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Commentaries and editorials

Agencies and Dams

by Glen Squires - Washington Wheat Commision
WHEAT LIFE July 1999

Is the foundation being laid to remove dams?

The plan

The Corp of Engineers is all but finished with its feasibility study on how to "construct in reverse" in order to remove the Snake River dams, including all engineering requirements and associated costs and benefits of breaching. Construction costs reach over $915 million over the next ten years versus $162 million for improving the system. Lost power generation from breaching is estimated to be between $250-300 million. Benefits to recreation fall in the additional $65-70 million range, assuming heavy influx of California tourism. Media reaction to this figure has been subdued compared to the Sierra Club's rendition of the tourism bnefits. It estimated benefits ranging from $400 million to $5 billion every year of new income to local economies from a free-flowing river.

"Necessary first step"

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its assesment of Lower Snake River Hydrosystem Alternatives on Survival and Recovery of Snake River Salmonids, concluding that breaching dams is "a necessary first step", due, in part, to the assumptions and increased emphasis on what is now called extra, delayed or unexplained mortality. At the same time, NMFS is uncertain breaching is absolutely necessary as it depends upon which assumptions are correct.

Against an emanating backdrop of bias toward eliminating dams, is PIT-tag data from NMFS itself showing fish survival is actually better than previously thought. According to the Assessment, the average advantage of breaching Snake River dams can fall to as low as two percent and any benefit would show up in 24 to 48 years. NMFS admits there are large gaps in the data, with substantial uncertainties, suggesting five to ten years of additional research is needed on estuary and ocean conditions. The primary emphasis has been downstream migration. A logical next question may be how long data collection would take for NMFS to find the causes and mortality rate of adults moving upstream through the river? After all, what goes down must come up, if the goal is indeed adults returning to spawn.

Single agency focus?

Federal agencies were found to have pushed the envelope again when it was discovered in early May that a memorandum signed by NMFS, EPA, U.S. Treasury Department and USF&W, referred to two salmon recovery alternatives, both of which include breaching four Snake River dams. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was not included in the disucssions, though funding the multi-billion dollar deal would require BPA to increase its rates beyond current projections or pending proposal levels, as BPA environmental mitigation costs continue to rise. It would seem that power generation is fast becoming a secondary function of the hydropower system.

One alternative in the memorandum would breach dams beginning in 2006, costing ratepayers $658 million annually between 2002 and 2006, with $958 million needed annually between 2007 and 2012. The other alternative would cost roughly four percent more during the same time period but changes would be made at the dams, including $2 billion in dissolved gas work. After all this work is done, the dams would then be breached. Make sense? It does if the intent is to push the idea that breaching now is cheaper than breaching later. There does seem to be a single focus on breaching.

Lawsuit #. . .

To round out the effort by approaching it on another front, several environmental and commercial fishing groups have filed a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers for Clean Water Act violations at the lower Snake River dams. The groups include the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, American Rivers, Idaho River United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Washington Wildlife Federation and Idaho Wildlife Federation. A press release from the NWF states the lawsuit is part of a nationwide campaign to transform the Corps from a destroyer of nature to an ally in its restoration. The argument is that the dams raise the temperature of the Snake River and that dams cause excessive levels of total dissolved gas. Among other items, the plaintiffs asked the court to require the Corps to devise a schedule for achieving compliance with the temperature and gas quality standards as expeditiously as possible.

Only five swim Snake River

There are now 31 of a possible 49 salmon stocks, from California to Washington, listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including five candidates for listing. This follows the recent listing of nine more salmon and steelhead stocks under the ESA. Despite the focus and massive campaigns being waged against dams as a means to save the salmon, only five of the 31 listed stocks move through the four Snake River dams.

Glen Squires - Washington Wheat Commision
Agencies and Dams
WHEAT LIFE - p.33, July 1999

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