Idaho Congressman Surprises Crowd
by K.C. Mehaffey
"How would you address barges? How would you address Washington farmers who would have to lower intake valves to be able to farm?"
-- Congressman Mike Simpson, Idaho Republican and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
The idea that an Idaho Republican might be ready to embrace removing the four lower Snake River dams drew a few hundred laughs at the 2019 Environmental Conference at Boise State University on April 23, after Gov. Brad Little proclaimed, "When it comes to salmon and steelhead, I want to state publicly right here this morning, I'm in favor of breaching, (pause), the status quo."
But by lunchtime, the possibility became very real, when Congressman Mike Simpson--a longtime Idaho Republican and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development--revealed that he's been quietly delving into the idea by asking questions about resolving the problems that would arise if the dams were removed.
That wasn't the only surprise at the Andrus Center for Public Policy's annual conference, "Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community: Can We Come Together?"
Simpson also suggested that the best way to create cost certainty for the Bonneville Power Administration is to rewrite the Northwest Power Act of 1980 and remove the financial obligations that no longer make sense.
Little, in his speech, announced the creation of a stakeholder group to develop Idaho-based solutions to salmon and steelhead recovery, through his Office of Species Conservation. "I think everyone agrees the current efforts aren't enough," he said of salmon and steelhead recovery. "We need predictable salmon and steelhead runs. We need predictable power and supply, and costs."
And Jaime Pinkham, director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, suggested that rather than focusing on removing dams, it would be more worthwhile to go for a "full court press" on other issues--such as hatcheries, habitat and ocean conditions. "It's going to be a tough political lift to get those dams breached," he said, noting that it took 15 years for Congress to pass a bill addressing problem sea lions.
With a goal of developing solutions to environmental issues, this year's conference focused on "two interconnected crises that can only be solved together--assuring our region's energy system emerges reliable and affordable from the technological and market changes roiling it; and reversing the continuing decline towards extinction of many Columbian Basin wild salmon and steelhead, especially those in the Snake River."
Panelists were leaders from the many sides of this story--BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer, Northwest Energy Coalition Director Nancy Hirsh, Idaho Power Company CEO Darrel Anderson, Pacific Northwest Generating Co-Op CEO Roger Gray, Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, Nez Perce Tribe Vice Chairman McCoy Oatman, Idaho Water Users Association Steve Howser, and Southern Resident Orca Task Force Co-Chair Stephanie Solien, to name a few.
And while dam removal was not the central theme of the conference, it became a major topic after Simpson's keynote address.
Simpson said that--while being a staunch BPA supporter--only about 6 percent of the power it produces comes to Idaho. Yet Idaho is paying for it by sending its water downriver and not getting the salmon or steelhead returns it once enjoyed. "I've come to the conclusion that I'm going to stay alive long enough to see healthy populations return," he said, adding, "I would love to see why they call Redfish Lake, Redfish Lake. I don't know if we can do it in my lifetime, but we need to do it for future generations."
He said for two years, he and his staff have been asking questions that are raising concerns and making people nervous. Those questions have focused on the benefits created by the dams--the power production, the farmland, the communities, and the transportation and barging industries--and how to ensure it all survives if the dams are removed.
"If dams were to come out, how would you address Lewiston?" he asked. "How would you address barges? How would you address Washington farmers who would have to lower intake valves to be able to farm? There are an awful lot of issues."
Simpson also said he's alarmed by the risks facing BPA and signs of instability when looking at its ability to borrow money; Congress' willingness to reauthorize its debt; and President Donald Trump's suggestion to do away with BPA's transmission system, along with his budget request to allow Bonneville to sell power at market rates, which are below its costs.
Simpson said hydroelectric dams have always provided the lowest-cost power, but that's no longer the case, which puts into question some of its obligations.
"BPA was seen as kind of the piggybank for every program in the Pacific Northwest," he said.
One of the programs that ratepayers fund is a residential exchange program designed to spread BPA benefits throughout the region. "If you got power from an IOU, your rates got reduced a few dollars each month. BPA paid for that," he said. But, he asked, if it's no longer the lowest-cost power, does that still make sense?
Bonneville also funds the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, efficiency programs, and weatherization. It makes payments to wind and solar generators when there's an oversupply of power, to Idaho farmers so that the hydropower system can use their water, and to Canada to control potential flooding in Portland.
Passed in 1980, the Northwest Power Act was designed for a different time, he said. "How do you create certainty of cost for BPA? I think it's time we re-look at the Northwest Power and Planning Act," he said. "Either we can do it, or it will be done for us. Someone else will write it and impose it on us."
Simpson suggested that the people in the room, and others in the Pacific Northwest, are best equipped to resolve the issues surrounding salmon and energy that have plagued the region for decades. "How do we restore a river? That's the real question," he said. "We need to stop thinking about what currently exists and ask ourselves, 'What do we want the Northwest to look like in 10, 20, 30, 40 years?'"
What that collaborative effort might look like was the central theme of four panel discussions--two on salmon and energy, and two on agriculture and communities.
At the beginning of the conference, John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy, said the goal is to get people in the same room and see if their conversations during the panel discussions, in the halls and in private can resolve some of the issues. "We don't know if it will lead to anything, but that is our hope," he said. "Our goal, as always, is, can we move the ball forward?"
At the end of the conference, Ed Bowles, fish division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, introduced BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer for a closing speech. Noting that Oregon and Bonneville have been on opposite sides of the courtroom over federal BiOps for more than two decades, the irony of being asked to introduce Mainzer was not lost on him, he said.
However, he said, after working with Mainzer on the flexible spill agreement, he recognizes the power side of the equation is "very critical." When it comes to solving this issue, he said, looking backwards is not going to work. "We've got to be looking forward." He said BPA's responsibility for conservation can no longer be a "ball and chain," and that the agency's stewardship role must not only be valued, but also credited. "I think any comprehensive solution can and will come through Elliot," he said.
Mainzer closed the event by talking about the importance of working with Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe and others to come up with a spill agreement that is a true compromise. Although Bonneville is still "a little skeptical on the science," he said, the agency decided to work with them to find a solution that would provide more spill without imposing additional rate impacts, and also preserving some flexibility in the system, which enables the integration of wind and solar.
"To me, irrespective of what happens over the long term with respect to flexible spill ... there is a kernel of collaboration and trust and coordination and willingness to work with each other ... something I really hope carries forward," he said.
The Center plans to produce transcripts of the event, and a white paper within 90 days.
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