Conservationists are calling it a once-in-a-generation opportunity for salmon. Last month, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson released a plan that would spend tens of billions of dollars restoring historic salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the coming decade, the proposal would tear down four enormous dams along the Snake River in Idaho and Washington. This iconic waterway runs through jaw-dropping wilderness and features the deepest gorge in America and the biggest whitewater stretch in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s also at the center of a long-running political debate — and legal fight — between industry groups who want to keep dams for irrigation and power and conservationists who want to restore the endangered Chinook salmon runs. These Idaho salmon live their lives in the ocean, then swim up the Columbia River and into the Snake River before spawning in the waters where they were born.
However, since the 1950s, Chinook have faced a number of dams along the way, and not all of them have been made friendly for salmon. Before the dams went up, experts estimate that more than two million wild salmon and steelhead spawned in the Snake River and its tributaries every year (American Rivers). As a result, the Snake River fall-run Chinook have been on the Endangered Species List since 1992 (NOAA Fisheries, 2021). But knock down the dams and the waters would run free, letting the salmon recover.
Human development, environmental threats and overfishing have salmon under intense pressure in the continental United States and elsewhere around the world. However, salmon remain abundant in Alaska, where a well-regulated fishing industry and environmental protections have helped maintain healthy fisheries for decades (Clark et al., 2006). That’s why Vital Choice sells wild-caught Alaskan salmon and only sources from suppliers who use the most sustainable fishing practices.
But many in the lower 48 states dream of a day when robust salmon runs will return to Pacific Northwest rivers. The fish are still a strong part of the region’s identity. (Read more: After 80 Years, Salmon Spawning in Upper Columbia River Again.) In many ways, salmon are the linchpin of environmental renewal – if they can be restored, whole ecosystems can begin to come back.
And tearing down dams is not as radical as one might think. Some 900 have been torn down in the U.S. between 1990 and 2015, with as many as 60 more coming down every year. Fish runs blocked for decades tend to quickly return, which biologist Nate Gray says is a signal we’re finally realizing that healthy ecosystems should be treasured.
The Future of Chinook Salmon
Many Native American tribes, anglers and activist groups have long lobbied for that restoration to happen. And that’s why environmentalists were quick to hail the legislator’s bold vision, even as a number of industry groups — and Simpson’s own colleagues — called it a waste of money.
“Changes of this magnitude might be unnerving at first, but we have a unique opportunity to create a solution that finally puts a stop to the never-ending salmon wars,” Simpson said in an announcement. “This concept could take Idaho’s salmon off the path toward extinction and put them on a more certain path of sustainability and viability. We CAN protect our stakeholders and modernize our energy system for the next fifty-plus years, and we CAN do this on our terms.”
So far, the congressman is not deterred by critics. Simpson says he sees the idea as a conversation starter about the future of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, rather than a complete piece of legislation he’s putting forward for consideration.
“What do we want the Northwest to look like in 30, 40, 50 years?” he said. “We can seize this chance to shape our future. If we resist the urge to make snap judgments and instead work together to solve these issues ONCE and for all. We owe it to future generations to try.”
Salmon: Lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest
The breadth of Simpson’s proposal shows just how intertwined salmon are with life in much of the Pacific Northwest.
For area tribes, the salmon were once an important resource and part of life before European settlers. And in one rare, superb Snake River salmon year in 2001, the sport fishing industry brought in roughly $50 million to the region (American Rivers). However, in the more than half a century since the dams went in, farmers and ranchers across a vast region have become dependent on the water the dams provide. And that’s why the industry is so reticent to accept changes to the status quo that could help salmon. The agriculture industry doesn't want to risk losing access to the water they need for irrigation.
As laid out, Simpson’s plan would remove the Lower Granite Dam near Colfax, Idaho in 2030, followed by the Ice Harbor, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams in eastern Washington the next year. The four dams in Simpson’s proposal provide power to a number of communities, so in addition to appeasing the agriculture industry, significant funds would have to be spent on creating new sources of alternative energy to replace the lost hydroelectric power.
The money for all this would come from a proposed multi-trillion-dollar clean energy stimulus bill that President Biden says he’s likely to present later this year. Simpson’s hope is that this regional plan would pull some $30 billion from that package and form the Pacific Northwest’s signature part of the stimulus.
Just a couple billion dollars would go toward removing the dams. As proposed, more than half of the total would be used for replacing the lost energy with renewable sources and modernizing electrical grids to be more secure. Altogether, Simpson contends, it would create jobs and spur economic development.
'Lightning in a Bottle'
Simpson is far from the only one who’s thinking of a solution to the problems salmon face. The state governments of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana recently finalized a plan to start working on restoration of Pacific Northwest salmon. And state plans have failed to make significant change despite decades of opportunities to take action.
However, according to reporting by the Associated Press, Simpson thinks he may have tapped into a unique moment where these kinds of bold moves may be possible. When the Democrats won a majority in the Senate in January, legislators from the Pacific Northwest took control of powerful committees for the first time in years. Democrats also already control the House of Representatives, as well as the governorships of Oregon and Washington. Democrats largely support the idea, even if many lawmakers from Simpson’s home state are less convinced.
But as Congress debates stimulus money for various regions around the country, Simpson suggests this could be a path forward for prosperity in the Pacific Northwest.
“We are telling stakeholders this is a once-in-30-years opportunity,” Slater added. “Do we want to grab it?”