Before U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, unveiled his plan to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River, he sat down for lunch in November 2020 with his parents and two of his uncles to prepare them of the upcoming negative reaction he was expecting when he announced the plan the following February.

“(One uncle) looked at me and said ‘that’s the stupidest damn idea I’ve ever heard.’ Believe me I’ve heard it many times since then,” Simpson said to a crowd gathered Tuesday at the Eastern Idaho Water Right Coalition meeting in Idaho Falls.

His uncle was an engineer and well-educated on the subject, Simpson said. Eventually the discussion shifted to memories the family had of spending time outdoors and his uncle’s attempts to catch salmon out of a stream with his bare hands.

“I said to (him) those sound like some great times you had being up in the wilderness on your camping trips … would you like your great-grandchildren to be able to create those same kinds of memories for themselves?” Simpson said.

His uncle, with a tear in his eye, told Simpson yes and has now become one of Simpson’s biggest supporters of the plan, the congressman said.

Simpson detailed his plan to breach the four lower Snake River dams to attendees at the coalition’s meeting. Simpson’s main argument for breaching the dams is that there is no other way to save the salmon population in the river. That was the argument that ultimately convinced his uncle. Based on his conversations with fish biologists, Simpson said he estimates salmon in the river have about 15 to 20 years before extinction if the dams remain in place.

“The science is pretty clear,” Simpson said. “You’re not going to recover these salmon if the dams stay in place. Almost every fish biologist we talked to said that.”

The biologists that didn’t say that said the salmon would go extinct regardless of what happens to the dams, he said.

The proposal requires $33.5 billion in federal spending to breach the dams in 2030 and to replace the transportation, irrigation and power generation the dams provide. Funding would come from President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package.

Simpson noted the $17 billion that taxpayers and Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers have already spent on fish recovery efforts since Idaho’s salmon and steelhead were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 has not solved the issue.

Simpson has faced opposition from many of his Republican colleagues, including Pacific Northwest Reps. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho; Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who issued a joint statement in February that expressed their position to keep the dams.

“The clean, renewable power generated by the dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers supplies half of the Pacific Northwest’s energy and is critical for a reliable power grid. Without it, life as we know it in our region would cease to exist,” the lawmakers wrote in the statement.

With advancements in technology and power generation since the dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s, Simpson said the Pacific Northwest can replace the hydropower that the dams produce and further advancements in technology throughout the next few decades will make replacing power easier.

Simpson’s challenger in the upcoming election, Idaho Falls Republican Bryan Smith, told the Post Register when he announced his candidacy in October that he strongly opposed Simpson’s plan.

“He’s basically declared war on farmers, ranchers and families,” Smith told the Post Register. “That is not what we need in Idaho. It would devastate our economy and it would destroy the Port of Lewiston.”

Along with trying to protect the salmon population, Simpson said breaching the dams would help Idaho businesses and communities that rely on the salmon population from the Snake River. He also “vehemently denies” claims that Smith and others have made when they’ve said his plan would hurt Idaho agriculture.

According to Simpson’s website, he and his staff have been in constant communication with Idaho agriculture groups and water-use groups, and the plan was developed with their critical input. The plan provides resources for the water groups to reconfigure pipes and deepen wells to ensure irrigation continues without issue, the plan’s website says.

Under his plan, agriculture would have a bigger role in watershed improvement. The plan also would transfer fish management responsibility from the Bonneville Power Administration to a joint council of states and tribes. The other major dams in the Columbia River Basin would receive license extensions of 35 to 50 years. Additionally, current lawsuits related to the dams would have a 35-year moratorium.

The dams allow for barge transportation of grain along the Snake River and some opponents have argued replacing grain transportation with trucks and trains eliminates the clean source of transportation the dams currently provide. Simpson said he disagrees with them because trucks are moving toward electric batteries and will continue to do so in the future and most trains will be running on hydropower or electric batteries.

Hydrogen-powered trains are beginning to be implemented in the United Kingdom, which showcased the country’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train on Nov. 12, the Independent reported.

“It’s the way the world is going,” Simpson said. “Can we take advantage of a changing environment to help us with this crisis that’s going to happen here — I think so.”

The New York Times reported in March 2020 that several major trucking companies were shifting to electric trucks not only for the reduction of carbon emissions, but because they cost less to operate than diesel trucks long term.

Jeff Raybould, chairman of the Idaho Water Resource Board, commended Simpson during the Tuesday coalition meeting for his efforts in addressing Idaho water issues.

“We recognize what a champion you have been for our water issues in southern and eastern Idaho,” Raybould said to Simpson. “Your willingness to stick your neck out a lot further than other people would go to has to be recognized and appreciated.”

Simpson calls his proposal a “concept,” since it is fluid and he is willing to change it. He said he’s found no other possible solution to save the salmon population and prevent a regional crisis in the future without breaching the dams but is welcome to any ideas.

The time is now to plan what will happen to these dams in the future, Simpson said. He believes a judge will order the dams to be removed in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, which gives stakeholders in the region no planned alternatives to replace power generation, transportation and irrigation.

The Spokesman-Review reported in March a coalition of environmental and fishing groups asked a judge to intervene in January after a federal study recommended against breaching the dams. A hearing on the issue was postponed to July and Simpson expects the judge’s decision to be made by the end of next year, he said.

“(A judge) is not going to address any of those questions,” Simpson said. “What he’s going to say is those dams are coming out … Do we want to design our own future or do we want a judge to design it for us?”{/div}

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