A Salmon Plan that Benefits Fish
by Jim Bradford & Rob Masonis
It is difficult to think of a more inspiring story than that of the Snake River salmon and steelhead. These fish truly are one of Earth's most incredible animals, traveling 900 miles inland from the sea, gaining nearly 7,000 feet in elevation as they reach the Rocky Mountains. They bring to the forested rivers of central Idaho vital nutrients from the Pacific Ocean and are a key link in the web of life.
Sad to say, today their numbers have dwindled to less than 3 percent of their historic abundance of roughly 2 million, and all Snake River salmon and steelhead populations are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Just 27 sockeye salmon reached their spawning grounds at Idaho's Redfish Lake last year.
Saving these salmon means saving an amazing legacy, a legacy we are responsible for passing on to future generations. And if we can succeed in recovering the salmon to healthy, fishable numbers it would be the greatest environmental restoration success story of our time.
What will it take to save Snake River salmon? What if the federal government provided $6 billion to protect and restore salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers? Surely this would be more than enough money to restore Snake River salmon to the pristine wilderness of central Idaho that Lewis and Clark passed through exactly 200 years ago.
That is precisely the opportunity we have before us. The federal government has put $6 billion on the table to implement its new salmon plan for the Snake and Columbia rivers, but there's one problem: The government wants to spend a good chunk of this money on a plan to save four outdated dams on the lower Snake River, instead of truly recovering the fish, restoring the river's health and opening up promising new economic opportunities while preserving traditional economies.
The federal government's plan states plainly that it will not result in any significant improvement in Snake River wild salmon and steelhead populations. It accepts the enormous amount of mortality caused by the four lower Snake River dams. This will prevent the region from recovering Snake River salmon, no matter how much money, time and effort is spent on other measures to help the fish.
It doesn't have to be this way. The $6 billion could be used to remove the four out-dated dams on the lower Snake and restore 140 miles of free-flowing river, which scientists say is the only action that will recover Snake River salmon and steelhead to healthy, fishable populations.
It may come as no surprise that removing those four concrete walls from the path of salmon and steelhead would be a good thing for the fish, but what is likely surprising to many is that it will also be good for rural communities in the Snake River basin and the regional economy as a whole. How is this possible?
The four lower Snake River dams benefit the region in three main ways: They allow for river barge transportation of commodities; they provide roughly 4 percent of the region's electricity; and water drawn from one of the four reservoirs is used to irrigate farm land. Upgrading the railroads that already run along the Snake River, replacing the electricity generated by the lower Snake River dams with clean, renewable energy sources and retrofitting the irrigation system behind Ice Harbor Dam to allow water to be pumped from a free-flowing river have all been independently analyzed and determined to be viable, cost-effective alternatives to the dams.
And the beneficiaries of the dams could be kept whole. The projected minor increase in shipping costs for farmers could be covered with a very modest federal subsidy; replacing the electricity would cost residential ratepayers in the Northwest only $1-$3 per month, create a more reliable electricity supply and create up to 15,000 new jobs; and no irrigated farm land would be taken out of production.
All of this could be accomplished, including removal of the dams themselves, for well under half the $6 billion the federal government intends to spend over the next 10 years to perpetuate the same failed approach to managing Snake River salmon and steelhead that has been pursued for decades. An approach that the federal government admits will, at best, keep Snake River salmon and steelhead hovering near the brink of extinction.
And the economic case for removing the four lower Snake River dams gets even stronger. Restoring 140 miles of free-flowing river along the lower Snake and recovering healthy, fishable populations of wild salmon and steelhead would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to rural communities by vastly expanding the area's recreation-based economy. An independent analysis concluded that a free-flowing lower Snake River would generate more than $300 million each year as people visit the river to boat, hike, camp and observe wildlife. That is 10 times the economic value of current reservoir-based recreation on the lower Snake.
On top of that comes fishing revenue. A 2005 study estimates that restoring Snake River salmon and steelhead just to the levels of the 1950s would generate $544 million per year for Idaho's economy -- more than $200 million of which would go to rural river communities. Recreational fishing in Washington and Oregon also would benefit, and there would be fewer restrictions on commercial fishing imposed to protect depressed Snake River stocks. One only has to listen to the news these days to understand the huge impact of fishery closures on rural communities from the Washington and Oregon coasts to central Idaho.
The benefit of removing the four outdated lower Snake River dams should not be measured by dollars alone. Restoring a free-flowing river would breathe new life into the entire ecosystem. Water quality would improve and a wide variety of birds, wildlife and fish -- including sturgeon and lamprey -- would benefit. Game species such as deer, quail and partridge would once again have access to lush riverside habitat currently flooded by the dams.
By defending these four outdated dams, the federal government is preventing the recovery of Snake River salmon and steelhead and shrouding the region in a dark cloud of economic uncertainty. The current plan would chain the economy of Eastern Washington, central Idaho and much of the rest of the inland Northwest to a sluggish status quo.
It makes more sense to spend a portion of this $6 billion on measures that will let the inland Northwest reach its fullest potential. Instead of spending this money to save dams, why not invest it in people, agriculture, clean energy and improved rail transportation? Why not use this money in a way that revitalizes local businesses, and also restores the lower Snake River and its salmon?
Contrary to the claims of some, the debate about restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River is far from over, and for good reason. There is no other place in the continental United States with the potential to recover abundant wild salmon and steelhead at the scale possible in the Snake River basin. Thousands of miles of prime river habitat awaits these incredible fish that have for millions of years found their way home from the depths of the Pacific to the mountains of Idaho. Realizing that potential would provide a lasting legacy that we could bequeath to future generations, while at the same time creating new economic opportunities and a higher quality of life for residents of the Northwest.
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