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Commentaries and editorials

Officials Haven't Disclosed
the Cost to Southern Idaho of Salmon Recovery

by N.S. Nokkentved
Times-News, January 6, 2000

TWIN FALLS -- Federal officials haven't talked much about what recovering endangered Snake River salmon is going to cost southern Idaho in terms of irrigation water and lost agricultural production, says a supporter of removing four dams on the lower Snake River.

Salmon recovery is required by law, but all the options are going to be tough and costly, Idaho Rivers United board member Tom Stuart told the Twin Falls Rotary Club Wednesday.

Recovery efforts in one area may reduce the need for efforts in other areas, but some things will make more of a difference than others. Though the recovery of salmon will take a comprehensive effort, nothing would do the fish more good than breaching four federal dams in the Snake River in southeastern Washington, he said.

"All the easy stuff's been tried, but it didn't work," Stuart said.

Federal officials recently released a study of options that outlined four basic approaches to salmon recovery.

Most people agree that the status quo is not acceptable. Most people also would agree that the fourth alternative would not be acceptable either, Stuart said.

International treaties limit how much fishing can be reduced, and eliminating hatcheries and removing predators that eat young migrating fish, by themselves would not be enough to recover the endangered fish. That reduces the discussion -- realistically -- down to the other two alternatives. Leaving the dams in place or taking them out.

Leaving the dams in place would mean taking an additional 1 million acre feet or more of water from the Upper Snake River Basin, which includes eastern and southern Idaho and parts of eastern Oregon. The water would be used to help improve salmon passage by increasing the flow through the four reservoirs -- a process known as flow augmentation.

But taking that much water in a dry year could take as much as 600,000 acres out of production, and it could cost $430 million annually in lost agricultural production, Stuart said.

Taking the dams out would reduce the threat to Idaho's irrigation water, Stuart said. Most fisheries scientists in the Northwest agree that the dams have to go to save the salmon -- in addition to other improvements. It also may be the less costly alternative.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated the annual costs of breaching the dams would be about $250 million. Stuart estimated the cost of leaving them in would be nearly $600 million annually.

But some argue that flow augmentation is ineffective. And some scenarios being discussed by the Northwest Power Planning Council would increase flow augmentation even if the dams were breached.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo has questioned tougher land use restrictions and he opposes dam removal and increased flow augmentation. Sen. Larry Craig has vowed that the dams would not come down "on my watch."

Nevertheless, "substantial change is inevitable," Stuart said. "They're going to do something."

It is a politically charged issue. Those who oppose breaching the dams -- dam huggers, Stuart called them -- are making themselves heard, he said. If they succeed, the burden would shift to Idaho agriculture and commerce.

He encouraged people to speak out on the issue.

"Silence is deadly," he said. He encouraged people to insist on a full accounting of the cost to Idaho of leaving the dams in place. And he encouraged people to tell Idaho politicians to support the least cost option and the best choice for salmon.

N.S. Nokkentved
Officials Haven't Disclosed the Cost to Southern Idaho of Salmon Recovery
Times-News, January 6, 2000

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