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Breaching Brief

by Robert Stokes
Northwest Inlander, November 22, 2001

Next month, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decides whether breaching four Snake River dams is required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If NMFS says yes, dam supporters will take their case to Congress. If the agency says no, breaching proponents will go to court. Either way, the fight will continue after the agency makes its decision.

Opponents of the dams say their continued operation will eliminate native salmon and steelhead from the Snake River. They also say the economic consequences of breaching them will be moderate. Dam supporters claim breaching will severely damage agriculture, shipping and other industries that use the services provided by the dams. They also claim breaching the dams will do little for the salmon that could not be accomplished at lower cost. One hard cost of breaching is the loss of 15 percent of Bonneville's hydroelectric capacity.

To better understand this complex issue, it's helpful to take a few steps back and ask some basic questions:

Don't be fooled by claims that science has already answered these questions. The only thing such assertions can mean is that a majority of scientists and other experts (in and out of government) share the same opinion. Rule one of science is that no answer is ever true or final. Research results are just today's best available answer. Sometimes, as with smoking and cancer, results are dramatic enough to justify reporting them to the public as facts.

The complexities of nature make that kind of certainty unlikely for salmon recovery research. Further, economic interests and ideology divide experts as well as laymen. Environmentalists want to restore free flowing rivers, as well as preserve salmon. This gives them a bias in favor of breaching, regardless of which recovery measure is best for salmon. Users of the services provided by the dams want to keep those services, salmon or no salmon.

Other economic groups hope breaching will head off recovery measures more harmful to their interests. Sport, commercial and tribal salmon harvesters would prefer breaching, rather than further catch restrictions. Some Idaho farmers would also prefer breaching, rather than having their irrigation water used to flush salmon through the reservoirs. Meanwhile, hanging over the entire issue is the fear that if certain runs do go extinct, lawsuits from Native Americans related to fishing rights treaties could cost the federal government many millions. And to complicate things even more, everyone has their own experts, in and out of government.

Somehow, the public must sort out what is more or less true, and more or less important. It will not be easy, but this could be the region's most important environmental/economic decision in decades.

Robert Stokes taught natural resource and marine economics at the University of Washington for 20 years before retiring to Spokane.
Breaching Brief
Northwest Inlander, November 22, 2001

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