the film


Commentaries and editorials

Why is Bad Science Protecting
the Lower Snake River Dams?

by Borg Hendrickson
High Country News, August 12, 2015

(Darin Oswald) Fish ladders at the the Lower Granite Dam had water that was too warm for salmon, but turbine manipulation saved the day. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the country's dam-building agency, sounded like it knew what it was talking about in 2002. After spending six years and $30 million, the agency confidently recommended not breaching four fish-killing dams on the Lower Snake River.

But now, backed by 15 years of data primarily from the Corps itself, we can say that the Corps was dead wrong. Its claims of being able to help salmon flourish while keeping the dams intact were wildly optimistic. Here's what the agency's Walla Walla District staffers believed was better than breaching:

In 2002, the Corps did identify potential benefits of dam-breaching, such as increased angling, commercial fishing, general recreation, and a benefit it identifies as "passive use" values, including public appreciation of the integrity of a natural river and its availability for generations to come. The total benefit calculated for post-breaching annual passive use alone was a hefty $420.13 million. Yet the Corps ignored its own finding.

Doing so today would be illegal. A 2013 policy, "Federal Principles and Guidelines for Water and Land Related Resources Implementation Studies," now requires the inclusion of passive values. If this policy had been in place in 2002, the Corps would have had to admit that leaving the four dams intact made no sense from an economic perspective.

When Jim Waddell of Port Angeles, Washington, a retired 35-year veteran of the Corps, recently reanalyzed the agency's 2002 study, he found that it had underestimated the cost of retaining the four dams by $160.7 million a year over the project's 100-year life. What's more, he says, internal Corps documents clearly show that the Walla Walla District knew there were false assumptions, errors and omissions in the agency's study. Nonetheless, for reasons of cost and expediency, the Corps chose not to correct those errors.

Waddell's analysis is revelatory and deeply disturbing. Let's hope that it opens the agency's eyes so that staffers weigh the true costs and potential waste of keeping these four dams in place. Let's hope, too, that it opens the eyes of national leaders evaluating infrastructural wastes versus needs. It is long past time for the river to run free.

Borg Hendrickson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. She lives in north central Idaho, and is co-author of Clearwater Country: The Traveler's Historical and Recreational Guide, Lewiston, Idaho - Missoula, Montana.
Why is Bad Science Protecting the Lower Snake River Dams?
High Country News, August 12, 2015

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