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Commentaries and editorials

Bush Team Says 'No'
To Breaching Dams on Snake

by Editors
Waterways Journal, September 14, 2004

Back in February we reported that efforts to breach dams on the Lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest were ongoing, even though the Bush administration had said it would not happen on their watch.

On August 31, according to the Washington Post, the Bush administration announced it will not remove dams on the Columbia and Snake river system to save endangered salmon.

The Post reported the issue is problematic but the "announcement rules out what the federal government had once described as the most scientifically sound… method for saving salmon in the heavily dammed river system."

Four years ago, the federal agencies responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act had said "breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term salmon survival and recovery than would other measures."

Leaders of those same agencies announced in Portland, Ore., on August 31 that "they have determined how to operate the dams in a way that 'will not jeopardize the fish.' "

According to Bob Lohn, northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the work of the service "shows that you can achieve recovery without removing the dams." The key would be the installation of removable spillway weirs that guide fish safely through the dams.

Of course, environmental groups were angered by the most recent announcement. Over the past 20 years they have repeatedly sued the federal government to force changes in the way the government operates the federally built hydroelectric system.

John Kober of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) says "by suggesting that the dams do not jeopardize fish, the Bush administration is contradicting decades of experience and volumes of their own scientific data." NWF is the lead plaintiff in an ongoing suit over river operations.

We don't think either the Clinton or Bush administrations ever suggested that dams do not jeopardize fish. That is a given. The challenge is to reduce the jeopardy without totally disrupting the production of hydroelectric power and dislocating enterprises whose existence depend upon commercial navigation. If a new procedure will help, it is worth a try.

Breaching dams is akin to banning semi trucks on highways to improve safety. Doing either would result in myriad other problems, not the least of which would be switching to rail transportation. One study said the Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railway Company claims it is willing to spend millions to build a new shuttle station to accommodate 110-car trains. Some doubt they would spend the money for shortline routes when longer routes are more profitable.

The railroad estimated it could make money charging a quarter a bushel. Arvid Lyons, manager of the Lewis-Clark Terminal Association, a major grain shipper in Lewiston, Idaho, says it cost twice as much to ship grain from Nampa, Idaho, to Portland, Ore., by rail as it does to ship by barge from Lewiston, an equal distance away. The Pacific Northwest Waterway Association (PNWA) concludes that eliminating competition would cause rail rates to rise even more because the railroads would have a virtual monopoly.

PNWA, which says breaching dams is extreme and risky, indicated in February that fish have been returning in record numbers and that juvenile salmon survival has increased dramatically to nearly double what it was in the 1970s. Of the 26 Northwest fish runs listed under the Endangered Species Act, only four are on the Snake River. Asking "what is the emergency?" PNWA said "taking out the dams does nothing for the other 22 runs."

Not to be ignored is that the Lower Snake River Feasibility Study environmental impact statement chose a non-breach alternative. And in its 2000 biological opinion, the NOAA Fisheries chose a non-breach approach.

An environmental reporter indicated that replacing barge transportation with rail would cost between $44 million and $420 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated in 2002 that the cost would be between $206 million and $541 million. Probably more accurate are the reported $1 billion cost to remove the dams and what would be a $400 million ($220 million more accurately) annual loss in hydropower production forever. The loss to those who depend on water transportation may be incalculable.

Most laughable is a 2002 Rand Corporation report that concluded that removing the four Snake River dams would have little to no impact on the regional economy.

On campaign swings through the region, President Bush has repeatedly insisted that dams on the Snake River are crucial to the economic life of the Pacific Northwest and that he would never allow them to be breached.

While critics argue that it is merely campaign talk, it is a promise Bush should keep.

Related Pages:
U.S. Says It Won't Remove Dams by Blaine Harden, The Washington Post 9/1/4

Bush Team Says 'No' To Breaching Dams on Snake
Waterways Journal, September 14, 2004

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