Members of the Idaho River Community Alliance recently made a desperate plea to Idaho Gov. Brad Little and members of the state’s congressional delegation to consider all alternatives, including dam breaching, to improve the state’s salmon and steelhead runs.
Toby Wyatt of Lewiston and Roy Akins of Riggins penned a letter to the political leaders saying communities that depend on salmon and steelhead fishing are in a bad place. Wyatt is president of the group’s Clearwater chapter, and Akins heads the Riggins chapter.
“Dread is on the doorstep of our communities,” they wrote. “The dread has made us willing to discuss any and every remedy to bring health back to our communities.”
Akins represents the alliance on Little’s Salmon Work Group that met in Lewiston a few weeks ago. Little convened the group comprised of diverse interests including anglers, farmers, port and utility managers, environmentalists and officials from the Nez Perce and other Idaho American Indian tribes. They are tasked with reaching consensus on policy recommendations aimed at spurring long-running efforts to save the state’s spring, summer and fall chinook, sockeye and steelhead.
Breaching the four lower Snake River dams between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities is seen by many scientists and fish advocates as the best way to recover ailing fish runs, many of which are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. But breaching would make it no longer possible to barge grain down the Snake and eventually to the Port of Portland for export oversees. It would also reduce the region’s hydropower capacity.
During the group’s initial meeting, Little said he is unconvinced “breaching the dams will recover salmon in Idaho” and that group members shouldn’t get bogged down on the divisive issue. Akins and Wyatt want breaching and possible solutions to help farmers reach markets discussed. They expressed frustration with people in the group and those who have addressed it who contend breaching will destroy farming in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington and, like Little, think the topic shouldn’t even be discussed.
The two men, who are both salmon and steelhead fishing outfitters, said their industry and the businesses that depend on fishing tourism are reeling from low fish numbers and the recent closure of the Clearwater River and part of the Snake River to steelhead fishing.
“We fail to see how a discussion about what could be done to support alternative transportation to get their products to market is equivalent to our situation. Their grandstanding in the face of our communities’ pain is detestable, if not just dishonest,” they wrote.
Little appeared not to be swayed by their plea. The governor issued a statement to the Tribune Friday mirroring his earlier comments on the topic.
“Helping salmon thrive and fostering a strong Idaho economy that produces good jobs are not mutually exclusive. That is why I convened this diverse group of stakeholders. I remain opposed to dam breaching. I have directed my Salmon Work Group to come up with pragmatic, consensus-based solutions that promote healthy salmon populations and thriving river communities in Idaho, and not to fixate on a single divisive issue that will only serve to stall the work group’s progress.”
Not all fishing guides, especially those in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley that is also home to the Port of Lewiston, publicly back breaching. Wyatt said up until now he has danced around the issue, but the poor state of fish runs the past few years that are driven in part by poor ocean conditions have convinced him it’s the only long-term solution.
He said during a phone interview Friday that there are lots of reasons fish runs are declining, but the dams are the single biggest. He pointed to runs that return to rivers like the Yakima and the Hanford Reach of the Columbia in Washington that sit above four dams, and the John Day in Oregon that sits above three dams, where smolt-to-adult survival rates are much higher than they are for runs that return to the Snake River and must pass eight dams.
“I don’t think it will ever happen, but I really think the very best thing for recovery would be to start taking them out,” he said while guiding clients on the Hanford Reach. “The biggest proven killer of smolts is the dams.”
Wyatt said he doesn’t speak for other members of the alliance, and he acknowledged that publicly supporting breaching could hurt his business.
“Really there is not much left of it; it’s all gone anyway. The only place I have a good, viable business now is when I go to other areas. Our home area, which used to be money in the bank, is pretty well gone,” he said. “They used to say ‘fish and dams; we can have both,’ remember that? It ain’t true, man. You either have the dams or you have the fish. In the long scheme of things, they can’t both be there.”
He would like to see some of the billions that have been spent on unsuccessful actions, like improving spawning and rearing habitat, instead spent on helping farmers find new ways to get their crops to market.
Other Idaho politicians took the same stand as Little when asked to respond to the men’s letter.
“The four lower Snake River dams produce essential, carbon-free hydropower, provide flood control protection, recreational opportunities, and support critical irrigation systems. These dams also enable the Lewiston port to provide an efficient route to market for Idaho exports. Our focus needs to be on solutions that prioritize both salmon, and human needs,” U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said he supports both the dams and collaborative efforts to find ways to recover the fish. U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo’s spokesman Lindsay Nothern said the senator supports Little’s Salmon Work Group and is engaged in salmon recovery efforts but made no mention of breaching.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson stands alone among his fellow delegation members as being willing to talk about breaching and efforts that could be taken to help farmers and others if the dams were removed. In April, Simpson told attendees to a salmon recovery conference at Boise State University that he had been asking “what if” questions surrounding a future without the dams. He was unavailable Friday to respond directly to the letter from Wyatt and Akins.