Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River would be among those affected by a new plan announced by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. The dam is near Colfax, Wash. (Army Corps of Engineers photo)

If man bites dog is the mythical definition of a hot news story, Republican fights dam is surely its environmental equivalent. That’s why Idaho U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson’s (R) weekend announcement calling for the breaching of four controversial dams on the Lower Snake River is making top-of-the-fold headlines across the Columbia River Basin.

“Such a colossal proposal coming from a relatively unknown Republican is a shocker,” reported the The Seattle Times.

In a video announcement released Saturday, Simpson proposed a $33 billion infrastructure plan titled The Northwest in Transition that would breach the dams. As reported by The Lewiston Tribune, if turned into legislation and then law on Simpson’s timeline, the Lower Granite Dam would be breached in 2030 “and the river that was swallowed by slackwater 55 years earlier would reemerge.”

The other three dams—Little Goose, Lower Monumental, Ice Harbor—would be breached by 2031, returning the entire stretch of the river to its free-flowing state.

“In the end we realize there is no viable plan that can allow us to keep the dams in place,” said Simpson is his video announcement. “We can create a Northwest solution that ends the salmon wars and puts the Northwest and our energy systems on a certain, secure and viable path for decades and restores Idaho’s salmon.”

Simpson stressed the involvement of tribal governments in his sweeping plan that would dedicate billions of dollars to replacing the economic benefits the dams provide to agriculture, energy and transportation concerns.

“We must make these tribes equal partners in the solution and going forward they must be co-equal partners in salmon restoration,” he said.

“It is about so much more than salmon and dams, though it is about that too,” Todd True, senior staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Northwest regional office in Seattle, told Columbia Insight. “I think we all know we want clean, affordable energy, a strong and diverse economy, abundant salmon and to begin to correct the historic injustices Northwest Tribes that depend on salmon have suffered for so long. Congressman Simpson has created a moment where we have an opportunity to do all of that if we just have the courage and vision to join him in moving from a framework to legislation and action.”

All four Democratic senators from Washington and Oregon issued a joint statement of support for Simpson’s plan. In borderline-giddy press releases, more than 10 regional fishing and conservation groups praised Simpson.

“The recreational angling community has been pressing for salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin for decades. Today, Idaho Rep. Simpson answered our calls with a blueprint for the largest river and salmon restoration effort in history that also creates jobs and strengthens the energy and agriculture sectors,” said Chris Hager, executive director of Association of Northwest Steelheaders.

But Republican House members from Washington and Idaho condemned the plan, instead proposing a resolution in favor of expanding hydropower provided by the dams.

“These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, in a press release. “Spending $33 billion to breach them—with no guarantee that doing so will restore salmon populations—is a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take.”

“State law is now removing coal as a power source, which has utility leaders scrambling to find ways to quickly make up for that loss in power production. Removing the Snake River dams would make this effort even more challenging,” read a Sunday editorial in Washington’s Tri-City Herald. The editorial also called removing the dams “counter-productive to our efforts to battle climate change.”

Environmental groups have vigorously opposed the dams since even before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built them in the 1960s and ’70s. But legal efforts as well as campaigns to generate widespread public support for their cause have failed to budge the federal government from its own intransigent position to keep the dams in place.

All four of the federally operated dams are located in Washington.

Although for many, Simpson’s proposal seemed to come out of nowhere, close observers of the controversy surrounding the dams have been waiting for such an announcement from the Idaho politician for years. Although stopping short of calling for removal of the dams at the time, at a conference on salmon recovery in Boise in 2019 Simpson signaled his openness to considering the possibility.

On Saturday, Simpson said he and his staff conducted more than 300 meetings with stakeholders around the region before coming to the decision to call for breaching the dams.

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This story published as part of the AP Storyshare system. The Malheur Enterprise is a contributor to this network of Oregon news outlets.