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Salmon vs. Dam
Debate Sharpens

by Michael Garrity
Seattle Times - June 13, 2005

An old question feels as if it is taking on new urgency: Should four fish-killing dams on the Snake River be breached to provide a more-natural passage for salmon?

Dam operators and their supporters and dam critics need to be much more specific about their competing visions.

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge James Redden agreed with environmental, tribal and commercial and sport fishing interests that more water should be spilled over the four Snake dams and McNary Dam on the Columbia River.

Summer spills -- which begin later this month and go through August -- move fish over dams instead of through them, but scooting vulnerable salmon toward the ocean comes with a steep price. Water over the dam does not generate electricity for sale to states running their air conditioners. Lost revenue totals tens of millions of dollars.

Redden refused to increase overall flow to cool the river and increase the speed of migration -- and use more water.

The judge is intimately involved because he is not hearing what he believes the law expects from the federal agencies that run the hydro system. Earlier this month, he rejected yet another rewrite of the biological opinion that is the template for dealing with threatened fish runs under the Endangered Species Act.

Little by little, Redden is narrowing the question and forcing federal agencies to focus on whether the dams can be redeemed. A fast appeal of Friday's ruling is expected.

Affiliated salmon groups are starting to get a little giddy as they strain to hear a "maybe" taking shape about the prospect of gouging holes in the earthen berms of the Snake dams.

Can the approach of environmentalists, and the utility of their arguments, change with the times? Can they sound as if they care about communities as well as fish?

Basic questions about the availability and expense of alternatives to barge transportation need to be shaped for broader consumption. How is the margin of safety the dams provide during a nasty winter reliably replaced? If the river level drops, does it wipe out irrigation or is it only a matter of a longer straw?

Redden is not getting the answers he wants. Neither are taxpayers who hear about dam breaching. The argument is getting sharper, but is still not well-informed.

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Seattle Times, June 13, 2005

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