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Commentaries and editorials

Bypassing the Debate Over Dams

by Editors
The Oregonian, May 20, 2000

Port looks past dam breaching
to focus on restoring salmon habitat in the Columbia;
it may be right

The decision by the Port of Portland commission last week to back a broad-based strategy for restoring endangered salmon and steelhead -- as an alternative to breaching four dams on the lower Snake River -- might seem at first glance to be self-serving. After all, the port has an enormous economic stake in making sure that maritime transportation is maintained in order to enable regional businesses to compete in the global marketplace. And breaching those dams, thus eliminating barge transportation on the lower Snake, would clearly not be in the best business interests of the port. Yet the port commission's resolution doesn't just put dam breaching on the deep back burner in order to maintain the economic status quo. Rather, the commission appears to be committed to an aggressive strategy to restore habitat in the lower Columbia estuary. Since the National Marine Fisheries Service now thinks the estuary might kill as many salmon and steelhead as the dams, the port's decision may be in the fish's interest -- as well as its own. A careful reading of the port's resolution shows that the commissioners are not taking dam breaching off the table. They're just saying -- along with the fisheries service and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber -- that breaching dams is not the only way to save imperiled salmon and steelhead. The fisheries service, when it releases its long-awaited biological opinion next month, is expected to recommend that dam breaching be put on hold for five to 10 years, while the region concentrates its efforts on improving the health of streams and tributaries in the entire Columbia River Basin. The port's commitment to taking a leadership role in restoring habitat in the lower Columbia River estuary is welcome news for two reasons: It pushes others in the region to get past the paralyzing debate over dam breaching and start doing something to aid salmon and steelhead in other ways. Kitzhaber shares that goal, but he -- unwisely, we think -- chose to endorse breaching in order to end the debate. The port's choice, as well as the course that the fisheries service is laying out, is to bypass the debate over dams by making that the option of last resort. It would allow the port to leverage millions of federal tax dollars that would be available through the port's planned Columbia River channel deepening project to make the estuary a healthier place for migrating young salmon. Indeed, the Columbia River estuary is a critical place to focus major salmon recovery efforts. All 13 listed stocks of salmon and steelhead pass through the estuary, using it to transition from fresh to salt water. The Snake River dams impact only three of these listed stocks. That the port's commissioners haven't taken the Snake River dam breaching option off the table entirely speaks persuasively about its commitment to rescue these fish. The port's pledge to become a major player in salmon habitat restoration shows that it's not just interested in maritime business as usual.

Bypassing the Debate Over Dams
The Oregonian, May 20, 2000

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