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Commentaries and editorials

Dams Can Be Removed

by Reed Burkholder
Guest Opinion, Idaho Press, June 28, 2003

The four lower Snake River dams in southeastern Washington are a key reason why we have a salmon recovery problem in the wilderness areas of Idaho and northeastern Oregon. To solve this problem we need to tear them out.

And why not? These dams are of little benefit to the Northwest and removing them would cause little harm, or perhaps, no harm to the economy.

Consider first, water for agriculture. These dams do not serve agriculture by storing irrigation water or by diverting irrigation water into canals. Canals are not even used in this region of dryland grain and legume farming on the plateaus high above the Snake River.

Now consider "the waterway to Lewiston", the main reason these dams were built. Lewiston was promised an economic boom with the coming of locks and docks and commercial barges. But after the completion of the dams, not one new industry followed the flooding of the valley. All that happened was that barges took over business that had been handled by trains for decades.

Let's take a closer look at this 140 mile water highway:

  1. The waterway is unsuitable for shipping consumer items to Lewiston. As I understand it, all of the products sold at the local Albertsons and WalMart are shipped to Lewiston on trucks. None arrive by water.
  2. The waterway is unsuitable for Lewiston-produced products that have markets in cities that are north, south, or east of Lewiston. The waterway is limited to shipping products that move west to Portland ports.
  3. The waterway uses more land than is necessary. It requires that 35,000 acres be "permanently disturbed" by massive reservoirs. Trains could haul the same tonnage but only utilize 400 acres, the amount of land needed for track and railbeds.
  4. The waterway is unnecessary. Lewiston is served by a railroad, the Camas Prairie Railnet, and by two highways -- U.S. 95, which runs north and south, and U.S. Highway 12, which runs east and west.
  5. The waterway is harmful. 140 miles of river was flooded by the four lower Snake Reservoirs. Human communities along the river disappeared. The salmon runs were harmed to the extent that they are all listed under the Endangered Species Act or extinct. Eels also disappeared.
  6. The waterway ships low amounts of cargo. The Port of Lewiston does not appear on the list of America's Top 100 ports (listed by tonnage.)
  7. Taxpayers pay for the waterway. If shippers had to shoulder these expenses they would very likely turn to rail or truck.
Before we discuss the power generated by these dams, let's talk about power (electricity) in general:
  1. It is as common as soda pop. from batteries for toys to alternators in automobiles and generators in RVs. Electricity is everywhere and it's easy to acquire.
  2. Every urban center in America has reliable and affordable electricity. Dams are not required.
  3. There is no correlation between prosperity and low power rates. For instance, Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the country, yet it pays over 11 cents per kilowatt hour. Idaho has among the lowest per capita income even though it has "cheap hydropower."
  4. Hydropower is not adequate to supply the electrical energy needs of any state (it supplies less than 9 percent of the USA's power needs.) It is an old, low-output, unreliable technology without growth potential. Even in Idaho, which is known as a high percentage hydro state, we rely on coal-fired power plants like Jim Bridger in Wyoming to keep our lights on and our computers running.
  5. Modern power plants can be constructed quickly. For example, California completed 17 new power plants with a combined generating capacity of 4,600 megawatts in fourteen months as a result of the "energy crisis".
Now let's talk about the four lower Snake River hydropower dams.
  1. Though they are nearly 150 feet high and use all the water flowing from the Snake River Basin (includes the Payette, Boise, Salmon and Clearwater Rivers), these dams can be counted on for just 100 megawatts apiece. Hundreds of power plants around the country are reliable for more energy.
  2. These dams require that 35,000 acres of the lower Snake River valley be flooded, taken out of all other productive uses, and dedicated to power production (and to navigation). The same amount of power can be generated by modern technologies like the gas turbine on significantly less land, about 100 acres.
  3. In the fall when river flows are low these dams provide the "Northwest Power Pool" with about 1 percent of its energy.
  4. These dams make almost no contribution to the power supply of Idaho. BPA's regular customer's, small municipalities like Burley and co-ops like the Lost River Co-op, have a combined load of about 300 megawatts, of which about 12 percent is from the lower Snake (i.e. 36 average megawatts).
  5. Breaching these federal dams would have no effect on our power rates in Nampa and Boise. Our power comes from dams and coal-fired power plants owned by the Idaho Power Co. -- not from federal hydropower.

The bottom line is that the four lower Snake River dams are an economic problem for Idaho. They harm our salmon and steelhead runs, but give little in exchange. The fish runs some say are worth $190 million annually; the power and commercial navigation they provide to Idaho is worth just $20 million annually.

Let's put the facts on the table. Then let's work to provide Idaho with a permanent solution to the salmon recovery problem, a solution that begins with the removal of the four federal dams between Lewiston and Pasco.

Reed Burkholder, Boise
Dams Can Be Removed
Idaho Press, June 28, 2003

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