Idaho Sen. Risch backs bill to protect Snake River dams from ‘unwarranted’ removal

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch has joined three other members of Congress from the Northwest in his second move in recent months to shield dams on the Snake River from efforts to remove them.

Risch, along with fellow Republicans Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both of Washington, introduced legislation last week aimed specifically at protecting the dams.

The Northwest Energy Security Act would direct the secretaries of Interior, Energy and the Army to operate the Federal Columbia River Power System — including the four Snake River dams that salmon advocates have targeted for removal — in accordance with a 2020 environmental impact decision that ruled against breaching the structures.

“A comprehensive scientific process made clear dam breaching on the lower Snake River is completely unnecessary and unwarranted,” Risch said in a news release. “With the Northwest Energy Security Act, Congress will ensure the Columbia River Power System continues to provide reliable and clean energy and supports the region’s transportation, agriculture and irrigation needs.”

Risch added that he remains “adamantly opposed to breaching the dams.”

For years, environmental groups, Northwest tribes and salmon conservationists have called for the removal of Washington’s Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite dams, citing damage to struggling salmon populations that must migrate through the dams to reach spawning grounds.

The environmental impact decision Risch referred to recommended passing more water over the dams in an effort to aid salmon migration.

Last year, Risch fought to remove language in the Water Resources Development Act that would have promoted studying dam breaching. When the bill passed in December, Risch claimed in a news release that the “removal of the Snake River dams would inflict an unthinkable cost on the Northwest, all while worsening sky-high energy prices and inflation.”

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson broke with fellow Republicans to join the calls for dam breaching. In 2021, Simpson unveiled a $33 billion infrastructure proposal that would have removed the dams and replaced hydroelectric energy, barge shipping and other benefits the dams provide. The plan did not gain traction in Congress.

In a statement to the Idaho Statesman, Simpson criticized the decision to preserve the dams.

“If the choice is between flushing Idaho’s upper Snake River water downstream for four dams in Washington state, I choose keeping Idaho water for Idahoans,” Simpson said. “Each year eastern Idaho sends almost a half-million acre feet of irrigation water downstream for salmon recovery — that is water that is not being used to recharge our aquifer, not being used for irrigation, and our salmon are on the verge of extinction.”

Last year, a report commissioned by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray recommended against breaching the dams until their benefits could be replaced. The report estimated that could cost between $10 billion and $31 billion.

Following the Water Resources Development Act’s approval late last year, Risch spokesperson Amy Hasenberg told the Statesman that Idaho lawmakers “have an open dialogue on all Idaho issues. Sen. Risch has long said he supports conversations and collaboration to improve salmon populations as long as solutions do not include dam breaching.”