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To Breach or Not To Breach

by Ed Scofield
The Local Planet, October 12, 2000

To breach...

Should the dams be breached, then

  1. Runs of wild salmon and steelhead, a larger anadromous variety of rainbow trout, will be restored. While other reports suggest theoretical problems with restoration, groups such as American Rivers and Save Our Wild Salmon document real-life solutions. Where dams were removed in California, Washington and Idaho, the endangered salmon appear to be coming back. As for arguments suggesting that the recent comeback of Snake River salmon proves that all is fine with the dams intact, many environmentalists suggest otherwise. Agreeing that other factors contribute to salmon decline such as predators, urban & rural development, over-fishing and ocean conditions, they argue that wild salmon are still threatened by the dams.

  2. Economic impacts would be far less than reported by doomsayers. A New York Times editorial suggested that regional power and utility bills would increase between $1 and $4 a month and that regional consumers would still pay among the lowest rates in the nation. It recommended a "modest" subsidy that would keep most farmers in business by investing in new wells and pipes to pump water from a lower Snake River.

  3. Other economic benefits would appear. A report sponsored by Trout Unlimited out of Portland and Earth Justice in Seattle found that dam removal would create 12,000 new temporary jobs during a 9-year bypass phase. The 1,500 jobs held by dam operators could be offset with work-retention programs. Litigation would end, including suits brought by tribes whose treaties are threatened by the decline in wild salmon, a key economic and spiritual part of their heritage. Tribes would also benefit from thousands of recreation-related jobs in the 20 years following the breach process.

    The $18 million annual increase in transportation costs could be offset with a "Grain Train" program and the immediate creation of almost 300 new jobs in rail and trucking. Jim Baker of the Sierra Club believes breaching would force an upgrading of roads and railroads that would create up to 4,000 short-term jobs. Other environmentalist point out that 10 years after breaching, a surge of white-water rafting and sport fishing would fill the banks of a free-flowing Snake River, generate over 1,500 new jobs, and lead to other water sports including jet boating and rafting. The Army Corps of Engineers' draft report predicted an eventual $67 million from such recreational sporting, much of it, for good or ill, from California.

  4. A real return of wild salmon that's worth, according to the Corps, "a billion dollars to the region's psyche." A study from Lewis and Clark College predicted that the lower Snake River, without the dams, would become another "reach" such as the one near Hanford, reported to house the best fall chinook spawning found on the Columbia River. And the fish from wild runs taste better. Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon noted that a blind-study taste and texture test showed the wild to be far more desirable than hatchery salmon.

Or not to breach

If the four lower Snake River dams are breached, then

  1. Southeastern Washington counties will suffer heavy economic losses. Without a channeled waterway Franklin County will suffer greatly increased shipping costs. Not that it matters much considering that without irrigation, the land will not produce much. River water now irrigates approximately thirty-seven thousand acres of farmland that now produce enough potatoes, apples, grapes and other crops to feed one-sixth of the world's population! Pasco, which recently passed a nearly $20 million dollar school construction bond, faces transfer of that debt from farmers to local businesses and residents. Many of them will, by that time, have been forced to leave. The resulting job losses are estimated to be over two thousand. Walla Walla County assessor Larry Shelley doesn't have exact numbers on the economic effects, "but it will be negative." Most power stations would be forced to move and "that would be impossible" economically. He worries about the effects breaching would have on Boise Cascade, which provides over 17% of the tax revenues. "If they move," says Shelley, "we are dead meat."

  2. The roughly 5% of the region's power produced by the dams must be replaced, probably with gas-powered plants. That cost, plus that of the breaching (estimated at one billion dollars over nine years), will possibly appear on ratepayer's bills. Congress could foot part or all of the bill, but considering that this region has for years enjoyed the least expensive electric rates outside of the Tennessee Valley Authority, that is problematic. Farmers and aluminum producers, both major beneficiaries of the waterway, would lose price advantage. One estimate has regional aluminum paying half a million dollars more per month for electricity.

  3. Barges will be unable to traverse shallow Snake River waters. Trucks and rail would have to carry the load, an estimated 1.1 million tons of grain a year. The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association predicts a twenty-fold increase in exhaust emissions. That may be low considering that rail lines have been quietly abandoned since 1970. Columbia County has only one remaining rail spur to local grain terminals. What lines remain are decrepit.

  4. The 75 pumps that suck water from the Snake River will be lost. With the dams gone the pumps will be useless because of the heavy sediment that would clog the pipes for decades. The Army Corps of Engineers admits to no solution. Private wells along the Snake corridor, most in Asotin and Franklin counties, will not be able to pick up the slack; most will be dry without an estimated $60 million for modification.

  5. Many highways and rail embankments that now border the reservoirs created by the dams will become unstable without water holding them in place. That could curtail travel plans for outdoor fun-seekers. Not that it matters; many of the recreational areas would be closed anyway because they no longer provide access to water. As tax bases decrease, there will be a concurrent demand for money to improve rural roads; they will be full of trucks carrying what used to be barged to market. Highway 26, a two-lane road through the Palouse, will see an estimated 13-35% increase in traffic.

  6. Whitman County, most likely to bear the worst effects of breaching, would be devastated. Whitman shippers are expected to pay 35% of the increased transportation costs. Over 250 jobs would be lost. In a worst-case scenario, an average county farmer is predicted to lose $13,000 a year in transportation costs alone. Farm foreclosures and consolidations could rival the mid-west during the 1980s. Willie Nelson's next permanent address could be Colfax.

  7. Snake River fish stocks will be extinct within the next twenty years, according to environmentalist predictions. And that assumes continued barging of fish downstream which Tim Stearns of Save Our Wild Salmon identifies as 15 times less what is necessary to restore the runs.

Ed Scofield
To Breach or Not To Breach
The Local Planet, October 12, 2000

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