For decades, many Northwestern politicians have tried to avoid the dam removal question, not wanting to draw attention to the publicly subsidized hydropower that the region enjoys at national taxpayer expense. This also is changing. The Northwest's two newest senators appear more interested in finding resolution than continuing the long, expensive legal battles over the federal government's inability to produce a viable salmon plan. U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, who replaced Craig, spoke of bringing salmon advocates and hydropower interests together to find a solution during his campaign last fall. Oregon's freshman senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, said during his campaign that he is willing to support removing the four Snake dams if science shows that's the best solution and if the people most affected by dam removal are taken care of. Though cautious, that's a notable contrast to incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, a long-time dam champion, whom Merkley defeated last fall. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for studying ways to bring Pacific salmon back to Nevada, adding important political weight to Risch and Merkley's efforts.
But not all Northwest lawmakers will push to change the status quo. Some salmon advocates say Sen. Murray -- who didn't respond to requests for comment -- appears to oppose a regional discussion of the issue, or a study of dam breaching by an independent body like the National Academy of Sciences, because she fears the results. Murray "wants certainty for the utility community and that sort of analysis would send them back to the drawing board," says Jim Martin, retired fisheries chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and conservation director of the Berkley Conservation Institute. "If Snake River salmon get saved, it won't be because of her."
For the first time in memory, some eastern Washington and northern Idaho farmers -- who benefit the most from the barge transportation the four Snake dams provide -- say they would welcome a discussion of alternative ways to move their crops to market. "Rather than pitting farmers against salmon interests, we should sit down and have the conversation we should have had a long time ago," says Bryan Jones, a fourth-generation wheat and cattle grower from Dusty, Wash. Jones is one of about 70 individual farmers, grain cooperative representatives and other agricultural interests who have been meeting with West Coast commercial fishermen and salmon advocates to explore solutions for salmon and transportation. Farmers aren't going to put their livelihoods on the line to save an endangered species, Jones says, but might trade barging for dependable, affordable rail service and better highways.
Salmon advocates support funding for improved rails and roads. They also say they will back $1 billion in repairs to John Day Dam -- a major link in the Columbia River barging system located 110 miles east of Portland.
There are also a small but noteworthy number of Lewiston area residents who see this as an opportunity to address the economic stagnation and mounting flood risk that came with the inland seaport created by the dams. That's a decided shift in attitude.
Lewiston, which doesn't have interstate access, lost some of its rail transportation as a result of the barge system. And Lower Granite Reservoir is filling with sediment, which could cause flooding. But neither dredging nor raising the levees is economically feasible, says 35-year-old Dustin Aherin, who started Citizens for Progress, a small grassroots group. The other options: Live with New Orleans-style flood risk -- downtown Lewiston sits below the reservoir level -- or remove one of the dams. Meanwhile, Lewiston cannot develop its waterfront with any confidence because it doesn't know what's going to happen with Lower Granite Dam or the levees, Aherin says. "Folks my age have no real solid future here because we don't have good transportation (and) we don't have the ability to attract new business or industry." A majority of Lewiston residents might not choose salmon over dams, but if it comes down to raising the levees, "there are many who would support dam removal."
Meanwhile, Potlatch Corp. -- a Spokane, Wash.-based lumber and paper products company that opposes dam removal -- now relies mostly on trucks and rail, rather than barges, to move products from its Lewiston mill, says retired Potlatch executive Jim Bradford. "It seems to me it's pretty silly to ignore what most credible scientists say is the most viable way to restore the salmon -- take out the (four lower Snake) dams. (But) there are a lot of political hurdles that have to be jumped."