Old Days, New Ways

Lewiston Dam, 1927, now long gone

The question some folks are asking about Mike Simpson’s Columbia Basin Proposal is, “Where are the Democrats?” I know, I’ve spoken up, more than once, but they want to know about Democrats who matter, hold office or some such.

Well, this week Oregon Congressman Blumenauer spoke up. Yes, he’s a liberal Democrat, representing Oregon’s District 3 (Portland), so his support won’t be swaying Palouse farmers or Republican Lewiston retirees. But support might help make some conversations occur. They need to.

The trouble is, there just aren’t many influential, elected Democrats in the Inland Empire who can persuade. Our partisanship is pretty foregone in these parts. I have never understood why salmon and dams are partisan. They shouldn’t be. We just need folks to study and consider the issue.

We have heard loud and clear from Idaho Republicans (Simpson, a Republican indeed, excepted). “Damn you Simpson” might summarize their thoughtful response. The specific complaints about the plan range from, “no guarantees” to “destroy the economy” to “damn you Simpson”. But I haven’t heard much substantive, honestly. So, it’s noise from Republicans and crickets from Dems. Such paltry conversation doesn’t reflect well on our civics skills.

I’d love to have some conversations with folks. I’d ask them some questions. Just what guarantees do Palouse farmers have that their cheap wheat shipping costs will continue? How much dredging and lock maintenance, and indeed fish remediation costs will the federal taxpayers be willing to pour into this Snake Lake to keep those shipping costs down? Those lower four Snake dams were supposed to make Lewiston an industrial hub, or that’s how they were sold back in the 1930’s when boosters boosted them. Do you still see that future? Would better rail service (Simpson plan) serve those needs?

Maybe the reason we hear “take out the dams” from objecting Republicans is because it harkens back to history. Simpson’s proposal recommends restoring a free-flowing river, mothballing the structures, rerouting the rivers through the channels used for their diversion when the dams were built. The dams will not be “taken out”, just bypassed. But indeed, dams have been taken out around here.

There was a “Harpster/ Grangeville” Dam on the South Fork of the Clearwater, built in 1911 by the Washington Water Power Company. It was an arched concrete structure, 56 feet high and 440 feet long. It had a wooden fish ladder that collapsed in the 1949. This dam was blown up in 1963. Steelhead runs on the South Fork resumed.

Then there was the “Lewiston Dam” on the Clearwater, remnants of which can still be seen four miles up from the confluence with the Snake. It was built in 1927, another WWP project. It had fish ladders, but they never worked well. Thanks to Lower Granite Dam, it was declared obsolete in 1973 and blasted.

I guess dams do get blown up. Please note, these dams both lasted about 50 years. Which is where the Lower Four Snake dams are at in age. But we aren’t packing dynamite.

There has been significant fisheries and hatchery work over the years. The Nez Perce Tribe even skirted Idaho Fish and Game to reintroduce Coho Salmon from the Lower Columbia after they were declared extinct in 1987. Hatcheries have maintained some Steelhead runs, but the fear of the loss of genetic diversity through this crutch makes fish biologists nervous.

Fish runs have year to year variation, so our understanding of cause and effect is poor.

It is a sad fact that when the Lewiston Dam was built and fish ladders installed in 1927, fish passage was only counted for a few years in the 1920’s, for 1 year in the 1930’s, but then when the ladders were improved, annual counts were done starting in the 1950’s. We count what is important to us. I guess some just don’t see these fish as important.

So, let’s have a conversation. And that would be my starter: Do you think these fish, native Steelhead and Salmon are important to Idaho?

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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