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Commentaries and editorials

Compromise on Salmon

by Editorial Board
The Columbian, April 6, 2018

Dams vs. fish battle has dragged on too long;
find sensible middle ground

Water runs through spillway gates of Lower Monumental Dam on the Lower Snake River in southeastern Washington. Increased spills benefit salmon. Seemingly ceaseless wrangling over the fate of salmon and the role of dams along Northwest rivers involves frustrating intransigence on both sides. In other words, stop us if you have heard this story before.

The latest salvo in the debate is a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided this week that spills over dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers must be increased in an effort to aid the migration of salmon and steelhead to the Pacific Ocean. The ruling upheld a decision last year from a U.S. District Court in Oregon, a decision that was challenged by, among others, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The appeals court decision reads, “At best, federal defendants establish uncertainty about the benefits of increased spill, but the existence of scientific uncertainty does not render the district court’s findings clearly erroneous.” Environmental groups who favor the spills note that increases have been mandated by the courts four times since 2005, but government entities argue that the spills will have minimal benefits while increasing costs to the public.

Increased spills will allow juvenile salmon heading downstream to pass over the top of dams, rather than through the turbines. The action will decrease the amount of electricity produced by the dams, and Bonneville Power Administration officials estimate a cost of up to $40 million per year will be passed on to ratepayers. “It’s like flushing money down the river,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.

Hydroelectricity has been transformative for the Northwest, generating inexpensive and reliable power for generations. It is a linchpin of the region’s economy, providing a renewable source of clean energy at a predictable price. The dams also help facilitate irrigation that is needed by farmers.

Still, there have been drawbacks, particularly for Native Americans who trace their ancestry in this region back for centuries. Dams have diminished salmon runs that provided sustenance for thousands of years and could be an economic boon today, and there is a small but vocal population that suggests complete dam removal is the preferred solution. Proponents argue that full salmon restoration could support thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars annually in the tourism and recreation industries.

Such a suggestion is too extreme to be plausible. Removing large dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers would have an unpredictable impact upon the economics and the culture of the entire Northwest. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho comprise more than 13 million residents, nearly all of them reliant upon hydroelectric power in one way or another.

Instead, there must be room for middle ground. Restoring salmon runs is a worthy goal, but only if it can be accomplished without undermining the economy of the entire region.

Along the same lines, the federal government must follow its own science in developing the best possible practices for bolstering salmon runs. Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented conservation groups in court, said: “After more than 20 years of federal failure, salmon are in desperate need of help now. The measures upheld will give salmon a fighting chance while the federal government catches up to the scale and urgency of what the law requires to protect these fish from extinction.”

For the benefit of both salmon and the public, it would be best if interested parties set aside their differences to identify a common goal. We have, indeed, heard this story before, but we still are waiting for viable solutions.


Editorial Board
Compromise on Salmon
The Columbian, April 6, 2018

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