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The Debate Over the Snake River Dams

by Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times - November 28, 1999

PRESCOTT, Walla Walla County - Set aside for a moment all the studies and reports, the arguments and analysis, the lobbying and ad campaigns, and even an upcoming, $20 million federal report on breaching the four Lower Snake River dams.

In the end, Congress will decide whether the dams should stay or go. And that decision, probably years off, will come down to something far more difficult to face than any stack of paper or any abstract debate.

It will come down to people whose lives are intertwined with the dams. It will come down to telling them it's time to redefine progress, this time on salmons' terms.

In a region where progress for more than 200 years has been synonymous with taming and harnessing nature, dismantling dams for fish is a most heretical notion.

Like others who make a living from the river impounded by the Lower Snake River dams, grower Ralph Broetje of Prescott figured the dams would always be there.

He has built an empire on that assumption, planting 4,000 acres of apples, believed to be the world's largest apple orchard under single ownership, with every tree depending on water from the Snake River. His orchard employs 700 workers year round and 1,700 at the peak of the harvest.

He has built housing for 580 year-round employees, with sodded and landscaped grounds. He built a preschool, an elementary school, a day-care center, a gymnasium, a chapel, a soccer field, even a convenience store and gas station for his workers.

His wages are at the top of the fruit industry's scale, and his workers are devoted, some staying on more than 20 years. His operation has grown so large Broetje has his own packing house and cold-storage facilities, handling 6 million boxes of fruit a year, all from his own trees.

As geese stitch "V" formations over his land stretching to the Snake River, Broetje wonders out loud whether Congress will indeed yank the dams that made all this possible.

"We are just praying common sense will prevail," said Broetje, a gentle soul in a rumpled shirt and beat-up truck who's probably worth millions.

Some of his employees, who owe everything to Broetje's farm, can't believe their jobs are at risk.

"I've been here 26 years, from back when there was nothing here but sagebrush and sand," said Tomas Madrigal, 49, who came to this country illegally from Mexico as a teenager and worked his way up to U.S. citizenship, a fluent command of English and a teaching job at Broetje's school.

"Thousands of people live from this river. Taking it away is like putting the rope on our necks, and hanging us. It would kill us," Madrigal said. "We grew up here. We live here. I know it's important to fish, but we are humans. We are people."

Only one of the four dams, Ice Harbor, is currently used by farmers for irrigation, watering about 37,000 acres on 13 farms. But those statistics don't capture the vast investment at stake for those farms, nearly all of which cover thousands of acres each.

Nor do they reflect the thousands of farm workers and inland farmers whose livelihoods depend upon the dams not only for irrigation water but to ship crops via the inland waterway created by the dams. The waterway stretches all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, the nation's most inland seaport, 465 miles from the Pacific.

Even in towns such as Pasco, Franklin County, people are dead-set against dam removal, despite economists' predictions that the town would boom if it happened. Pasco, a growing city of about 28,000, would become the region's most inland seaport.

Some of the opposition has nothing to do with economics or science, and everything to do with values and a world view that is rooted in the dams.

Above all, people in farm country say they value their neighbors. Anything that causes harm upstream won't be embraced downstream.

Once there was a wealth of fish

Historically, as many as 16 million salmon and steelhead returned each year to the Columbia River basin to spawn. By the 1960s, about 5 million fish returned. Today, 1 million adult fish are making it back to the spawning grounds, and most of them are hatchery born.

Twelve Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead runs are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, including Snake River spring and summer chinook, Snake River fall chinook and Snake River steelhead. Most desperate of all is the plight of the RedFish Lake sockeye, whose numbers in some years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The crash of fish populations throughout the basin can be traced directly to the region's development.

Forestry, farming, mining and urbanization have destroyed tributary habitat. Construction of four major federal hydropower dams in the Columbia River and four more on the Lower Snake destroyed main-stem habitat for some species of salmon and impeded migration for adults and baby fish.

Overfishing has also killed off adult fish at sea and in the Columbia River.

Hatcheries have been heavily used to prop up fish runs, but they came at a cost. Scientists believe poor hatchery practices introduced inbreeding and competition for food and habitat, and may have spread disease to wild fish.

Moreover, hatchery fish were pumped into the river system at the rate of 200 million fish a year during the hatchery heyday of the early 1990s. That led to more fishing, which killed more wild fish.

Today there are more than 100 hatcheries throughout the basin, turning out about 150 million fish a year.

About 80 percent of the adult salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia Basin today were spawned in a plastic bucket.

Billions spent; fish still in trouble

As wild runs crashed, the region responded with money. At least $3 billion has been spent since 1980 by federal taxpayers and utility ratepayers to restore Columbia Basin runs.

Columbia and Snake River salmon are counted, sorted, tagged, barged and microchipped. Radio tags are slid down their throats, and balloons embedded in their fins track their movement through the dams.

Fish managers have fended off baby-salmon-gobbling gulls with firecrackers, piano wire and air guns; paid bounty hunters to catch predatory squawfish; and even tried to relocate entire colonies of salmon-munching seabirds.

There are microchip detectors at some dams that can identify every young salmon as it sluices past the dam. And a fleet of fish-barges ferries young salmon to the sea.

The barges, flushed with a continuous supply of fresh river water, have open decks so the fish can see the stars - all to help keep their navigational smarts sharp during the express ride to the sea, courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

After all that, and much, much more, the fish are still on a direct path to extinction. By now, breaching four of the dams is regarded by the federal fisheries service and corps of engineers as a step worth serious study.

Breaching these dams would be without precedent.

Last summer Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River became the nation's first dam ordered dismantled by the federal government for environmental restoration. But the Lower Snake River dams can generate more than 1,000 times as much power as Edwards. And towering more than 10 stories tall, they dwarf Edwards' 27-foot height.

And unlike older, mothballed structures, the Lower Snake River dams were completed between 1961 and 1975. They aren't even paid for yet.

And unlike derelict dams that couldn't begin to be re-licensed under modern environmental laws, the Lower Snake River dams are encrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of modern fish-passage equipment.

Congress would have to walk away from that investment. And perhaps hardest of all, lawmakers would have to look at this landscape, and the human progress dams have made possible, and decide to give some of the Snake River country back to the fish.

A monumental task

Breaching the dams would be a Herculean deconstruction job. It's estimated it would take at least nine years and cost about $1 billion.

Railroad beds and highways along the waterway would have to be rebuilt to correct for the loss of water pressure currently supporting the river's banks.

There is the question of replacing or extending irrigation pumps that would be left high and dry when the river drops, to allow farmers like Broetje now working the land to stay in business.

Some suggest it would be cheaper for the federal government to just buy out farmers and let thousands of acres of productive orchards, tree farms, vegetable farms and vineyards revert to sagebrush.

Still to be solved is the puzzle of re-configuring the network of transport and supply to an all-new inland waterway terminus at Pasco. Today everything from cowhide to wheat and gasoline is shuttled up and down river by barges, as well as by trains and trucks.

Questions posed by a reconfigured waterway are legion, beginning with finding enough railroad cars to carry the grain now shipped by barge and managing an explosion of grain-truck traffic if inland ports go dry.

Those changes have very real potential downsides, including higher costs for wheat farmers already struggling with low returns and poor markets.

There's also the question of how to replace the 5 percent of the region's power that would be lost if the dams' generators were unplugged. Preliminary estimates by the Army Corps of Engineers indicate residential bills could go up $1.50 to $5.30 per month if the dams were breached.

The biggest question of all is whether breaching the dams would actually restore fish runs.

Two studies by National Marine Fisheries Service scientists, one released in April and the other this month, suggest that under some scenarios, dam removal is the most beneficial step for rebuilding Snake River salmon and steelhead runs.

But both reports also question whether dam removal alone could do the job. And both suggest recovery could be possible with the dams still in place, if the region could commit to other strong medicine.

Such medicine could include more aggressive fishing cutbacks, new restrictions on land use and a major water grab that could severely affect farmers, especially in Idaho. Extensive habitat improvements would also be required.

There are no easy answers to Snake River salmon recovery.

Draft study due next month

Federal agencies responsible for recovering the fish runs have provided mountains of information about salmon recovery choices facing the region but so far, no direction.

The corps is expected to deliver a $20 million, 4,000-page draft study of the problem next month with 23 appendices, a 700-page environmental impact statement, yet no recommendation of a preferred alternative.

The National Marine Fisheries Service's most recent analysis offered a range of choices but no recommendation on the best way to restore the fish.

So far both agencies are begging off, saying their job is to provide information to fuel a debate.

Meanwhile many in Snake River country can't believe the fate of the dams is even up for discussion.

Charles Kilbury, the mayor of Pasco, remembers the day Ice Harbor Dam was dedicated in 1961. The governor was there and so was President Lyndon Johnson. For people of Pasco, the dam meant a route to the sea and a chance at prosperity.

It still does.

"I never thought I'd see a day when these dams could be considered a problem," Kilbury said with a sad shake of his head.

Ed Whitelaw, a Eugene economist, said he understands that view.

He did a recent study that shows changes wrought by breaching the dams could be absorbed by the regional economy and that some businesses would even prosper.

When he came to a similar conclusion about timber communities facing logging cutbacks because of the Northern Spotted Owl, people ignored him then, too. But he turned out to be right.

"This isn't about economics," Whitelaw said. "It's about inertia, and uncertainty."

Staunch opposition to breaching the dams, especially east of the Cascades, and lack of support from most of the Northwest congressional delegation and Gov. Gary Locke has forced environmental groups to up the ante.

Seattle's Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition has spent about $130,000 on a series of full-page ads in the New York Times selling dam removal. The group has also begun courting members of Congress and outdoor-recreationists outside the region.

More than 600 groups across the country - from taxpayer advocates to sport-fishing and conservation groups - have declared their support for breaching the dams. So have more than 200 scientists around the region.

But most of the support for breaching in Washington is still within the 206 area code.

"We would like to think we could do this here at home, but we are too close to it," said Tim Stearns, policy director of the coalition. He realizes the tall order of convincing Congress, but says environmentalists have no choice.

A national dam-removal campaign will continue, Stearns said, to protect what is in fact a national treasure.

"These salmon are just like Yellowstone. And the Endangered Species Act is a national law. And we have come to the realization that the Northwest can't do this on its own."

No other convincing restoration option is on the table right now, Stearns believes. Suggestions from federal fisheries scientists that the fish could be restored by other means have yet to be backed up with enforcement or a specific plan.

Jim Toomey, executive director of the Port of Pasco, senses the fight is far from over. While he opposes dam removal, he believes even if the dams don't go, far-reaching change is here to stay.

"We are joined at the hip with the fish. Culturally, where we are at is figuring out how we balance the needs of a critter and humanity. We've got to come to grips with that. It's one of the largest social issues since the Industrial Revolution.

"How do we go from one way of life to another? We have to figure that out."

Lynda Mapes
The Debate Over the Snake River Dams
Seattle Times, November 28, 1999

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