In a new article from the Seattle Times, author Lynda V. Mapes covers an exciting new proposal by Idaho congressperson Mike Simpson for a regionwide plan to undam all four Lower Snake River hydroelectric projects, honor tribal fishing rights along the Columbia river, and use billions to replace the benefits of the dams for agriculture, energy and transportation.
Four Democratic senators from Washington and Oregon responded friday evening by declaring that:
“All communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond should be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region. Any process needs to balance the needs of communities in the Columbia River Basin, be transparent, be driven by stakeholders and follow the science.”
Rather than specifics, the proposal provides only broad spending targets, instead focusing on trying to spark a new vision for the Cascadia bioregion. Instead of arguing over dams being valuable, he instead wants to establish that they are, establish a figure for how valuable, and then figure out together how to replace those benefits.
In the interview with the Seattle Times, he notes the payoff is
“a gift to the future. Fishable runs of salmon. A clean energy system positioned for long-term stability, affordability and innovation. Transportation reconfigured to serve one of the most important agricultural centers in the world, and investments to keep farmers working some of the best irrigated ground anywhere.”
The $34 billion needed would come from Joe Biden’s massive spending legislation, specifically focusing on money earmarked as part of the national infrastructure-and-jobs stimulus package he is expected to roll out later this year. While it sounds like a long shot, with the 2020 election, Cascadia’s elected officials have more power than they have at any time in the recent past, with senior seats on every important committee, and the ability for both chambers to marshal a majority.
As highlighted by the Times:
$1.8 billion to breach earthen berms on all four Lower Snake River dams by 2031, putting the structures in mothball status, and managing sediment. Extend licenses from 35 to 50 years for remaining dams.
More than $2.3 billion would be spent on the Snake River transportation network. There’s $600 million for a transportation hub at the Tri-Cities and $600 million to catch up the maintenance backlog on dredging and locks in the Lower Columbia. About $1 billion would be spent on economic assistance for barge transport and riverboat operators on the Lower Snake River corridor.
The proposal would give the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) $10 billion to replace lost power; would cap BPA’s fish-recovery costs, and double its borrowing capacity, among other big lifts for the agency, which sells power from federal dams to utilities serving more than 14 million people. The BPA would no longer manage fish and wildlife recovery, and its total out-of-pocket costs for environment programs would be capped at $480 million a year. Another $4 billion would pay for power replacement for generation lost to spill of water over the dams to benefit fish. There’s also $2 billion for optimizing the efficiency and resilience of the power grid.
Cities and towns would receive hundreds of millions of dollars for waterfront restoration, and to boost tourism and recreation. Lewiston-Clarkston would also have a shot at a new mission, with more than $1 billion devoted to a new center for advanced energy storage and research funding.
Public and private owners of dams would also be able to tap a $500 million fund to voluntarily take down obsolete dams to revitalize their waterways and communities.
Snake River irrigators would get $750 million to reconfigure their infrastructure so they could keep farming after dam breaching. Simpson also wants a 35-year moratorium on dam litigation, and to provide $3 billion for voluntary watershed partnerships for farmers, tribes and conservationists to work together to revitalize salmon habitat, rivers and streams. Participating agricultural interests would get a 25-year exemption from Clean Water Act and ESA lawsuits in their basin.
A new restoration program
States and tribes would become the primary fish managers of the recovery program in the Columbia Basin in a newly created Northwest State and Tribal Fish and Wildlife Council. Together, their work would include research and monitoring, and programs to control invasive species and predators.
In addition to managing the $600 million a year fish and wildlife program funded by Bonneville ratepayers, the Simpson proposal would put more than $2 billion into one-time funding for priority projects, from fish passage to enhancements for sturgeon and lamprey.
It is the scope of the approach and the serious money proposed for investment in real change that makes Simpson’s concept different, some said.”
The impact of the deal could be huge. The Columbia river watershed is the largest in Cascadia and travels nearly 1214 miles through British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and including parts of six US states and one Canadian province. Its border is traced, “not by governments or treaties, but by every drop of liquid that finds a common path to the ocean”.
The importance of this river, and how it is managed cannot be understated. Aside from being shared between dozens of First Nations, cities and governments, the river is continuously at the heart of decades of legal disputes, often because of the way the river was divided into different jurisdictions and administrations, and taken without permission by those already living there. In lieu of depleted salmon runs, water rights, fishing rights, ancestral rights and rights of travel across an international border, it also includes 15.4 million acres of farmland in Oregon and Washington, the hanford nuclear waste site, and dozens of dams that are responsible for more than one third of all the hydroelectric power in the United States.