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Panel Debates Dams, Salmon, Economy

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, October 13, 2000

Some say cost of breaching to save fish is small compared with price already paid

The latest offering in this season of debates brought no excessively loud sighs, no rolling eyes, no botched pronunciations.

In fact, the only political candidate in attendance was in the audience, not on the panel.

Dams, salmon and the economy were the topic of Thursday's debate at Gonzaga University. But the title of the debate, "Saving the Salmon or Saving the Economy," didn't set well with one of the panelists.

"Who said it had to be either-or?" asked Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

Hudson and two representatives from environmental groups made that point repeatedly. Breaching four Washington dams is inevitable if society wants to save Snake River salmon, they said, but the region can prepare for the loss and maybe even benefit economically, they said.

"And when we get right down to it, let's look at what's already been lost" because of the dams, Hudson said, citing tribal heritage and 25,000 jobs in the fishing industry.

An economist, a representative from the power industry and a wheat grower defended the dams. They argued that the region should follow a federal plan, taking steps short of breaching to save salmon.

Dave Clinton of Inland Power and Light Co. accused environmentalists of trivializing the benefits of the dams and the environmental costs of taking them out.

Replacing barge traffic on the Snake with truck traffic would require nearly eight times the fuel now used to move wheat, Clinton said. Replacing electricity generated from the dams would mean higher energy costs and more pollution.

The bill could be far more than the estimated $1billion cost of breaching, he said.

"I am really worried," Clinton said. "I am worried about the high cost of breaching these dams, and I'm worried about the uncertainty."

Speaking from the audience, John Gearhart of Palouse, Wash., suggested that the government meet its treaty obligation to Northwest Indians by supplying them with salmon from healthy runs in Alaska.

Gearhart, a Libertarian candidate for the state Legislature, was scolded for the remark.

"I think I would be ashamed if I were you to be a neighbor of the tribes and not understand the spiritual significance of salmon in their `usual and accustomed places,"' Hudson said, using language from the treaties.

Breaching the dams has been a topic of discussion since 1990 and seriously studied since 1995. The government in July released a draft salmon-recovery plan that called for every possible step short of breaching.

Tribes that are members of Hudson's commission have said they'll sue for violation of treaty rights if the final document, scheduled for release in 2001, doesn't include breaching. Many authorities have predicted the issue ultimately will be settled in court.

Since last year, some two dozen of the nation's 75,000 dams have been removed because their owners or federal agencies have decided their environmental costs outweigh their benefits. None of those outdated dams was anywhere near the size of those spanning Washington's portion of the Snake River.

On Thursday, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt used a crane to start the process of dismantling a 200-foot-tall dam more than 1,000 miles south of the Snake River.

The Matilija Dam blocks steelhead from entering a major tributary of California's Ventura River. It also blocks sediment that used to replenish Ventura County's now-eroding beaches.

The dam was built in 1948 for flood control and water storage.

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Panel Debates Dams, Salmon, Economy
Spokesman Review, October 13, 2000

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