For nearly three decades, the region has been stuck in unending litigation and spiraling costs as salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers decline toward extinction. But in a sweeping $34 billion proposal from an unlikely source, at an auspicious moment, comes a chance for a fresh start.

Could Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from a conservative district in eastern Idaho, have launched a concept that will forever alter life on the Columbia and Snake — and finally honor tribal treaty fishing rights in the Columbia Basin?

His proposal includes removing the earthen berms adjacent to all four Lower Snake River hydroelectric dams to let the river run free, to help save salmon from extinction, while spending billions of dollars to replace the benefits of the dams for agriculture, energy and transportation.

Such a colossal proposal coming from a relatively unknown Republican is a shocker and the delegation is already giving it a look.

All four Democratic senators from Washington and Oregon issued a joint release Friday evening stating: “All communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond should be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region. Any process needs to balance the needs of communities in the Columbia River Basin, be transparent, be driven by stakeholders and follow the science.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, put out a statement in staunch opposition. “These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington,” she said 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.” Washington’s three GOP House members also joined with a representative from Idaho on a proposed resolution supporting existing hydropower dams, and seeking expansion of hydropower in the region.

But Simpson has captured the ear of others who normally would pile on. Instead, they are listening, with caveats and caution, to be sure.

Simpson is careful to point out that what he has released is an overall concept that provides only broad spending targets for key initiatives. What he wants is a regional conversation about a new vision for the Northwest. What if we stopped debating whether the Lower Snake River dams are valuable, and recognize that they are, then figure out together how to replace those benefits?

The payoff, he says, is a gift to the future. Fishable runs of salmon. A clean energy system positioned for long-term stability, affordability and innovation. Transportation reconfigured to serve one of the most important agricultural centers in the world, and investments to keep farmers working some of the best irrigated ground anywhere.

He wants to boost tourism and recreation; enlist tribes, states and agriculture across the region in caring for salmon and other wildlife and finally end the region’s longest-running environmental litigation.

This is the first time a sitting senior elected official has ever asked the region to consider breaching still functioning dams. Yet that is actually the smallest part of a vision big as the Columbia Basin, which on the U.S. side of the border sprawls over much of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana, and touches parts of Wyoming, Nevada and Utah.

What Simpson calls The Columbia Basin Fund would be the Northwest’s ask in a national infrastructure-and-jobs stimulus package the Biden Administration is expected to bring out later this year.

Simpson knows he will need to pick up not only key Democratic leaders, but GOP support in both chambers for an issue not uppermost in national concerns.

But with the 2020 election, suddenly the Northwest’s delegation has more political power than in a generation, with senior seats on every important committee and in their respective chambers to marshal a major proposal such as this through Congress.

Just as crucial in the timing are players on all sides who, after decades in the courtroom and more fights ahead of them, are looking for solutions.

“He is going to get pushback, but not from us,” said Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, which represents growers watering more than 90,000 acres of farmland from the Lower Snake River. “We are going to be supportive if he can get the Northwest delegation together.”

The reason is simple, Olsen said: “It’s judgment day.”

The latest, $62 million study by federal agencies of the Columbia and Snake River dams’ impact on protected salmon did not resolve the issue in the region. The operating plan for the dams was once again challenged in court. The result, from his members’ perspective, of a federal judge deciding for the region how to deal with the dams could be disaster, Olsen said.

Why not try to craft something better instead?

“I remain optimistic that through open dialogue, curiosity and a focus on ends versus means, we can find a path forward that includes the interests and needs of the power sector, as well as those of numerous other groups and communities,” said Debra Smith, CEO and General Manager of Seattle City Light, and part of yet another collaborative effort recently launched to break the region’s logjam on the river.

“It is a serious enough proposal that it deserves fair consideration,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, a trade association that represents public utilities, municipalities, ports, shippers, growers, and other industries that depend on the Lower Snake River. He too is no breaching fan, and has his doubts it would even help salmon. But neither does he want to watch ratepayers suffer if a judge yanks the dams or so alters dam operations that power rates skyrocket.

Idaho salmon have it the toughest. They travel some 1,800 miles round trip, from the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains to the Pacific and back, climbing more than a mile in elevation and crossing eight dams to reach their home waters after years at sea. Snake River spring-summer chinook and steelhead are at record low populations and at high risk of extinction.

Meanwhile climate warming has shifted ocean conditions making them hostile to salmon. That makes improving conditions in their freshwater life stage even more important, scientists say. If they are imperiled everywhere they swim, salmon have no chance.

How the billions would be spent

Some highlights of the concept Simpson wants the region to consider:

Dams

$1.8 billion to breach earthen berms on all four Lower Snake River dams by 2031, putting the structures in mothball status, and managing sediment. Extend licenses from 35 to 50 years for remaining dams.

Transportation

More than $2.3 billion would be spent on the Snake River transportation network. There’s $600 million for a transportation hub at the Tri-Cities and $600 million to catch up the maintenance backlog on dredging and locks in the Lower Columbia. About $1 billion would be spent on economic assistance for barge transport and riverboat operators on the Lower Snake River corridor.

EnergyThe proposal would give the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) $10 billion to replace lost power; would cap BPA’s fish-recovery costs, and double its borrowing capacity, among other big lifts for the agency, which sells power from federal dams to utilities serving more than 14 million people. The BPA would no longer manage fish and wildlife recovery, and its total out-of-pocket costs for environment programs would be capped at $480 million a year. Another $4 billion would pay for power replacement for generation lost to spill of water over the dams to benefit fish. There’s also $2 billion for optimizing the efficiency and resilience of the power grid.

Community redevelopment

Cities and towns would receive hundreds of millions of dollars for waterfront restoration, and to boost tourism and recreation. Lewiston-Clarkston would also have a shot at a new mission, with more than $1 billion devoted to a new center for advanced energy storage and research funding.

Public and private owners of dams would also be able to tap a $500 million fund to voluntarily take down obsolete dams to revitalize their waterways and communities.

AgricultureSnake River irrigators would get $750 million to reconfigure their infrastructure so they could keep farming after dam breaching.

Simpson also wants a 35-year moratorium on dam litigation, and to provide $3 billion for voluntary watershed partnerships for farmers, tribes and conservationists to work together to revitalize salmon habitat, rivers and streams. Participating agricultural interests would get a 25-year exemption from Clean Water Act and ESA lawsuits in their basin.

A new restoration program

States and tribes would become the primary fish managers of the recovery program in the Columbia Basin in a newly created Northwest State and Tribal Fish and Wildlife Council. Together, their work would include research and monitoring, and programs to control invasive species and predators.

In addition to managing the $600 million a year fish and wildlife program funded by Bonneville ratepayers, the Simpson proposal would put more than $2 billion into one-time funding for priority projects, from fish passage to enhancements for sturgeon and lamprey.

It is the scope of the approach and the serious money proposed for investment in real change that makes Simpson’s concept different, some said.

“The genius of this is it doesn’t look at the salmon issue in isolation,” said Chris Wood, President and CEO of the nonprofit Trout Unlimited. “Here is this senior congressman in Idaho who has been soldiering for decades who comes up with a package that could lift all the boats in the Pacific Northwest.”

Three years in the making

Simpson released his proposal Jan. 30. But it has been some three years in the making, and got its debut at a speech Simpson gave in 2019 at what was expected to be just another long meeting on the region’s salmon woes.

But by the time this luncheon speaker got going at Boise State University, no one was eating, as Simpson described watching one of Idaho’s storied, ultramarathoner chinook reach the end of her 900 mile journey from the sea, digging her redd in her home gravel. She was beat up, exhausted, her life’s purpose accomplished, living out her final hours in the waters of Marsh Creek, near Stanley, Idaho.

“We saw one,” Simpson said, “One,” holding up a single finger for emphasis. “These are the most incredible creatures I think that God has created,” Simpson said to an audience by then stunned into silence. “It is a cycle that God created. We shouldn’t mess with it.”

He wasn’t finished.

Simpson said he knew the talk about him was already building: “Has Simpson lost his mind? Has he gone over to the dark side?” But, he thundered, “I am going to stay alive long enough to see healthy populations of salmon back to Idaho ... We need to do this for future generations.”

After that lunch, Simpson and his staff dug in. They called irrigators and barge operators. Public power providers and wheat farmers. Tribal leaders and port officials. Environmentalists and lawyers. Anybody and everybody they could think to ask: What would it take to fix this? How could the region move forward from the impasse over salmon, energy and dams — and come out better than before?

It took more than 300 meetings by Simpson and his staff to draw up a new vision for the Northwest. For months he and his staff have been quietly shopping it behind the scenes.

“My one fear is everyone says, ‘That was really interesting, I want salmon back too, as long as I don’t have to change anything,’” Simpson said in an interview.

He wants people to consider his concept as a starting point.

“I want people to think about not what exists now, but what we want the Pacific Northwest to look like 20, 30, 50 years from now,” Simpson said. “Everything we do on the Columbia and Snake River we can do differently ... Salmon don’t have that option.

“They need a river.”

Region’s first wealth

Shannon Wheeler is chairman of the Nez Perce tribe. Their ancestors kept Lewis and Clark alive with salmon from Idaho’s rivers when the explorers stumbled freezing and starving into Nez Perce territory in 1805.

Like Simpson, Wheeler said he hopes people can consider not only what is before them today, but what could be in the future.

“That depends on the decisions we make now,” Wheeler said. “This is an opportunity that doesn’t knock on your door too often. We are supposed to answer the door when opportunity knocks.”

He wants salmon back not only for his people, but to feed the land, the rivers and streams, the wildlife, forests and plants that all benefit from the great gyre of abundance wound by salmon, carrying nutrients from the sea in their bodies back to the land. Lamprey — an ancient eel-like fish and a crucial food source in traditional tribal diets, and for birds and animals — could also recover.

“There are a lot of salmon behind that when you open the door, a lot of steelhead and a lot of lamprey that will thank you for that,” Wheeler said. “A landscape that will thank you for that, wildlife, and plant life.”

A dentist by training, Simpson is the first to say he can’t guarantee that taking out the Lower Snake River dams will save some of the region’s most imperiled fish. But he is sure that leaving the Lower Snake River dams in place dooms salmon to extinction.

While he might seem an unlikely salmon savior, Simpson comes from a tradition of Western outdoor enthusiasts who see beyond party or politics when it comes to preserving the heritage that defines the region.

Simpson has put together complex deals before that were thought to be impossible, including designation of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness. The tenth version of the bill finally signed into law preserved more than 275,000 acres of legendary Idaho wilderness once targeted for mining.

“I like a challenge,” said Simpson, who has been in politics since his first election to the Blackfoot City Council in 1980. He has been in Congress since 1998.

Simpson knows casting himself into the region’s salmon wars is politically risky. “I have been around long enough that if you think you are doing the right thing, that is enough,” Simpson said. “If it costs you the election, it costs you the election.”

And one thing he and his staff are good at, Simpson said, is solving problems.

Symbol of a region

With their travels from the high country to the low, from freshwater to salt and back again, salmon stitch the region together. Outdoor recreators, tribal fishermen, sport anglers, urban nature nuts: If they all had a flag, it probably would have a salmon on it. Salmon define the Northwest. They are a birthright of wonder and abundance that, Simpson says, each generation is entrusted to pass on to the next.

Marsh Creek, Loon Creek, Camas Creek, Bear Valley Creek, Panther Creek: Idaho’s salmon country is a roll call of the lost, in places as beautiful as their names, today all but bereft of the region’s signature fish.

Could change happen? Could Congress muster the will to help? “I don’t know,” Simpson said. “But I am hardheaded enough to try.

“I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to solve this problem.”