The Dam Questionby Editors
The Register-Guard, November 20, 2006
If the Northwest's endangered salmon runs exist 100 years from now, future generations are unlikely to regret that the dams were breached or that electricity costs were increased in order to save the iconic fish.
Yet Bush administration officials continue to cite what they insist is the prohibitive expense of removing the four Snake River dams that represent the greatest threat to the survival of salmon runs in the Columbia River basin.
A new report challenging that assumption should prompt a fresh and honest look at the feasibility and benefits of removing the Snake dams. If its conclusions are correct, breaching the dams would cost significantly less than leaving them intact and paying the billions of taxpayer dollars necessary to attempt to ensure that the fish survive.
Northwest salmon runs have dwindled over the past 150 years as a result of mining and logging in vulnerable headwaters; downstream grazing, irrigation, farming, and industrial and residential development; and large-scale commercial fishing in the ocean.
But the construction of dams in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular those along the Snake - the last four built in the Northwest - have pushed several Columbia-Snake salmon runs to the brink.
Sponsored by groups including Republicans for Environmental Protection, the Northwest Fishing Industry Association and the Northwest Energy Coalition, the new report estimates that dam breaching would cost the region $6 billion over 10 years . But restoring river flows to aid salmon migration would offset that cost by saving taxpayers and electricity consumers nearly $5 billion.
The report says conservation efforts and new sources of sustainable energy, such as wind-generating plants, can replace the power that would be lost if the dams are removed. It also estimates that the resulting rapid recovery of salmon would prompt a five-fold increase in commercial fishing, sport fishing and recreational opportunities in the Columbia Basin.
Not surprisingly, federal agencies and the power industry dispute these findings. They point to a six-year-old federal study, which estimated that dam removal would result in losses to the region's economy of $6 billion over 20 years .
The government's criticism should be weighed against its failure to make the political and financial commitments necessary to halt what has become a death spiral for salmon. An unhealthy and unscientific reliance on hatcheries threatens to turn the Columbia Basin into what former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently called a "third-rate fish farm."
Federal officials must abandon their ludicrous assertion that the dams are permanent fixtures of the ecosystem. As former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a longtime proponent of removing the dams, recently said, "We have to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that our choices will be easier and cheaper if we just leave the dams alone."
Three years ago, President Bush stood on one of the Snake dams and declared that it would never be torn down - and that salmon could recover despite the presence of dams on the river.
The newly elected Democratic Congress should challenge that assumption by ordering a new federal study examining both the benefits and costs of dam removal. And by insisting that the administration do whatever it takes - including the removal of dams, if necessary - to protect Columbia River salmon.
Here's how Taxpayers for Common Sense adds up the numbers.
Continuing to operate the dams will require $7.8 billion to $9.09 billion in the next decade. That includes:
Source: "Revenue Stream," Taxpayers for Common Sense
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