Saving salmon: Why these remarkable fish matter to the Northwest
Last year, Idaho U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and some of his staff went to Marsh Creek, the headwaters of the Middle Fork Salmon River, to watch a returning salmon create its redd, or nest, lay its eggs and die.
“She swam 900 miles to get back to Marsh Creek. All to lay her eggs for the next generation of salmon,” Simpson said Tuesday in his keynote speech during the Andrus Center environmental conference on salmon, energy, agriculture and community at Boise State University.
“It was the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one,” Simpson said. “These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God has created. It is a cycle God created.”
But, Simpson lamented, they saw only one salmon.
“You have got to ask yourself,” he said, “after spending $16 billion on salmon recovery over the last how many years, is it working?”
It isn’t, Simpson said.
“All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered,” he said. “Look at the number of returning salmon and the trend line is not going up. It is going down.”
The salmon recovery efforts that we have engaged in have probably kept the salmon off the extinction list, he said.
“But we should not manage just to keep these salmon off the extinction list. We should manage them to bring back a healthy, sustainable population in Idaho.”
And then Simpson, who just spent 15 years wrangling and shepherding to get the Boulder-White Clouds declared a federally designated wilderness, made a new vow.
“I am going to stay alive long enough to see salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho,” he said.
Northwest Power Act 2.0
Enacted in 1980, the Northwest Power Act addresses the Columbia River’s hydroelectric dams’ impact on fish and wildlife by “authorizing Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington to develop a regional power plan and fish and wildlife program to balance the Northwest’s environment and energy needs,” according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency, administers the act.
“The BPA is operating under regulatory regimes set up in the 1980s,” Simpson said. “It worked well in the 1980s and I am not being critical of it,” he said. But it’s nearly 40 years old.
Simpson has been asking himself, “is it time for a Northwest Power Planning Act 2.0?” His conclusion?
“Either we can do it, or it will be done for us,” he said. “Someone else will write it and impose it upon us.”
The challenge of updating a 40-year-old power plan for the next 40 years creates an opportunity to address the power challenges that we face and the salmon crisis, he said.
“You cannot address the salmon issue without addressing dams,” he said. “You cannot address the salmon issue without addressing the challenges the BPA has. They are interwoven.”
All of the costs of dams, none of the benefits
In addition to salmon and energy challenges, Simpson said he has another issue he wants to address, one that may not sit well with his Washington and Oregon colleagues.
“I’m getting tired of Idaho paying the costs of those dams and getting none of the benefits,” he said.
Of all the power being produced by the BPA, about 6% comes to Idaho, Simpson explained. The power generated “is very important for Washington and Oregon. But we pay for it by sending 487,000 acre feet of water down the river … and most of all, we are not getting salmon back in Idaho.”
Simpson said he is about ready to tackle the first step in reworking the power plan and restoring Idaho’s salmon.
“One of the challenges I am going to have to face sooner rather than later is I am going to have to sit down with the Pacific Northwest (congressional) delegation, Republicans and Democrats, and tell them what I am doing,” Simpson said.
“It used to be that we were all supportive of the BPA, Republicans and Democrats. But I am starting to see some division within the Pacific Northwest delegation,” he said. “Maybe I am causing some of it because I ask the question, ‘You get all the benefits, we pay all the costs. What the hell is going on?’ They don’t want to address that.”
But, Simpson stressed, it needs to be addressed.
“There is a looming problem and it is approaching quicker than anyone might think. It is kind of like the sideview mirror on your car: Objects may be closer than they appear.”
Included in that looming problem is climate change and thinking about the future generations inheriting our world.
“I actually do believe in climate change. I do believe it is happening,” Simpson said. “Climate change is a reality. It is not hard to figure out.”
And then Simpson threw down the gauntlet:
“Make no doubt about it. I want salmon back in Idaho in healthy and sustainable populations. Can this be done? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if the willpower is there to do it. I don’t know if the willpower is in Congress to do it. But I will tell you that I am hard-headed enough to try,” he said.
“It is not unsolvable if good people come together and say we are going to save this animal from extinction,” Simpson said, concluding his nearly hour-long speech, which garnered two standing ovations from the audience.
“You could hear a pin drop when he made his remarks,” Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League program director and incoming executive director, told the Idaho Statesman.
“Congressman Mike Simpson made the most important speech from an Idaho politician in 15 years,” Hayes said. “He understands fully the challenges that all Idahoans face in working to find a solution that saves Idaho salmon and steelhead while keeping everyone whole.”
‘Breaching the status quo’
Idaho Gov. Brad Little provided opening remarks at the day-long conference that included energy, tribal, conservation and agricultural leaders from around the region.
“Above all else, my overarching goal is to create the best environment for us to thrive and for our grandkids to want to stay here,” Little said.
“When it comes to salmon and steelhead, I want to state publicly right here this morning that I am in favor of breaching the status quo,” Little said, giving many in the audience a start when he said the word “breaching.”
Everyone agrees current efforts are not enough, he said.
Little said predictability with salmon and steelhead runs, power supply and regulations are key.
Like Simpson, Little acknowledged climate change.
“Things change. Idaho must adapt to change. There are changes in the climate. There are changes in ocean conditions,” he said. “What stays the same is our cumulative desire to maintain our incredible quality of life in this beautiful state.”
Little made two announcements during his brief speech.
Since 2005, Idaho and Oregon have been working to resolve disagreements on water quality and fish passage along the portion of the Snake River that is shared by both states. In 2016, after reaching an impasse, the two states and Idaho Power — which operates three Snake River dams — agreed to one last effort to resolve the outstanding issues.
Idaho and Oregon announced on Monday significant advancements to resolve those disagreements in Hells Canyon, Little told the audience.
“This long-awaited agreement supplies clean, affordable energy for Idahoans, improves water quality, and provides additional fish for recreational and tribal ceremonial purposes,” Little said.
According to a news release from the governor’s office, under the settlement agreement, Idaho Power will implement significant investments in water quality projects, resulting in cleaner, colder water flowing downstream. In addition, the company will increase production at its Rapid River Hatchery, enabling 800,000 additional Chinook salmon to bolster state and tribal fishing opportunities in the future. In return, Oregon will not require fish passage as a condition of its water quality certification for the operation of the Hells Canyon dams.
Little also announced he is creating a statewide working group to develop an Idaho-based solution to salmon recovery.
The project “is in its infancy, and there is no timeline yet for selection or announcement of group members,” Little’s communication director, Emily Callihan, told the Statesman.
“Gov. Little has tasked his Office of Species Conservation with assembling a group of stakeholders and industry representatives with knowledge and expertise in salmon and energy issues — including many of the individuals who were present at the conference today,” she said. “He would like the members to develop realistic, consensus-based goals and outline meaningful steps to achieve the goals.”