The Mistake on the Snake: The Lower Snake River Dams

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Idaho Law Review

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Idaho L. Rev.


Congressman Mike Simpson’s proposal to remove the four federal dams on the Lower Snake River (LSR) has reenergized the longstanding debate over the future of those dams, their narrow benefits, and their substantial costs, particularly to Endangered Species Act-listed Snake River salmon. This article examines the LSR dams, their history and justification, their role in sending Snake River on a path toward extinction from which they have yet to recover, and their impending liabilities under the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts. The Simpson proposal, while arresting, is so freighted with spending on replacement power and river navigation improvements, for example, that its estimated $33.5 billion price tag seems wholly unrealistic. And its dam license extensions throughout the Columbia Basin and the litigation moratorium it would impose until the mid-21st century have generated such substantial opposition that enactment by Congress, in anything resembling its current form, will have to overcome the longest of odds. Still, given the imperiled nature of Snake River salmon and the considerable economic benefits that restored salmon runs could play in revitalizing the central Idaho economy, the proposal may serve as a beginning for Idaho’s elected officials and its public to focus on the advantages that restored Idaho salmon runs could play in revitalizing the central Idaho economy. Anything resembling the Simpson proposal should be welcomed as a considerable economic stimulus for the region.

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