To steal a line from Tennessee Williams, the Lewiston-Clarkston dam community has depended upon the kindness of strangers.
Until now, it seems.
As the Lewiston Tribune’s Eric Barker reported last week, the Biden administration placed a pause on the federal government’s legal defense of its salmon recovery plans. Instead, it will negotiate with the plaintiffs — tribal, conservationist and Oregon state officials — who insist breaching four dams on the lower Snake River is the surest way of bringing fish runs back from the brink of extinction. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon of Portland granted the requested stay in the proceedings.
Connect these dots:
l “For the sake of everyone who lives in the Northwest, it is time to chart a more sustainable path in the Columbia River Basin. This agreement opens an opportunity for states, tribes, federal agencies, Congress and all stakeholders to work together to forge enduring solutions that are so badly needed. This administration is committed to reaching a long-term solution in the region to restore salmon, honoring our commitments to tribal nations, ensuring reliable clean energy and addressing the needs of stakeholders.” — Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
l “While it is important to balance the region’s economy and power generation, it is also time to improve conditions for the tribes that have relied on these important species since time immemorial.” — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
l “The Columbia River Basin is essential to salmon and steelhead production on the West Coast, providing a key refuge for salmon and steelhead from the effects of climate change. Finding effective solutions to conserve and rebuild these species and their habitat is of critical importance to our work.” — Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
What could the federal government be negotiating with the tribes, Oregon and conservationists? Virtually anything short of breaching has been tried to save the fish.
Barker had another headline the following day when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, nudged in the direction of breaching.
“Both of us believe that for the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impacts of breach can or cannot be mitigated,” they said.
If that’s not clear enough, consider Murray’s plan to secure federal authorization of a cost and impact analysis for breaching in the biennial Fiscal Year 2022 Water Resources Development Act.
Don’t forget Tri-Cities area irrigators told the Seattle Times Lynda V. Mapes they are willing to draw down the reservoirs behind Little Goose and Lower Granite dams to preserve their own water supply.
“Nothing frustrates me more than when people dig in their heels and aren’t willing to hammer something out,” farmer Katie Nelson told Mapes. “Can we just come up with a solution, so we don’t have to talk about this forever?”
The state of Idaho has no claim on the Biden White House. Its Electoral College votes are reliably Republican.
Inslee and Murray adhere to the late Sen. Warren Magnuson’s observation that “you can see every vote that matters from the top of the Space Needle.”
Preserving navigation in the Lewiston-Clarkston area is not a priority to big irrigators.
All of which vindicates Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. When he unveiled his dam breaching proposal earlier this year, Simpson argued for a “Northwest solution that ends the salmon wars and puts the Northwest and our energy systems on a certain, secure and viable path for decades and restores Idaho’s salmon.”
You won’t find the Biden administration, Inslee, Murray or the irrigators spelling out how to help the region weather the economic fallout of breaching. Only Simpson has drafted a $33.5 billion plan that includes:
l $16 billion to replace lost hydropower production.
l $1.5 billion to replace barge transportation with high-speed unit loader trains.
l $200 million to the ports of Lewiston, Clarkston and Wilma to acclimate to the loss of barging.
l $150 million for Lewiston and Clarkston riverfront restoration.
l $275 million for Clearwater Paper’s transition to a more free-flowing river.
For all that, the 2nd District congressman found himself in the political wilderness — drawing fire from water users, agriculture, shipping interests and his own party. Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith is betting Simpson’s breaching stance will help him defeat the 12-term incumbent in the GOP primary election next spring.
But if Lewiston, Clarkston and the sectors relying on the lower Snake River dams are looking for a Plan B, only Simpson has put one on the table.
This might be the time to give him a call. — M.T.