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Commentaries and editorials

Babbitt Confident
Snake River Dams Will Come Down

by Sheryl Harris, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, March 18, 2005

Former Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told about 250 people at Whitman College that, "I saw there had never been a dam dismantled for the purpose of restoration. I wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest; I wanted to make my mark in history by tearing down a dam." WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Bruce Babbitt says he believes "the salmon are going extinct," that the Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the lower Snake River are a large part of the problem, and that he has a solution.

The former secretary of Interior was speaking March 7 to an audience of 250 to 300 students and local citizens at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

Regarding the dams, Babbitt said, "Im quite certain these dams will come down. Ultimately public opinion will come around. I dont know if it will happen in my lifetime, but Im quite certain it will happen in yours."

Nola Conway, Corps of Engineers spokesperson in Walla Walla, also attended the presentation.

"Remove the dams or extinction is a false choice," said Conway. "He uses sockeye salmon as an indicator, but the Okanogan River sockeye are healthy, and they have dams.
(bluefish notes: 27 Sockeye returned to Idaho in 2004, see 22 Sockye Return)

"Twelve species are listed in the runs with another species proposed, but only four pass those Lower Snake River Dams. Babbitts plan would do nothing for those other eight or nine listed runs."

Conway said all(?) species increased in 2002-2003 and the 2004 Chinook runs, the latest in a five-year trend, were "the second-highest on record."
(bluefish notes: Idaho Sockeye runs were 26 in 2001, 22 in 2002, 3 in 2003, 27 in 2004. See Count the Fish)

While he did not attend Babbitts speech at Whitman College, Glenn Vanselow, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said he disagrees with Babbitts assessment of the salmon condition.

"The counts of adult Chinook salmon passing Ice Harbor Dam have more than doubled what they were since 1964, when records were first kept," he said. "Virtually all stocks of fish (but not Snake River Sockeye) in the Columbia and Snake river basins have enjoyed similar or better returns in recent years."

According to Conway, a Corps of Engineers feasibility study shows that breaching the dams would release 75 million cubic yards of the silt that has built up behind them, producing water conditions lethal to salmon.

When asked about the silt issue, Babbitt said, "There is a fair amount of gunk particles in the upper dams, but good science is coming that will deal with that."

Babbitt said methods other than barging should be found for transporting grain. "Why dont we get the grain off the river and onto the land, and get the fish off the land and back into the water? ... I saw grain silos on the river below Lower Granite; I also saw railroad tracks. Now that doesnt sound complicated, does it?"

Glen W. Squires, analyst for the Washington Wheat Commission, said he is familiar with Babbitts proposal, and that it would take about 48,000 more railcars or 192,000 more semi-trucks to handle "just the wheat."

  Tons of Wheat
on Lower Snake

(See snaketon.htm)
Bushels of Wheat
on Lower Snake

(35 bushels/ton)
Rail Hopper
Equivalent

(100 tons/Hopper)
Semi-Truck
Equivalent

(26 tons/Semi-truck)
1998 3,588,606 102,530   35,886 138,020  
1999 3,188,553 91,100 31,885 91,100
2000 3,719,200 106,260   37,192 143,050  
2001 3,290,100 94,000 32,091 126,540  
2002 2,482,700 70,930 24,827 95,490

When asked whom he had spoken with in the wheat industry, Babbitt said that was privileged information that could not be divulged.

Gretchen Borck, Washington Wheat Growers director of issues, said, "Babbitt hasnt spoken to us."

Said Squires, "Nobody from the commission talked to Babbitt."

When asked who would pay for the extra railcars or trucks, and for upgrading the infrastructure to handle the increased urban congestion and emissions, Babbitt said those and other expenses would initially would come out of the $6 billion pot the Bush administration has tagged to spend over the next 10 years on as Babbitt put it "tinkering with the dams."

Conway said Babbitt is incorrect as to the purpose for that money. "The $6 billion is directed primarily to add improvements on the lower Columbia dams, habitat restoration outside the dam areas, and hatchery production, not the Snake," she said. "Half of that funding(?) is generated by power from the dams that he wants to eliminate. And there is still dam construction debt that would have to be paid."

(bluefish notes: Total Electricity sales runs from the Lower Snake River dams around $280 million per year, while costs associated with the Lower Snake River dams runs around 180 million per year. A net revenue of around $90 million is about 15% of the projected annual $600 million salmon recovery costs which is not 'Half of the funding' as ACOE's Nola Conway suggests.)

Asked for the source of the dam-removal costs and benefits figures he cited, Babbitt said to check with the Corps of Engineers for their 1999 report. (See Army Corps of Engineers' 1999 Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study)

Conway said the report she thinks he meant was actually completed in February 2002, but that it was only a draft, not a completed study, and that those figures showed the costs outweighed the benefits. (See Breaching Dam Myths Oregon Quarterly, Autumn 2000 by Ed Whitelaw)

Babbitt said he has learned to ask, "Who are the users, and what are the real costs if they are taken out of the system?"

In addition to the farmers, ranchers, communities and small industries along the rivers, Vanselow said about 40,000 people just in Portland have jobs that depend on the Columbia/Snake system, and that "The inland barge system supports almost $15 billion in international trade." Vanselow also said it ranks as the top import/export gateway in the United States for wheat and barley, second for corn, and it holds the West Coasts top position "for mineral bulks, forest products and paper products."

(bluefish notes: Regardless of the existence of Lower Snake River dams, wheat will still get to market. Most of the grain would likely be trucked to the Columbia River and placed on barge there.)

Babbitt sought to dispel questions about whom he is working for. He told the Walla Walla audience, "Im on my own payroll because I believe this is the most important unfinished piece of business from my tenure."

Related Pages:
Dam Buster Babbitt by Jerome Hanson, Capital Press, 2/18/5
Babbitt: Fix Economies not Dams by Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune, 3/7/5
22 Sockeye Return by Jennifer Sandmann, Times-News, 9/1/4


Sheryl Harris, Freelance Writer
Babbitt Confident Snake River Dams Will Come Down
Capital Press, March 18, 2005

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