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Economists: We Could Make Breaching Work

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune - November 5, 1999

The costs of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams to save salmon may be severe.

But according to some economists, good old Yankee ingenuity should be able to overcome the costs.

"We should use economics to our advantage rather than have it be an obstacle to decisions that science tells us we should make," said Steve Wise of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Wise spoke on a panel at the International Exchange Conference at Lewis Clark State College Thursday in which participants wrestled with a question now familiar to the entire region -- the cost of breaching.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of putting a draft feasibility study together that aims to answer the question.

Wise said the region and the corps need to put more energy into finding ways to reduce the costs of dam removal.

He suggested costs to wheat farmers could be reduced by revamping rail infrastructure and reducing trucking distances. He also said grain elevators along the navigation corridor could still be used, even if the river is not.

"There are solutions out there we haven't looked at yet," said Wise.

He cited a study funded by the group American Rivers that concludes breaching may not be an unbearable expense.

The region can expect to see many more economic studies on breaching, according to University of Montana economics professor Tom Power.

"We're going to see lots of studies," he said. "I think (they will be) coming to dramatically different conclusions." Many will profess economic gloom to the region should the dams be breached. But Power contends such studies under-estimate the ability of people to react to economic changes.

"Such predictions have been far, far off the mark in the past and will be far off the mark in the future."

He cited the shutdown of logging in coastal Washington, Oregon and California because of the spotted owl controversy and the severe decline in timber from federal lands in Idaho as evidence people can adapt.

Neither timber drought has caused widespread economic chaos, according to Power.

That's despite the best guesses of some economists to the contrary.

Instead, rural communities have increased in population, jobs and incomes.

"People respond to higher costs and seek to minimize the costs," he said.

Washington State University professor Ken Casavant said $250 million to $300 million in lost revenues from hydropower production is the highest economic cost of breaching.

But, he added, other costs may be more important in the debate.

"I can't help but think transportation-navigation and irrigation are going to be the drivers economically."

What is more difficult for economists to measure, but is the real crux of the debate, is the value of viable populations of wild salmon and steelhead.

by Eric Barker
Economists: We Could Make Breaching Work
Lewiston Tribune, November 5, 1999

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