Letter writing continues to be a vehicle of choice for groups and individuals looking to sway members of Congress as they deliberate Rep. Mike Simpson’s $33 billion dam breaching concept.
Last week, a coalition of farm, port and hydropower interests wrote a letter to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and carbon copied other members of Congress asking them to oppose Simpson’s idea. A Canadian scientist embroiled in the debate over the science of dam breaching also got in on the letter writing.
In February, Simpson unveiled his plan to save Idaho’s salmon and steelhead by breaching the four lower Snake River dams and spending billions to mitigate affected communities and industries. That mitigation includes money to replace power produced at the dams, funding to help farmers get their crops to market and programs to help communities such as Lewiston and Clarkston.
Simpson’s idea has not been translated into legislation, but the Republican representing Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District has said it would be a good match for what is expected to be a $3 trillion infrastructure bill Democrats are in the early stages of crafting.
The letter signed by 45 port, ag and power representatives called the four lower Snake River dams “foundational to the Pacific Northwest economy.”
“They enable clean and reliable power generation, irrigation of some of America’s most productive farmland, and safe and efficient marine transportation of agricultural products to global markets,” its authors wrote.
Listing the ports of Lewiston and Clarkston among its supporters, the letter called Simpson’s goal of saving threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake River Basin while ending decades of related litigation admirable and well intentioned. But the groups said there is no guarantee it will work, and they believe it will undermine the region’s power supply and lead to higher power bills.
“The dams play an important role in maintaining reliability in the production of power used to supply load in the Pacific Northwest. Their flexibility and dispatchability are valuable components of the Northwest power portfolio, and breaching would more than double the region’s risk of power shortages,” they wrote.
They also said breaching the dams and eliminating efficient barge transportation on the Snake River would increase the release of greenhouse gasses and add to climate change. The letter concludes by saying Simpon and others are wrong in their belief that the region must choose between the dams and Snake River salmon and steelhead.
“We believe this is a false choice, and ignores the broad commitment to salmon recovery that must be region-wide and sustained for generations,” the authors state.
Another letter, written by British Columbia fisheries scientist David Welch argues breaching the dams would do little to help the fish. Welch and his colleagues published an article saying Snake River salmon and steelhead are suffering much more from poor ocean conditions than they are from dams. He contends salmon runs are suffering in both dammed and undammed rivers up and down the West Coast of North America and that their productivity and survival have fallen at similar rates.
Welch dismisses the idea that cumulative delays, stress and injuries suffered by juvenile fish as they pass dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers lead to “delayed mortality.” The concept of delayed mortality posits that even though about half the fish survive the journey to the ocean, many of them are so weakened by the trip that they die soon after. It lies at the center of the scientific debate over dam breaching.
Fisheries scientists in favor of breaching say fewer dams would increase salmon survival by decreasing delayed mortality. Those opposed dispute the existence of delayed mortality and thus say breaching would be ineffective.
Welch’s work is challenged by other fisheries scientists who have criticized his work. It is being reviewed by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, an entity of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The board’s findings are expected to be released this spring.
Welch wrote to refute a letter penned by 68 fisheries scientists in February that argued for beaching the four lower Snake River dams.
Last week a coalition of Native American leaders from the Pacific Northwest wrote to President Joe Biden and members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest saying the dams must be breached to avoid extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead and to honor treaties between tribes and the federal government.