, topping Malad summit and dropping into Idaho never fails to light a spark in my heart. Idaho is a place worth coming home to. When I am away, even in beautiful places, Idaho pulls at me.
It must be the same for Idaho’s salmon. It takes a powerful tug to bring them 900 miles inland, to climb 6,500 feet in elevation, past the orcas and the pinnipeds, over eight dams all the way to central Idaho for a chance to spawn another generation.
Salmon and steelhead are robust, adaptable creatures. They have survived across the eons, continuously adjusting to a changing ocean and landscape. Unfortunately, Idaho’s salmon and steelhead have not been able to adapt to the construction of the lower four Snake River dams. Since the 1970s’ completion of Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams, Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs have plummeted. Without bold action by congress, wild Snake River salmon and steelhead are likely to disappear in our lifetimes.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, stepped up to lead Idaho toward a more optimistic future. Rep. Simpson laid out a proposal that would create new clean energy sources, build new infrastructure and ensure the needs of local communities, irrigators and shippers are met. The proposal would also restore runs of healthy, harvestable Snake River salmon and steelhead by removing the lower four Snake River dams.
These dams, located downstream of Idaho in eastern Washington state, have caused the near destruction of anadromous fish (fish that leave freshwater for the ocean, then return to their natal waters to spawn) in the Snake River basin. All of the lower four dams already have fish ladders and some adult fish do pass over them heading upstream. Where the dams really kill fish is on their downstream journey. Smolt (juvenile salmon and steelhead) are forced to swim rather than drift backward as they do in a free-flowing river, letting the current carry them to the ocean. These small fish — carrying genetic code thousands of generations old that will lead them back to Idaho — die in turbines. They die in the hot, slow stagnant water above the dams. They die in the holding tanks of barges that attempt to move them past the dams. In fact, more than 50 percent of the smolt from Idaho never make it past the concrete barricades that are the lower four. So few smolt arrive in the ocean that adult returns to Idaho are barely over 1 percent. Of every 100 smolt that leave Idaho headwaters, only 1 makes it back to spawn. The science tells us we need 2 percent of smolt to return as adults merely to maintain population viability. Rebuilding our historic stocks will take a minimum of 4 percent returns.
For 50 years, we have tried barging, spill, hatcheries and dozens of other mitigation efforts, but since the inception of the dams, we have never reached 2 percent returns. We have spent half a century throwing good money after bad, doubling down on a failed system while one of the most miraculous and prolific anadromous fish runs in the world circles the drain.
The best cold-water salmon habitat left in the contiguous United States is in the Snake River Basin. In fact, within the current, native distribution of salmon and steelhead on the west coast, the 30,000 miles of stream habitat in the Snake River basin represents 50 percent of all coldwater habitat. Take a second to really think about that. The Snake River Basin is 50 percent of Pacific salmon and steelhead habitat in the lower 48. And it’s blocked by four aging, fish-killing dams.
While removal of the lower four is fundamental to preserving our salmon and steelhead harvest in Idaho, it’s actually a small part of the Simpson infrastructure proposal. The plan seems equal parts infrastructure development, salmon restoration and regional surety. It would give other dams in the Columbia systems legal surety far beyond their current permits a 35-year pass that many in the conservation community, myself included, are less than enamored with.
But an additional positive in the proposal would stop Bonneville Power Administration from managing anadromous fish in the Northwest. BPA has spent upwards of $17 billion on salmon mitigation projects while runs have continued to decline. As Idahoans, we must consider if we want BPA (a federal agency under the Department of Energy) spending billions raising hatchery fish that return at much lower rates than wild fish. As taxpayers and ratepayers, we should not be required to prop up BPA’s stubborn commitment to expensive, aging, fish-killing infrastructure.
Rep. Simpson’s plan to find new, better ways to manage water, generate power and move goods is the entrepreneurial path forward. It’s the common-sense path forward. Doubling down on a failing system in support of federal agency is a bad bet. Simpson’s proposal is a starting point and that is good news for Idaho. This is a step toward saving our salmon, modernizing our infrastructure, updating our power grid, and jump starting our Idaho economy.
Some days, I worry what the generations that follow us will have. How many things will vanish in my lifetime? I have seen native fish rising to dry flies in the heart of the wildest country left in the lower 48 and wild birds of a dozen species on the nose of a steady English setter. My boys are 11, my daughter is 5. I can’t say what life holds for them. I fear that they will never catch a wild Gila trout in New Mexico. Their window to swing a shotgun on a sage grouse flushing out of Idaho’s sagebrush sea is closing rapidly. I don’t know if those problems are solvable.
However, I do have hope for Snake River salmon and steelhead. In an era defined by a lack of commitment, Rep. Mike Simpson is relentless in a way that makes me proud that he is my congressman. When he stood in the Andrus Center and vowed to see healthy populations of salmon return to Idaho, I believed him. If anyone has the tenacity to bring abundant population of wild salmon back to Idaho, it’s Mike Simpson. He is Idaho tough.
It’s time to take down the lower four Snake River dams, save salmon and bring Idaho into the 21st century. Rep. Simpson, thank you for leading. We are with you.