Salmon & Steelhead for Future Generations

Illustration of a salmon


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On February 6, Idaho Representative Mike Simpson unveiled a proposal to address declining Northwest salmon and steelhead populations through the breaching of the Lower Four Snake River Dams. The proposal provides the following assurances:

  • continued reliable energy,
  • support for agriculture,
  • secure transportation,
  • safe removal of sediment,
  • watershed improvement,
  • establishment of a Lower Snake River National Recreation Area,
  • economic and scientific development within the Columbia River watershed,
  • management of salmon and steelhead by a co-equal Northwest State and Tribal
    Fish and Wildlife Council.

It’s a big idea worth considering, given the political elements and implications.

Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have seniority positions in the current Congress. These positions can provide the necessary support for legislation of this magnitude to succeed.

The current situation seems unsustainable with the amount of lawsuits, appeals, Environmental Impact Statements, and judicial directives.

For more than 30 years, we have spent $17 billion on salmon recovery efforts, although today more salmon and steelhead runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act than in 1980. What we’ve been doing simply isn’t working and provides no certainty for any party—agriculture, power generation, conservation, recreation, transportation, tourism, nor job opportunities.

Three things directly impact salmon survival. First, polluted ocean conditions reduce the number of returning adults. Second, global climate change makes northwest rivers and reservoirs warmer. Third, dams, including the four Lower Snake River dams, are detrimental to salmon and steelhead reproduction cycles. At the end of their 900-mile trek back to Idaho, the adult return for salmon is 1 percent and trending ever lower.

If we want to have salmon and steelhead in Idaho in the future, we need to change what we’ve been doing while ensuring we provide certainty and sustainability for our communities.

President Biden is expected to propose a National Clean Energy Stimulus bill this year. Representative Simpson says the proposal he and his Congressional partners are working on carries a $33.5 billion price tag, which would represent 1 to 2 percent of the stimulus bill. This is an opportunity for citizens of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to be decision makers and crafters of a future beneficial to fish and people alike.

Rather than waging continual war in the courts, it makes sense to look seriously at the Simpson proposal and work together to control our own future.

The proposal is carefully explained on Representative Simpson’s website, and I urge readers to go there and read the details.

The proposal budgets for the following:

  • money for breaching the dams during
    the summer and fall of 2030 and 2031,

  • the cost of energy replacement from power
    removed from the grid with dam breaching,

  • money for voluntary removal or mitigation of small private dams or
    other river structures that impede salmon migration,

  • funds for indemnification for irrigation districts,

  • region-wide watershed improvements,

  • recreation and tourism opportunities,

  • improvements to animal waste management,

  • increased funding for barge transportation for agriculture products,

  • protection from lawsuits,

  • extension of licensing to 35 years for other Columbia and Snake River dams,

  • a litigation moratorium of the same duration.


A Northwest State and Tribal Fish and Wildlife Council would act as the primary fish manager. This council preserves a co-equal status among members.

Columbia Basin Tribes would have four votes, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington representatives would have four votes, and the Northwest Governors would have four votes.

The Council would be charged with overseeing the following:

  • joint fish recovery operations,
  • joint invasive species control,
  • joint predator control,
  • joint science and monitoring activities,
  • cooperation with federal fish and wildlife agencies,
  • working with the northwest congressional delegation to increase
    federal salmon appropriations.

Within the proposal are plans for watershed partnerships throughout our region.

Despite Simpson and his team holding over three hundred meetings, not everyone is on board. Some people who work in agriculture, in particular, are concerned about moving grain by road and rail versus barging as is done now. They point to a larger carbon footprint as well as increased transportation costs for grain growers. But a port city such as Lewiston, which is hundreds of miles from the ocean, is certainly a issue that has to be addressed, both for agriculturalists and fish.

In addition, concerns about increased energy costs and providing energy lost to the grid from breaching the dams is a sticking point for some. This is why it’s important to engage with your Legislators, so your concerns as well as support are clearly communicated.

I live near a small Idaho town where salmon, steelhead, and whitewater rafting are the lifeblood of the economy. As fish numbers have plummeted, so have motel bookings, meals in restaurants, groceries bought by anglers, and guided trips.

A robust salmon and steelhead fishery translates to jobs in many small communities. I fear that if we don’t take this opportunity to really address the salmon, steelhead, and dams issue, the iconic Salmon River will one day be devoid of its namesake fish. ISI

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