Removing Dams Downstream
by Reed Burkholder
Editor's note: U.S. District Judge James Redden -- who rejected the federal government's salmon recovery plan in late May -- will be back in court Friday in Portland to discuss what to do in the short term. His decisions could affect industry, Indian tribes, recreationists, shippers and water users. This week, Idahoans will write about the value of salmon -- and the tradeoffs of recovery.
When federal dam builders completed the dams downstream of Lewiston in the mid-1970s, the fish runs of central Idaho declined so quickly that all wild salmon seasons were closed by 1978. Federal salmon savers tried to rescue the runs and spent millions, but Idaho's wild salmon fishing seasons have remained closed for 27 consecutive years.
How can society correct this problem of wilderness areas in the Snake River Basin that no longer have healthy anadromous fish runs? We need to remove downstream reservoirs and restore downstream river. Our congressmen need to authorize dam removal beginning with Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor -- four federal dams in southeastern Washington on the lower Snake River. Idaho has much to gain by this action. A recent economic study estimates $544 million annually in economic activity in Idaho if the salmon and steelhead runs return to the levels of the 1950s and '60s.
But how can people unaware of the high cost and low value of big dams accept dam removal? They need the facts. Let me mention a few.
Regarding agriculture: The four lower Snake River dams do not serve the agricultural community with irrigation storage or irrigation diversion into canals. Farms of the Moscow, Lewiston and Grangeville area are watered by rain water; canals are not used in this region to deliver irrigation water. Indeed, the reservoirs are so low in elevation (lower than the bottom of Hells Canyon) that they are hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet below the farms.
Regarding the navigation waterway: The reservoirs flooded the old railroad track, and the Corps of Engineers built a new one. Trains operate on it daily. The sparsely used waterway is perhaps the most harmful transportation system in our region, and not just for salmon. The reservoirs permanently disturbed 35,000 acres of what used to be farms, ranches, orchards, villages, and fish and wildlife habitat (the rail track utilizes about 400 acres and is benign by comparison). The four dams flooded 140 miles of a very large Western river, the Snake (the rail track is harmless to rivers.) The reservoirs and dams caused the coho salmon to go extinct and the Redfish Lake sockeye to become functionally extinct. Lamprey also disappeared in the Clearwater and Grand Ronde basins where they used to be plentiful (the railroad is benign to fish).
Regarding electricity: The old technology inside the dam's powerhouses produces relatively small amounts of energy that are severely unreliable. To assure adequate supply and reliability, the growing Northwest has turned increasingly to more modern, less harmful technologies powered by coal, natural gas and wind. Idaho Power gives us a good example of what's happening around the Northwest. Once upon a time Idaho Power was all hydro. Now it also uses coal, natural gas and wind. In fact, during the past twelve months, coal generators produced 55 percent of its generation. I suggest that removing our most harmful dams is a good and beneficial path toward salmon recovery and a stronger economy.
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