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Commentaries and editorials

Debating the Future
of Snake River Dams

by Marissa Luck
NW Public Radio, March 31, 2017

"Congress will not appropriate money because a judge says so."
-- Former U.S. Congressman Doc Hastings

River water 'spills' through Bonneville Dam spillways. Pro-dam and pro-breach panelists debated the future of Snake River dams earlier this week at Washington State University. Both sides refuted each other's facts, leaving the panel unable to find common ground.

The discussion stems from the 2016 Oregon U.S. District Court ruling by Judge Michael Simon rejecting the federal government's plan to protect endangered salmon in the Columbia River. The judge called the proposal inadequate and suggested the removal of one or more dams along the Snake River.

Panelist Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center said dam removal is an ineffective and shortsighted way to protect salmon. He compared it to the spotted owl conservation movement, when much of the logging in the West Coast was stopped to preserve old growth forest and the spotted owl. Timber jobs were lost, but habitat expansion didn't bring back the spotted owl due to unforeseen changes in the bird's ecosystem. Similarly, unforeseen changes in climate could make dam removal useless for conservation efforts, Myers said.

In contrast, Sam Mace of the conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon, said salmon populations would recover swiftly if the dams were removed.

"Snake River salmon spawn in the largest intact piece of habitat left in the lower 48 with thousands of miles of high elevation cold streams. They just can't get there right now in sufficient numbers. But with dam removal as a cornerstone, we could see a return to sustainable numbers."

"Climate change and failure to remove the dams," Mace warned, "would lead to more events like the Snake River salmon die-off in 2015."

Former U.S. Congressman Doc Hastings, who served as the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources until 2015, says further protection of salmon population is not urgent. Hastings counted hatchery salmon in the overall size of salmon runs.

"We are now seeing salmon runs in the Snake River that are exceeding or close to runs in 1938."

The anti-dam panelists do not count hatchery salmon the same as wild populations. According to Mace, hatchery salmon play a different role in the economy and ecosystem while wild salmon are necessary for hatchery populations for genetic diversity and to prevent disease.

Regarding the Snake's role in moving goods, Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United said commerce could move by rail instead of the river. Transportation via river barges, Lewis said, was only economically feasible with large subsidies.

Myers disagreed with the size of barge subsidies but did say $20 billion in goods are transported on Snake River barges.

Lewis countered that this was impossible given the primary goods transported is wheat. Lewis calculated the annual value of transported goods to be closer to $500 million.

In his closing statement Hastings said the current Congress would not allocate money for the project no matter what judges decide.

"Do you think congressmen in this state are going to go along with this? I can tell you, having had the privilege of being back there twenty years, that will not happen. Congress will not appropriate money because a judge says so."

The March 31th debate was hosted by the Washington Policy Center Young Professionals.

Marissa Luck
Debating the Future of Snake River Dams
NW Public Radio, March 31, 2017

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