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Breach of Faith

by Ed Scofield
The Local Planet, October 12, 2000

Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor-the names are unfamiliar even to residents of Southeastern Washington.

But these dams, built during the l960s and 1970s, substantially influence the region's standard of living through electric power generation, irrigation, recreation and transportation. They have also devastated wild fish runs, which is why they are under attack. Environmentalists and sports recreationists have documented their deleterious effects on wild salmon and steelhead that allegedly violate the 1967 Endangered Species Act. The environmentalists' assault works like a pincer, utilizing both political influence and the courts. Every candidate for Congress in eastern Washington has made defense of the dams a campaign centerpiece. For George Nethercutt, whose district houses the dams, and Sen. Slade Gorton, hoping for another six years in the Senate, the issue is a virtual Thor's Hammer. Even George W. Bush, in his first debate with Al Gore, posed himself as the dams' champion.

Lest anyone rush out to hoard candles and oil lamps, let the record be set straight; even under the most aggressive scenario, no dam will be breached before ten or fifteen years. In fact, no decision will come before 2005, according to unnamed Clinton administration officials. And then there would be the uncountable further "studies," scurrying for the billions of dollars necessary to perform the breach, and finally congressional authorization.

And that's not all; last July the federal government released its own plan outlining a variety of drastic proposals to increase wild salmon runs. The report stopped short of recommending the breaching of any dam. Despite the government's recommendations for water draw downs at Dworshak Reservoir and Banks Lake and a potential cost of one billions plus dollars, the four dams will still generate electricity and barges will still ply the Snake River. The Army Corps of Engineers, whose report was expected before November but probably won't appear until after Bill Clinton scurries from office, is also expected to stop short of recommending breaching.

If fact, since Oregon's governor John Kitzhaber turned over his political tarot card and joined governors Locke, Kempthorne and Racicot of Washington, Idaho and Montana in support of dam retention, virtually no elected support for breaching remains in the Inland Northwest. West of the Cascades, one finds scant support for it outside of the Seattle City Council. Among officeholders whose environmentalist rhetoric suggests a predilection to drastic measures, few have ventured beyond the vague and undecipherable when the dams are mentioned. Al Gore's and Sen. Bill Bradley's words on the issue have been inscrutable. Only New Mexico Representative Tom Udall unequivocally favors breaching. For that he faces severe retribution should Sen. Slade Gorton, baron of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, have a bad wig day and decide that New Mexico rather than Nevada will become the nation's nuclear wastebasket.

But, as 1994 proved, Congresses and Presidents come and go. The political landscape could prove far rockier for the dam protectors in the next few years. If alternative proposals to improve fish runs fail, and environment-minded Democrats take Congress and the White House, the likelihood of a free-running Lower Snake river increases greatly.

All this is old news to Les Wigen. The Whitman County commissioner's easy manner and hesitant speech liken him to a bit player from The Andy Griffith Show. In truth, Wigen's knowledge of the breach issue is encyclopedic, his commitment to dam retention intense. He remembers in detail a precursor to breaching, the draw down of 1980. "It was terrible. This is what really got me going." He speaks of the "mud flats," 150 feet on each side. It "smelled like the ocean." The project was Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus' idea. Wigen thinks that he "wanted to destroy commerce" in the region. "The draw down took weight off of the retaining wall where the road was." It resulted in closing the road and a $450,000 repair bill. That, says Wigen, "will happen to all roads next to water...they will dry up and fall out." He remembers the effects on the environment. "It killed bass and trout." Fortunately, notes Wigen, "farmers got their harvests to market early." He doesn't think much of some environmentalist's commitment to fish. Especially Andrus. According to Wigen in 1992, under Andrus's administration, some Idaho lakes were poisoned by the state Fish and Game Service. "Some of the poison got into the rivers and killed wild salmon."

Wigen directs his rancor now at Seattle's city council, who passed a pro-breach resolution. "The waterway is part of the highway system and Seattle wants to destroy it. These dams are as important as the four bridges on the I-5 corridor." Wigen, twinkle in eye, hauls out his old standby blunderbuss; "How would they like it if we decided to take out the Ballard Locks?"

When confronted with the possibility of a Gore victory, Wigen's demeanor shifts from that of Floyd the barber to Sam Adams. "That's what (Gore) wants. I think there will be a revolution in eastern Washington if (the dams) go out."

Even without breaching the dams, the federal government's proposals to save the salmon via other options will heavily influence the regional economy. Among the government's short-of breach recommendations are August draw down of Banks Lake in Washington five feet beyond the August level, a potential water drop at Idaho's Dworshak Reservoir, lowering Lake Roosevelt's minimum summer level by two feet, government purchase of water from Idaho irrigators, restoration of streams in agricultural areas, federal purchase of land sited along flood plains, changes in hatchery procedures and permanent public easements to protect fish habitat along tributaries. These options could cost more than would the breaching of the dams, and with less promise for fish restoration. Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon thinks that dam proponents are unaware that "the hit to farmers will be more than if the dams stay." He predicts that "one-quarter of a million acres of irrigated Idaho farmland will be lost."

Irving Kristol, whose spawn Bill migrated to Washington D.C. to become Vice President Quayle's Svengali, years back wrote Two Cheers For Capitalism. In it he said of zealous environmentalists that they don't want simply to clean the air and water; they want to end technological civilization. They desire, he wrote, to "create an ‘environment' that pleases them." He noted that the "sovereignty" of consumers and voters means little to them. Litigation has of late proved an effective means to such ends.

Courts, especially since the Warren years of the 50's and 60's, have proven effective in subverting the majority's will, exercised in both private and public sectors. With pusillanimous legislators more than willing to transfer sensitive political issues to the courts, an increasing possibility exists that the whole issue might land on the desk of a un-elected federal judge whose tenure is secure and pay intact until the Grim Reaper pays a chamber call. Armed with his own peculiar reading of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental legislation, a judge could exercise his "penumbras" and "emanations" in such a way to devastate the regional economy. Breaching the dams might be but the start; irrigation, industrial development and electrical generation could be jeopardized next.

Which is all the more reason to persue serious attempts to restore wild salmon runs, including even breaching the dams should alternative solutions fail. To do otherwise would place the welfare of Eastern Washington's economy at the mercy of a federal judge's gavel.

Ed Scofield
Breach of Faith
The Local Planet, October 12, 2000

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