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Jackson Plucker (2) felt like king of the wheat field, when his daddy (Chris) let him drive at his great-grandfather Robert Plucker’s farm in Touchet.
Photo by Tami Plucker

North40

POLICY

Simpson defends proposal

Congressman says plan addresses loss of barging for growers

April 2021
By Trista Crossley


Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) held a conference call last month with Idaho food producers and regional stakeholders to discuss his proposal to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

Simpson’s proposal would establish a $33.5 billion Columbia Basin Fund to help mitigate the effects of removing the four lower Snake River dams. The money would be used for energy replacement, watershed improvement, nutrient management, economic development, recreation, irrigation infrastructure and to address the loss of barging. The proposal would also put a moratorium on salmon litigation for at least 35 years. According to the proposal, Lower Granite and Little Goose dams would be breached in 2030, while Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams would be breached in 2031.

Related: Who does have the authority to order the lower Snake River dams breached?

“I’m sure you are all kind of wondering why the hell I kicked the hornet’s nest,” he began. “The first thing I’d say is listen, we know the lawsuits won’t end. One of the things we are trying to do is we are trying to bring some security and certainty to our agricultural producers, and we are also trying to end what I call the salmon lawsuits, the salmon wars that are going on in the Pacific Northwest.”

Besides stopping the lawsuits, Simpson explained his proposal is also trying to restore Idaho salmon runs, which he said are on the verge of extinction. He pointed out that the latest biological opinion (BiOp), issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) last year, has already been challenged in court. In that BiOp, although the Corps acknowledged removing the dams would benefit salmon, they recommended against breaching, instead, calling for increased spill and other measures.

“Frankly, the challengers are going to win that lawsuit. Primarily, they are going to win it because even the Army Corps, in the latest BiOp, said the best chance of restoring salmon is to remove the dams,” he said. “Even the Army Corps is admitting that in their analysis. I don’t think a judge is going to look friendly on that. I don’t see those lawsuits ending any time soon.”

Over the past three years, Simpson said he and his staff have had hundreds of meetings with user groups, organizations and stakeholders to learn about the issues and concerns surrounding the dams and what might be done. He acknowledged that the dams “have a value and that value has to be accounted for.” The $33.5 billion, he said, is what it would take to make stakeholders whole.

The loss of barging capabilities between Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash., is a major concern of wheat growers. Simpson said approximately 95 million bushels are currently barged through the four dams. He added that that amount has been going down in recent years, a statement the wheat industry disputes (see sidebar). His proposal would allocate $3.6 billion to address the lack of barging capabilities that removing the dams would cause. He said if that money were invested next year in treasury bonds, by 2030, when the first dam is scheduled to be removed, that trust would be worth about $4.8 billion. Simpson estimated that each year, an annuity of $181 million could be pulled out of that trust and paid to those producers who would have to find an alternative way to get their grain to the Tri-Cities. Using the 95 million number, that would come out to about $1.91 per bushel. He further suggested that if $1.5 billion was spent on transportation infrastructure and the rest invested, grain producers could still get about $1.13 per bushel for that 95 million bushels.

“They (grain producers) can come out of this…we haven’t hung them out to dry. In fact, I think it would be very beneficial to them,” Simpson said. “That’s the biggest issue we’ve been trying to address—how do you account for the fact that we ship this grain down the river on barge, and how do you make the alternatives work?”

Stakeholders were able to submit questions to Simpson about the proposal. One of them, from Alex McGregor, chairman of The McGregor Company, asked Simpson about alternatives to shipping inputs upriver when railroad administrators have admitted that they cannot meet timely delivery between Lewiston and Pasco.

Simpson said railroads and trucks will grow to meet that need, especially since he believes the number of bushels of grain going downriver on barges is decreasing.

“To say there’s not any alternatives out there is just to throw our hands in the air and say, okay, salmon are dead, and what we are doing now is what we are going to do for the next 50 years minus the fact that a judge is going to intervene at some point in time. What I’m searching for is some solutions. If you have a better idea, tell me,” he said.

Related: Read Alex McGregor's response to Simpson's answer.

Simpson was adamant that his plan would not affect “one drop” of Idaho water. He said Idaho sends 487,000 acre feet of water down the Snake River every year to flush salmon over four dams in the state of Washington, and the one thing it is not doing is saving salmon despite the billions spent on salmon recovery. What it is doing, he added, is keeping the pools behind the dams high so Washington farmers can use that water to irrigate their fields and compete against Southern Idaho farmers.

“The cost of the dams are really born by Idaho, especially Idaho’s Second Congressional District, by flushing water down the river. And what do we get in return for it? We get 8 percent of the power that comes to Idaho from those dams. We get barging, which we can replace and, in fact, get grain down the river at a cheaper cost to the farmer,” he said. “It seems to me that almost all of the cost of these dams comes from Idaho’s Second Congressional District, really, all of Idaho, but particularly the Second Congressional District, and all the benefits go to Washington. That just doesn’t seem to make sense to me.”

You can read more about Simpson’s proposal at simpson.house.gov/salmon/. The congressman has not introduced his proposal as legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.