BLACKFOOT — Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) returned to his home base last Wednesday and boosted the Columbia Basin Initiative in a lunchtime appearance in front of members of the Greater Blackfoot Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m tempted to ask how many of you think I’m crazy but I won’t ask that,” Simpson said of a proposal that has drawn its share of criticism from constituents and fellow lawmakers.
Simpson said the proposal, designed to help save salmon runs by taking out dams along the Lower Snake River, was put out last February. Simpson said 90 percent of energy in the region comes through hydro power, the cheapest energy to produce.
“Every president since (George W.) Bush has recommended to sell the (Bonneville Power Administration) transmission lines or allow rural electrics that contract with BPA to buy the power on the open market,” Simpson said. “Congress never went along with that.
“I kept asking myself, why would we want to allow them to go to the open market when BPA has the cheapest power in the Pacific Northwest. I started looking into it, and it turns out BPA is not the cheapest power. You can actually buy power on the open market cheaper than BPA.”
Since 1980, $17 billion has been spent to restore salmon, Simpson said.
“The one thing that’s not been done is to restore salmon,” he added. “It has cost 3 1/2 times as much to relicense the dams as it did to build the dams and they’re still not relicensed because of lawsuits and that’s going to continue on. How do we end the ‘salmon wars’ with continuous lawsuits that have been going on for 50 years. We’re not going to save the salmon with the four lower Snake River dams.”
Simpson said he’s gotten letters from fish biologists who have said the same thing. He said he hasn’t talked to any biologists who say salmon can be saved without removing Lower Snake River dams
The congressman said compensating for the benefits of the dams needs to be taken into account.
“The dams are important, they produce energy, they allow for barging of grain products from north Idaho down the Columbia River cheaper than they can ship by train or truck,” he said. “There are benefits to the Lower Snake River dams, and how are you going to replace that? This concept costs $33 billion. How do you replace the power?”
The dams were authorized in 1945, Simpson said.
“In 1953 it was said that would mean the extinction of a species,” he noted. “Today there are so many different ways to produce electricity that didn’t exist at that time — nuclear reactors, wind, solar, battery technology. Experts say within 10 years you’re going to be amazed at what happens with batteries. Our economy is moving toward that.”
As far as replacing barging, he said we will see more battery powered semi trucks.
“We can replace the benefits of the hydro system,” he said. “The costs of the dams are borne by us in southeast Idaho and all the benefits are in northern Idaho and Washington. The costs to us — we lose our salmon that are of environmental and economic importance to Idaho, and make no mistake about it if you leave those dams in, the salmon will go extinct.”
Simpson said nearly half a million acre feet of water is sent down the river every year out of southern Idaho.
“We could recharge the aquifer which is being depleted but we don’t recharge it,” he said. “We send the water down the river to flush salmon over the dams and recover salmon, but the one thing that is not done is recover salmon, so we lose the water, we lose our salmon. About 8 percent of power from dams comes to Idaho, we don’t get much benefit out of these dams yet our costs are enormous.”
He said farmers in north Idaho don’t even care about the water we send down because they’re all dry farming.
“The water sent to them doesn’t affect them, they have a whole different set of circumstances up there,” Simpson said.
“The main reason I started this is that I saw a train wreck coming down the road, now some people think I am the train wreck coming down the road, I don’t think that’s true. I’m trying to avoid the train wreck but it’s going to happen one way or the other. Are we going to design the future for the Pacific Northwest ourselves or is it going to be imposed on us? I think we are in danger of having it imposed on us if we don’t grab the opportunity to do something.
“If you’ve got a better idea, if you’ve got a better way to save salmon, let me know. I’m not wedded to this plan as the only way, but so far mum’s been the word as far as other ideas. ... We either design the change that fits us or it will be designed for us.”
Simpson reiterated that the salmon runs are on a path to extinction.
“If we don’t take the initiative to do something, a court’s going to do it for us and it’s going to be imposed on us,” he added. “This plan takes into consideration replacing the power generation, we need to figure out what to do with Lewiston losing barges. We’ve got to stop looking at what we currently have and say how do we want the future to be, the decisions we make today will make that determination.
“I knew when we released this in February I was kicking a hornet’s nest. That’s okay. I think it’s an important issue we need to solve.”