Add some green groups to the growing list of those opposed to Congressman Mike Simpson’s sweeping plan to save salmon and steelhead by breaching the lower Snake River dams.
A coalition of 17 environmental organizations has written a letter to Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, urging them to oppose the Simpson proposal “as written.”
While they support breaching the dams and helping affected communities and industries, the groups said Simpson’s proposed 35-year moratorium on fish- and dam-related lawsuits and other provisions that would make it more difficult to enforce state and federal clean water standards is too steep a price to pay.
“The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act are critical to protecting wild salmon and protecting water quality, and when you are removing the enforcement of those for many years, you could actually be doing more harm than the dams are causing,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “The very fish we are trying to protect by taking down the dams could be harmed or even extirpated by removing these environmental laws, and that should be concerning to everyone.”
Last month, Simpson, R-Idaho, released his $33 billion legislative concept that would breach the four lower Snake River dams and mitigate affected industries and communities through a wide range of investments. It includes funding to replace power produced at the dams, to help farmers get wheat and other grains to market, and to help communities like Lewiston.
In order to address what some in the region see as a potential “slippery slope” of dam removal, the concept includes a 35-year moratorium on ESA, Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act lawsuits on most of the remaining dams in the Columbia River Basin and it would extend federal licenses at those dams for 35 years.
It would also set up regional watershed partnerships between agricultural interests, conservation groups and Native American tribes aimed at improving water quality. Farmers participating in the voluntary partnerships would be shielded from Clean Water Act lawsuits for 25 years.
Some environmental groups like the Idaho Conservation League, Trout Unlimited and the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition support Simpson’s proposal. But the congressman has also faced stern criticism from ag groups, state legislators and county commissioners from both Idaho and Washington.
Todd True, an attorney from the environmental law firm EarthJustice who has represented many of the salmon advocates who support Simpson’s concept, said he sees it as the type of comprehensive proposal that could help save the fish. But he sees Simpson’s proposal as a starting point instead of a finished product.
“It’s not perfect. There are difficult issues that it raises. We are ready to have the hard conversations to find a way forward and resolve those issues,” he said. “The limits on access to the courts is one of the difficult issues.”
David Moskowitz, executive director of The Conservation Angler, one of the groups who signed the letter, said while they oppose Simpson’s proposal, the groups agree it can be improved and hope the senators from Washington and Oregon do so. For example, he said it might be possible to narrow the litigation moratoriums.
“I think the Oregon and Washington delegation should be able to really work on the positives that are there and on the things that are too broad right now, like this litigation prohibition,” he said.
Moskowitz took them to task for leaving it to an Idaho Republican to try to save the fish.
“Where are the creative Democrats? Plenty of their constituents support making a change and don’t support the status quo, and we don’t support the status quo even though we are opposed to this proposal as written.”