Doing Away With Damsby Editorial Board
San Francisco Chronicle, August 16, 2009
President Obama is playing for time before wading into one of the oldest - and most far-reaching - disputes in the West's water wars: the fate of four dams on the Snake River in Washington. But eventually he and his policy team should muster the courage to go with a sweeping but science-backed option: Take down the string of outmoded structures that impede salmon.
It's a plausible stance that is already guiding demolition plans for four similar dams on the upper Klamath River on the California and Oregon border. A decision to breach a dam on the Snake could widen a trend already under way to re-evaluate water, power and environmental problems brought on by the aging structures.
Built more than a half century ago, the Washington state dams were designed to shunt water to wheat farmers (bluefish: NW wheat farmers do not irrigate but rely on precipitation, see iceharbr.htm. However, wheat farmerss very near to the Lower Snake River typically barge their product to Portland), crank out electricity and provide a shipping waterway along the lower Snake River, flowing from Idaho into the Columbia River.
But there was a hidden cost, one that's drawn debate for over a decade: a sharp decline in salmon that's left a dozen strains endangered or near extinction.
Under legal pressure, federal operators have spent an incredible $8 billion to save the fish. There have been new hatcheries, extra scientific monitoring and dam improvements. Other steps border on comedy: salmon fingerlings are carried by barge through shipping locks or driven, limo-style, by tanker trucks downriver to avoid turbines and harmful spillways.
A federal judge in Portland, not surprisingly, has had enough. Last week, U.S. District Judge James Redden gave federal authorities an extra month to say where they stand on a third try at devising answers for the plight of the salmon.
The judge has also signaled he will consider breaching the dams if other solutions aren't convincing. For months, the Obama team has deployed a flying squad of experts to sound out the participants in the complicated, history-heavy saga.
There's a glimmer of hope in the hurried finale. All sides - Indian tribes, farmers, environmentalists, power agencies and riverside cities - want a solution, not a prolonged fight. The pressure of a judicial dictate is obliging the warring sides to get together on a compromise plan that the White House can join as well.
But, please, no more half measures that don't do the job. Tearing down the dams, which could take 10 to 15 years, could work if done right. Farmers could draw irrigation water from the free-flowing river. The power output - only 5 percent of the region's needs - could be replaced by system upgrades and conservation. Grain shipments might travel by rail instead of barge operations.
Whatever the judge does will send echoes throughout the region. Breaching the Snake dams would add impetus to the demolition plans on the Klamath, now expected to start in 2020.
But something else is going on. Dams aren't the infrastructure darlings they once were. Since 1999, 430 dams have come down, according to the American Rivers environmental group. The reasons are largely economic: Maintenance is high as the concrete walls age. Also, power needs can be supplied by other sources. The decline of migrating salmon and steelhead are also a factor.
These problems don't mean all dams are doomed or new ones will never be built. Dam defenders note that hydropower is produced without emissions. And flood control and growing water needs remain issues that are suited for the water-controlling structures.
There are other challenges. Removing a dam unleashes years of mud and silt settled on old river bottoms. Also, emptied-out reservoirs must be brought back to nature. Communities that grew up around dams will need to change as well. Pulling the plug is just the start.
No wonder the Obama team is taking its time. Dam demolition charts a new, uncertain course. But the present direction is filled with risks, too. It's time to chart a new future for the Snake - and other rivers as well.
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