Mike Simpson didn’t seek to set anyone’s hair on fire Tuesday with his bold speech advocating that the Pacific Northwest do everything it can to restore healthy, sustainable wild salmon populations to Idaho.
The Republican U.S. congressman stopped short of calling for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams in Washington state — federal dams that have been the center of regional debate since the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board first called for breaching them in 1997.
But Simpson and his chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, have been asking all interested parties to consider “what if?” What if those dams, which provide grain shipping from the Palouse in Idaho and Washington, as well as electricity and backup for wind and solar power in the region, come down?
Those questions alone have brought discomfort to the dam boosters in Washington’s Tri-Cities and Lewiston. For instance, the Tri-City Herald on April 12 wrote an editorial criticizing Bryan Jones, a Washington farmer, for exploring alternatives to ensure that people like him can get their crops to market if the dams are breached.
“Any group that says it wants to plan in case the dams are removed is, in reality, trying to justify their removal,” the editorial said.
Simpson has heard the same thing.
“I’ve had people say, to my chief of staff, not to me, say, ‘We don’t even like someone of Simpson’s seniority asking these questions,’ ” Simpson told the crowd at the Andrus Center for Public Policy energy and salmon conference Tuesday.
That framing of the issue has kept dam breaching off the table politically. That’s despite federal judges repeatedly ordering studies on the issue. That’s despite 20 years of strong consensus among fisheries biologists that say breaching the four dams would be the most effective and least expensive way to “restore healthy, sustainable” salmon populations to the Snake River — the most productive salmon tributary to the Columbia River.
“If you can’t defend what’s going on … then these questions have to be asked,” Simpson said.
They especially have to be asked if the Pacific Northwest is going to have to go to Congress to save the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency Franklin Roosevelt created to market power from the Columbia dams. Simpson said the BPA is in trouble.
BPA sells billions of dollars worth of electricity every year for use by the 10 million people who live in the Pacific Northwest, with its $820 billion economy. Its annual 10,000 megawatts of electricity account for 28 percent of all of the power produced in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and parts of California and other states.
But its financial position has changed dramatically as the electricity markets have been transformed by low-cost natural gas and the huge growth of wind and solar power generation. Since 2006, wind power produced along the Columbia has grown from 500 megawatts to more than 3,500 megawatts, enough to power seven cities the size of Seattle. By 2020, wind and solar power in the region could grow to 8,000 megawatts.
BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer, who also spoke at the conference, said the time is now to make the necessary changes to manage the shifting role of its hydroelectric dams. He called for “urgent, not hasty” action.
He and other dam managers have been forced, by a federal judge’s decision, to ask Simpson’s “what if” question as well. They are supposed to have initial results early next year.
Simpson and Slater have been asking the uncomfortable questions because they not only want to save Idaho salmon, which are on the path toward extinction, but also want to save the BPA and the low-cost power services that are the foundation of the region’s economy.
Simpson revealed that he is working on a bill to replace the Northwest Power Planning Act of 1980, which restricted the federal agency during a past economic crisis. Simpson and Mainzer said the electricity industry has changed dramatically since then.
Simpson said a “Power Act 2.0” is necessary — but impossible — unless the congressional delegations of Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana all get behind it. But in these divisive times, such unity will take leadership.
Simpson, knowing the stakes, accepted the challenge, getting a standing ovation from the Andrus Center audience.
Simpson primed the pump of creativity he hopes residents of North Idaho and eastern Washington can muster to make the area whole if the dams go and a scenic canyon returns. For Lewiston, which would lose its seaport, the congressman talked about a high-tech research park bringing together the resources of the University of Idaho, Washington State University and Lewis-Clark State College.
Tri-Cities, the home of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, could get a small, modular reactor to replace the dams and perhaps could become the center of battery research. That would be the key to making wind and solar power more stable, Simpson said.
How about a rail line that’s owned by the shippers to replace the barges?
“That’s an exciting idea,” said Sam White, chief operating officer at Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, a grain-shipping company in Genesee, Idaho. “It would fix our problem, but it wouldn’t fix others.”
The two speakers at the conference from the Tri-Cities — David Reeploeg, vice president of the Tri-Cities Development Council, and Jeff Gordon, of Gordon Estate Wines near Pasco, whose vineyards depend on wells tied to the Ice Harbor Dam reservoir — wouldn’t bite.
But a key dam supporter who was at the conference told the Lewiston Tribune that she was willing to hear Simpson’s ideas.
“We are always open to conversations with the congressman,” said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. “He’s been open about these questions, and we will look forward to being part of the conversation.”
Idaho Gov. Brad Little said he will convene a panel to look for consensus on the salmon and dam issue. His commitment came the same day that Washington state debated whether to support a similar effort there.
What if the two states can get such talks going and Oregon can develop a similar process? These questions will now carry the issue beyond past efforts by people such as Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who tried to start talks in 2009 with “all options on the table.”
The only option Simpson left off the table is allowing Idaho’s wild salmon to go extinct.