Inslee, Murray reject dams removal plan

·5 min read

May 15—Washington's two most powerful politicians said Friday the region's salmon and steelhead need help "now more than ever," but then dismissed Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's plan to save the fish and in its place proposed a regional collaborative process.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray issued a statement in which they said Simpson's $33 billion proposal built around breaching the four lower Snake River dams and investing in affected communities and industries needs more work and shouldn't be included in federal infrastructure legislation this year.

Instead, they called for a science- and consensus-based process that includes "all voices."

"Importantly, it is critical that this process takes all options into consideration, including the potential breaching of the lower four Snake River dams," they said.

The two Democrats said the nascent Columbia Basin Collaborative — talks between Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana, Columbia Basin Indian tribes and regional stakeholders — may be an appropriate venue. However, they also said the solution should reach beyond the Columbia River and its tributaries and seek to help salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest. They outlined goals such as investments in clean energy production and storage, habitat restoration, transportation infrastructure, and agriculture, which mirror many of those addressed by Simpson's concept.

"Any solutions must honor tribal treaty rights; ensure reliable transportation and use of the river; ensure ongoing access for our region's fishermen and sportsmen, guarantee Washington farmers remain competitive and are able to get Washington state farm products to market; and deliver reliable, affordable and clean energy for families and businesses across the region," they said.

The Nez Perce Tribe, which backs Simpson's plan and has organized support from other tribes while also lobbying congressional leaders of the Pacific Northwest to join the effort, said now is a time for action instead of more process. Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, expressed disappointment that the Inslee/Murray statement lacked concrete proposals, failed to acknowledge the peril Snake River fish are facing, and said it risks missing a tangible opportunity presented by the infrastructure legislation.

"This is not a time for generic statements of support for treaty rights and Northwest Tribes," he said. "Northwest Tribes are united and asking for genuine support. We have a historic and unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of momentum behind a national infrastructure plan and secure funds to implement a plan stemming from Rep. Simpson's framework and further regional engagement.

"We cannot let this moment pass us by. We cannot accept a failing status quo," Penney added. "We must act and our elected officials must lead the way with us, as Congressmen Simpson and (Rep. Earl) Blumenauer have shown, with vision and courage while time remains in supporting this broad proposal and dialogue."

Blumenauer, a Democrat from Portland, Ore., is the only member of the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation to work with Simpson.

As recently as Thursday, Simpson acknowledged his concept is not yet ready to be enshrined in legislation but said he would like funding for it to be included in a $2 trillion infrastructure package taking shape in Congress. Having the money set aside, he said, would help fuel collaboration.

His concept calls for the Snake River dams to be breached and for the negative impacts to be mitigated with robust investments in things like transportation infrastructure, clean energy production and storage, ports, and options for farmers to move grain to markets.

The statement issued by Inslee and Murray said if the still-forming Columbia Basin Collaborative does serve as the venue for their vision, it should be accelerated.

"We are ready to work with our Northwest Tribes, states, and all the communities that rely on the river system to achieve a solution promptly. We, too, want action and a resolution that restores salmon runs and works for all the stakeholders and communities in the Columbia River Basin."

Representatives for Inslee and Murray didn't return phone calls seeking more information, nor did Simpson's office.

Environmental groups that backed Simpson's concept were unimpressed by the process proposed by Inslee and Murray. Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said it "runs the risk of just perpetuating conversation and inaction."

"I think a lot of salmon and fishing advocates in the region are feeling disappointment and I think skepticism," he said. "I think it is just going to be incumbent on the people of the region to stay active and to hold our elected officials — Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee and others — accountable to ensure this opportunity and conversation that has opened up in recent months leads to urgent, meaningful outcomes that restore the lower Snake River and make necessary investment in our region's communities and infrastructure."

Bogaard's groups and others said any new process must conclude in months instead of years, provide upfront funding, include tribal leadership, and result in the breaching of the Snake River dams.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, a collection of public power cooperatives and river transportation interests opposed to dam breaching, agreed salmon need help but said any actions should be grounded in scientific consensus and seek to increase carbon-free power sources.

"We believe hydropower is an important part of the solution and we believe it needs to be embraced if we are going to make a difference."

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

The statement released by Jay Inslee and Patty Murray can be found with this story on lmtribune.com.

"This is not a time for generic statements of support for treaty rights and Northwest Tribes. Northwest Tribes are united and asking for genuine support. We have a historic and unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of momentum behind a national infrastructure plan and secure funds to implement a plan stemming from Rep. Simpson's framework and further regional engagement.

"We cannot let this moment pass us by. We cannot accept a failing status quo."

Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe