U.S. Congressman Mike Simpson’s “Northwest in Transition” framework charts a path forward for the Northwest. The proposal is bold, comprehensive, and urgently needed for Idahoans and the people of this region. We believe it ensures all communities a prosperous future by restoring abundant, healthy, and self-sustaining populations of salmon and steelhead in Idaho, and building affordable clean energy and thriving agricultural economies.
ICL has fielded a number of questions about Congressman Simpson’s proposal. His website has details on his plan and, below, you’ll also find our answers to many of your questions.
General Qs and As
Won’t communities be at risk of flooding if the four lower Snake River dams are removed?
The four lower Snake River dams are “run-of-river” dams and do not provide flood control.
Isn’t Congressman Simpson writing a bill to remove the dams?
Congressman Simpson has released a concept and has not written legislation. He continues to hold meetings and take feedback from stakeholders. Simpson “wants this to be a process where all stakeholders are creating certainty and security on their own terms for their own futures.” On his website, Congressman Simpson states “that if the dams are removed, we must have a plan to protect Idaho agriculture, Palouse farmers, and our communities. His number one goal is to protect Idaho.”
What other steps can be taken to save salmon? Shouldn’t they be tried before removing these dams?
According to Congressman Simpson, for over 30 years, working groups and collaboratives have been examining this issue and have attempted many solutions, and none have proven to save the dying salmon runs. This plan protects Idaho’s right to control its water and economic future. It trades chaos for certainty.
Wouldn’t it take thousands of megawatts of clean energy to replace the electricity generated from the four lower Snake River dams?
The four lower Snake River dams do not produce “thousands of megawatts” of electricity. On average, they (combined) produce less than 1,000 megawatts a year and mostly only in the spring, when the demand for electricity is lower.
Congressman Simpson’s plan would require that the power lost by dam removal be replaced with clean, affordable energy that would be online before any of the dams were removed. It would also lock in protections for all major dams in the Columbia Basin for 35-50 years.
$33.5 billion is a huge amount to spend on saving salmon.
Over $17.5 billion has been spent on fish recovery so far and our fish are still endangered. The status quo is not fiscally responsible. Congressman Simpson’s plan would stop wasteful spending on failed fish experiments and invest in Idaho’s and the Northwest’s economy to ensure a prosperous future.
Restoring Idaho’s Salmon and Steelhead
How many salmon would be saved from removing the earthen berms at the four lower Snake River dams?
Scientists and fish biologists agree that the most significant factor driving Idaho’s salmon and steelhead to extinction are the lower Snake River dams. Removing the earthen berms next to the four dams would double the rate of wild fish returning to Idaho, leading to recovery and abundance, according to the Fish Passage Center.
Such a significant increase would lead to population growth for wild salmon and steelhead, and put them on a pathway to abundance.
What about money to universities for research and projects for water quality, fisheries research, ecological impacts, etc.?
There’s additional funding in the proposal for energy storage research at local universities, in addition to forming a “Salmon Conservation Corps” that would put many young people to work. Also, increased funding for the NW State and Tribal Fish and Wildlife Council could be used for university research and fieldwork, at the discretion of the state and tribal representatives running that organization. This proposal directs more guaranteed funding into fish mitigation and recovery than ever before, and it could certainly be used to benefit our colleges and universities.
Separately, the proposal would invest $100 million in grants to the University of Idaho to fund research and development of advanced animal waste digesters or other technologies to convert manure and other animal waste into biofuel, bioenergy, and other valuable products.
Certainty and Mitigation for Columbia Basin Dams
How does the plan handle the cycle of lawsuits involving salmon and dams? Isn’t this just a step toward breaching all the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers?
The proposal contains a moratorium on salmon and steelhead litigation for 35 years at most remaining federal and private dams.
Many private dams would receive a 35-year extension on their licenses, up to a maximum of 50 years.
Also, the proposal includes $500 million for voluntary removal or mitigation of dams and diversions, and $500 million for liability protection for dam owners.
What are the next steps to turn Rep. Simpson’s proposal into legislation?
ICL believes that this is a once in a generation opportunity to advance Simpson’s proposal into legislation through an expected infrastructure package from the Biden Administration this year. Because this timing is critical, we urge supporters of the proposal to contact their member of Congress to ask them to help Rep. Simpson improve and advance this proposal quickly.
What more can we do to support this proposal?
First, tell your friends, neighbors, and family members about the comprehensive, bold nature of this proposal to restore Idaho’s salmon and steelhead and bring about a prosperous future for the Northwest. There’s something here for all stakeholders and communities in Idaho. Then, contact all levels of government: Congressional representatives, Governor Brad Little, county commissioners, state legislators, and city council members and let them know that Idaho communities could benefit from the far-reaching investments contained in this proposal. Also, urge your local leaders to partner with Rep. Simpson to move this proposal forward into legislation.
Who was involved in the development of this proposal?
Rep. Simpson had over 300 conversations with stakeholders during development of the proposal. Considering the role of BPA in the region’s power system, we believe it’s likely that Simpson consulted with agency officials during the development of this proposal.
Dams and Energy
How would the earthen berms next to the four lower Snake River dams be removed?
Simpson’s proposal would remove the earthen berms next to the dams. This likely would be carried out in three major steps: preparation, removal, and restoration.
Preparation: This step would involve planning and engineering for the removal of the earthen berms. Roads and railways that currently lie on the banks of the river would be reinforced so they remain stable during removal. Also, water in the reservoirs would be drawn down to a minimum. The four lower Snake river dams are “run-of-river” dams and do not provide flood control so flooding downstream would not be an issue.
Removal: Then, over two years (envisioned as 2030-2031), the earthen embankments of the four dams would be removed, letting the water flow around the concrete structures, which would remain in place.
Restoration: It takes time for rivers to reestablish their channels so restoration would start to occur after the removal of the earthen berms. Riparian habitat would be replanted along the river’s banks. Tribes would be funded to protect cultural resources formerly inundated by water. The free-flowing river would be designated as the lower Snake River National Recreation Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management with Tribal participation, according to Simpson’s proposal.
What about the sediment behind the four lower Snake River dams?
The proposal includes $400 million for sediment control and mitigation. It’s likely that sediment behind the dams would be trapped, collected, extracted, and moved.
Removing the earthen berms two at a time would help control sediment, as the material caught behind the upstream dams (Lower Granite and Little Goose) would be trapped behind the next downstream dam (Lower Monumental), then safely removed most likely by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Why should we depend on inconsistent power sources like solar and wind?
Wind and solar conditions can be forecast fairly accurately using existing and reliable weather tools. The issue is storing the electricity generated from wind and solar for when customers need it.
New innovations in battery storage allow the pairing of battery technology with wind and solar plants to produce reliable, controllable output. This helps fill the gaps with backup power when sources are inconsistently generating power due to weather.
The four lower Snake River dams, combined, produce less than 1000 megawatts of power every year. The availability of clean, affordable, and reliable energy technologies means that there are options to replace the services provided by the four dams while restoring Idaho’s fish to abundance.
What about using nuclear power to make up for the lost energy from dam removal?
Rep. Simpson’s concept envisions that energy system planners would consider many different options for replacing the services derived from the four lower Snake River dams. These options would compete on price and performance. Nuclear energy, including small modular reactors, may be an option.
How would they determine how hydropower would be replaced?
Congressman Simpson’s proposal states that new power resources would be sourced via a Request for Proposals process. Generally, that would mean the least-cost options (that fulfill the needs of the energy system) would be picked.
Locating renewable energy systems at different places is an important consideration because some locations are better suited for certain sources. For instance, if the sun isn’t shining in one area, it could be somewhere else in the region. Transmission lines would also be important for moving power from where it was generated to where it is needed.
Having energy generation facilities located around the region also improves the overall security and reliability of the grid, in case of transmission issues like storms and wildfires.
ICL advocates for new energy investments in Idaho that bring reliable and affordable energy and jobs to our communities.
What will this do to our power bills?
Right now, the prices you pay for electricity are regulated by whoever oversees the utility that serves you – a federal process for BPA and a state process for others, like Idaho Power. In these venues, regulators typically focus on two primary criteria: meeting federal reliability metrics and whether electric bills are affordable for consumers.
We see examples across the country of utilities replacing coal power while reducing bills and increasing reliability. ICL is committed to applying these same lessons to the services that would likely replace the energy from the lower Snake River dams to maintain reliable service with affordable energy bills for consumers.
What happens with “salmon spill”?
Simpson’s proposal includes $4 billion to construct resources that replace this lost generation.
Salmon spill refers to dam operations that redirect water away from the hydroelectric turbines, and toward a spillway. Turbines are known to devastate juvenile fish as they migrate to the ocean, so spill attempts to push fish away from the turbines as they pass through the dam. Fish biologists believe this results in better survival for juveniles.
Rep. Simpson’s proposal calls for aggressive spill operations at the four dams (McNary, John Day, The Dalles, and Bonneville) on the lower Columbia River along the Oregon and Washington border, which would spill water over the spillways 24/7 during fish migration season in the spring and summer. Because this water is directed away from the turbines when it could be used to generate electricity, there’s a certain amount of lost generation.
What role does Idaho Power and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission have in determining replacement energy?
The way it is now, the four lower Snake River dams are part of the Federal Columbia River Power system. This is distinct from Idaho Power’s system, which is overseen by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.
The Bonneville Power Administration, along with the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, operates the federal system which supplies service to cooperatives, such as Clearwater Power, and city-owned utilities in Idaho. Those entities likely would have a role to play in the federal process to select energy replacement options, along with other stakeholders across the region.
What does the proposal envision for the Snake River’s water quality?
Congressman Simpson’s proposal provides funds for research and incentives to ensure farms manage animal waste and pollutants effectively to improve water quality and restore fish and wildlife habitat throughout the Snake River Basin. This includes $1.2 billion for these efforts in Idaho, including the Snake River in southern Idaho.
- $700 million for watershed partnerships to develop and implement voluntary watershed/water quality improvement projects.
- $400 million for incentives and grants for the construction of manure digesters and waste containment systems for dairies and feedlots to prevent or reduce pollution and other animal discharge into the Snake River.
- $100 million in grants to the University of Idaho to fund research and development of advanced animal waste digesters or other technologies to convert manure and other animal waste into biofuel, bioenergy, and other valued products.
Irrigation and Transportation
What will happen to farmers who use the lower Snake River for irrigating and transporting their crops?
Congressman Simpson’s proposal envisions new irrigation and transportation infrastructure that ensures agricultural growers continue producing and distributing their crops.
The framework includes funds to ensure farm families have access to the water they need to continue producing their crops, including the following:
- $750 million to the lower Snake River Corridor irrigators so they can reconfigure, re-engineer and extend pipes and deepen wells.
- New sources of irrigation that are compatible with a restored lower Snake River would ensure the farms that currently rely on surface diversions and wells for irrigation would be able to maintain their orchards, vineyards, and other high-value crops.
Rep. Simpson’s proposal makes the following investments in transportation:
- $1.5 billion for farmers to reconfigure/adjust their transportation options or create new opportunities. These funds would be used to improve and modernize the railroad system and road network of Lewiston and southeast Washington to ensure grain and other agricultural products would continue to move in an efficient and economic way.
- $1 billion for shipping companies that currently use the lower Snake River waterway to reconfigure their operations.
- $600 million for expanding facilities at the Tri-Cities to accommodate increased barge traffic. Under the proposal, it’s likely that more grain and other agricultural products would be loaded onto barges at ports in the Tri-Cities. The proposal allocates funding toward turning the area into an intermodal transportation hub.
- $600 million to handle the backlog of maintenance work and capital projects in the navigational systems at the four lower Columbia River dams. Such work would include rehabilitating the dams’ locks themselves and dredging the shipping corridor.
- $300 million for agricultural product handlers to reconfigure their operations. Handling companies and farmers’ cooperatives may need to construct additional grain elevators or unit train loading facilities to store and load ag products.
- $200 million for ports located along the lower Snake River corridor to reconfigure their operations. These port facilities would likely shift away from barge loading capabilities, and build out capacity to load trains instead.