the film
Commentaries and editorials

Foe of Dam Breaching Does an About-Face

by Betsy Z. Russell, Staff writer
Spokesman Review, December 8, 2005

Global warming spurs change of mind; for scientist, longtime critic Chapman

The scientist who's been the leading voice against dam-breaching on behalf of Northwest utilities for years told a Boise audience Wednesday that he now believes the four lower Snake River dams must come down.

"Breaching should go back on the table for evaluation and planning," Don Chapman, a retired fisheries biologist and longtime hydropower consultant, told the Idaho Environmental Forum.

That position is counter to that of Idaho's top elected officials, who continue to oppose dam-breaching. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne "feels there is no solid evidence it would have the results that many people say it would," Kempthorne's press secretary, Mike Journee, said Wednesday.

Chapman, who was introduced to a crowd of close to 200 as "the guru of salmon science in the Pacific Northwest," was a prominent professor at the University of Idaho for years and then worked for the United Nations before becoming a private consultant in 1979, representing electric utilities, Indian tribes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and more. He long was one of the most prominent scientists to oppose dam-breaching, but said global warming and its impact on endangered fish have now made him change his mind.

Chapman said for years that he thought measures like barging fish past the dams and making minor modifications to the dams could save endangered salmon and steelhead. "I believed for a long time that we could limp along with transportation and manage to keep most of the stocks going," he said. "But with warming, I don't think that's possible - I think we're going to lose 'em."

Chapman said the effects of global warming are dramatic and little recognized.

"It is real," he said. "The polar ice cap has shrunk since 1979 by an area the size of Texas. ? Kilimanjaro summit is predicted to be free of snow within 15 years. ? Glaciers are shrinking in Alaska and around the world."

Chapman, who lives in McCall, Idaho, said he believes global warming is second only to the threat of nuclear weapons in the wrong hands in its potential to harm the Earth and civilization. A rising sea level will bring "untold misery" to populations clustered in low-lying areas in developing countries, he warned.

As for Northwest salmon and steelhead stocks that have been listed as endangered, the migrating fish face increasing threats from rising water temperatures in the rivers where they migrate, including the Columbia, Chapman said. That will change the seasons at which the fish migrate and lessen their chances of survival.

"Adult anadromous fish that now migrate in summer will migrate much earlier or much later, or they will perish," Chapman said. Juvenile fish may emerge earlier, when less food is available. At the same time, he said warming will lead to more rain-on-snow events that will scour away crucial habitat for fish.

"Life will become much tougher for Idaho's listed stocks of salmon and steelhead," Chapman warned.

He said only two factors that kill the fish can be manipulated - dams and fishing.

"I think breaching the Snake River dams would cut mortality for juveniles in the Snake River in half, and virtually eliminate mortality among adults," Chapman said.

He called for putting the option back on the table now, to allow careful study and planning for how to avoid dislodging tons of sediment accumulated behind the dams. "If you do this wisely and carefully, I suspect we could keep most of that 135 million tons of sediment where it should be - as land," he said.

Chapman said he doesn't expect breaching to happen anytime soon - and certainly not under the current presidential administration. However, he said, "The pendulum's going to have to swing, it always does. It might take 10 years, it might take 15."

Kempthorne's press secretary Journee said the governor has made no change in his position on the issue. Dam-breaching, he said, "would be a significant economic setback."


Dam breaching

Breaching the four Washington dams - Lower Granite, Little Goose, Monumental and Ice Harbor - would render them useless for power production and end the barging that turned Lewiston into the most inland seaport in the West. It would return the Snake to its free-flowing form below Hells Canyon Dam, eliminating the four long pools in which salmon often become over-heated and fall prey to predators.

Betsy Z. Russell, Staff writer
Foe of Dam Breaching Does an About-Face
Spokesman Review, December 8, 2005

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation