FILE — Snake River Dams

In this April 11, 2018 photo, water moves through a spillway of the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Washington. 

(The Center Square) — A GOP congressman is crossing party lines to push a plan to breach four major Pacific Northwest dams critics say are choking the local salmon population.

The $33.5 billion plan comes from U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and would breach Washington and Idaho's Snake River hydroelectric dams over a span of 10 years to restore river flows which Simpson says the dams have hindered.

In an address over the weekend, Simpson said the plan followed years of conversations with various stakeholders from the two states. In his view, they must choose between restoring the region's low salmon population or the dams—they cannot choose both.

“My staff and I approached this challenge with the idea that there must be a way to restore Idaho salmon and keep the four lower Snake River Dams,” Simpson said. “But after exhausting dozens of possible solutions, we weren’t able to find one that could control poor ocean conditions, warming rivers, and the four lower Snake dams. In the end, we realized there was no viable path that can keep the dams in place.”

About $33 billion of the money needed would come from a federal infrastructure spending package President Joe Biden is expected to propose later this year. The odds of passing one have vastly improved since Democrats took control of the Senate in January and Democratic-controlled states like Washington stand to increase their congressional influence.

Much of Simpson's plan would pay for studies concerning the dams' impact on energy, agricultural, and transportation. It also intends to boost tourism for the region and renew federal partnerships with indigenous tribes.

Simpson's plan stands in contrast to party-line support for the dams among Washington's GOP congressional delegation which includes U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse, Jaime Herrera Beutler, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

"These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington," Rodgers said in a statement. "Spending $33 billion to breach them — with no guarantee that doing so will restore salmon populations — is a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take."

Opposition to the four dams has largely stemmed from environmentalists, progressive groups, and the indigenous tribes of the region who have historically depended on the fish for trade, ceremonies, and culture.

As "run-of-the-river" hydroelectric structures, the dams have little to no water storage capacity and are dependent on the rate of runoff from melting mountain snowpack, which studies show has declined significantly over the West Coast in the past generation.

They are capable of generating about 3,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough energy to power 800,000 homes, but see a yearly output of about a third of that number.

The Snake River Dams have been the subject of federal court orders and rising costs of meeting them and accommodating endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead swimming through them.

Action is being taken to demolish aging dams around the nation in an effort to restore marine habitats like those on the Klamath River, which has the support of U.S. Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland along with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.