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OPINION: Dam breaching: A debate without an end

by CHUCK MALLOY/Guest Opinion
| August 11, 2023 1:00 AM

When I came to the Idaho Statesman as opinion page editor in 1999, it was suggested that I read a special section that the editorial department did on dam breaching. It was a gold-standard argument for saving salmon — the kind of effort that gets a Pulitzer Prize.

As the Statesman saw it, breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River was the only practical way that salmon could survive and the writers outlined a compelling case. The environmental, economic and scientific reasons clearly were on the side of breaching the dams.

Keep in mind, that was 24 years ago. The debate was raging long before that, and it continues today — without much movement in either direction. The groups that were for it decades ago are still for it, and those who have been opposed are still opposed. Idaho’s congressional delegation and state officials were — and still are — adamantly opposed to breaching. Predictably, conservationists and tribes favor it.

A big breakthrough on the breaching side came a couple of years ago when Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson came out in favor of breaching and issued a $33 billion plan to get it done. He said at the time that he didn’t know that breaching would save salmon, but he was certain that removal of the dams was the only chance.

Simpson doesn’t have a lot of support from fellow politicians; even Democrats from Washington and Oregon are, at best, lukewarm to the idea. But Simpson is not one to give up easily, and he may have the biggest ally of them all on his side. President Biden has said he supports salmon and dam removal, drawing recent attention from national outlets such as Politico and the Wall Street Journal.

If salmon recovery becomes a “legacy” issue for Simpson (he has no shortage of those in his long career), he might consider establishing a “Republicans for Biden” committee, mixing with those within the GOP who don’t like the idea of four more years of Donald Trump. Simpson often is reminded of his statement in 2016, declaring that Trump was unfit for the presidency — a statement that may be more applicable today than seven years ago.

Of course, Simpson won’t break from Trump if he wins the GOP nomination … his caucus in the House wouldn’t stand for it. But it’s a sure bet that breaching will not happen if Trump, or any other Republican, gets in the White House.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, for one, is taking the potential of Biden’s intervention seriously. Risch is looking more toward the human benefits that the dams bring, such as hydropower and clean energy. The dams, he said, are a lifeline for the Port of Lewiston.

“As a U.S. senator and the leader of an independent free-market research organization, we are unified in our effort to protect the Snake River dams and maintain their economic and environmental benefits for our region,” Risch wrote recently. “Beyond us, there is strong, widespread support for the dams, including from Idaho officials and trade groups.”

Risch points out that dam removal will not be an easy process, even if the president pushes forward. He has introduced the Northwest Energy Security Act, along with Republicans from Washington and Montana.

“Congress authorized these dams, and only Congress has the power to remove them,” he wrote. “Thankfully, many of the congressional members elected to the area surrounding the Snake River dams are working to protect the economic and environmental benefits they provide.”

Responding to Risch’s efforts, Simpson said, “While I respect Jim’s opinion, following his path forward would mean the annual loss of half a million-acre feet of water and extinction of Idaho’s salmon runs. This all to save four dams in Washington. That’s a path I cannot follow.”

So, we’re back to where the breaching debate was when I returned to my home state 24 years ago. The way it looks, the rhetoric will be the same 24 years after I’m gone from this earth.

By that time, salmon probably will be wiped out and the environmental argument will be about saving goldfish.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.