BOISE, Idaho — Congress has spent more then $15 million over past decades to address the dwindling number of salmon who make the migration back to Idaho to spawn, but the numbers haven't improved.
Salmon travel through the river system to the ocean as smolts, live their lives at sea before traveling back upstream to their spawning grounds to lay eggs before they die. On their journey to Idaho, the fish have to navigate eight dams in each direction.
The four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington have been at the center of the salmon issue with more pressure coming to breach those dams. For some entities in Idaho the dams are essential for business and the economy.
This week the Biden Administration released two reports and one concluded that breaching the four dams on the Snake River are essential for salmon recovery.
"If dam removal is not part of the strategy it won't work in order to save those salmon we need to remove those dams and we need to do that pretty soon," said Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League, who applauded the reports from the White House. "That is the most definitive statement we have ever seen from federal agencies and a presidential administration, it is a big development on this issue."
Salmon plays an important role in Idaho with fishing communities like Riggins, outfitters and fishing shops relying on the salmon economically. The salmon also play an important cultural role for Native American tribes and it is a good source of food.
The Idaho Farm Bureau opposes breaching the dams because of what they mean economically, Idaho farmers can ship their crops down the river system through the dams on barges, one barge is the equivalent of 35 rail cars or 134 trucks.
"It makes transportation available, it makes it affordable in a way that Idaho farmers can provide high quality wheat produced and it can be sent around the world," said Braden Jensen of the Idaho Farm Bureau.
Idaho is the fourth highest producer of wheat in the United States and half of their grain goes around the world, it is estimated that the cost would double to ship it from the most inland sea port in the country in Lewiston if the dams were gone, forcing farmers to look for other markets.
“We recognize the value of these dams, the value of a managed river system and the dams," said Jensen. "That infrastructure is a key part to all of that."
The Port of Lewiston, irrigators and energy companies have all been outspoken against breaching the dams and the second report released by the Biden Administration says the hydro-electric power could be replaced but it would cost between $11 and $19 billion.
That is in line with what democratic lawmakers from Washington state have found and it builds on Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson's work, although Simpson took it one step further finding a price tag of $33.5 billion to breach the dams and compensate the people that rely on the dams.
"You are seeing kind of a convergence of Congressman Simpson’s proposal, Governor Inslee from Washington and Senator Murray from Washington and now the Biden Administration," said Hayes. "They are all lining up saying dam removal needs to be the cornerstone of a successful recovery plan and we can replace the services these dams provide."
Salmon recovery is a complicated issue with several factors leading to fewer salmon including seals, orcas, algae in the ocean, warmer ocean temperatures, the dams, fishing and increased river temperatures to name a few.
It is unclear if breaching the dams will bring back the salmon, but nothing else has worked.
"I can’t promise that this will restore salmon, I believe it will, but I can’t promise that," said Simpson. "What I can promise is if we don’t take those dams out these runs in Idaho will go extinct."
Ultimately, Congress will have the final say on whether or not to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake River which include Ice Harbor dam built in 1955, Lower Monumental Dam built in 1969, Little Goose Dam built in 1970 and Lower Granite Dam built in 1975.