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Dam Breaching Dots Don't Connect

by Jim Gerber, Readers Advisory Board
Idaho Falls Post Register, November 30, 2003

Advocates of dam breaching can't show it will save salmon.
They can't deny that it will hurt the economy and the taxpayer.
And they can't persuade Congress and the public otherwise.

There have been a number of articles in the paper recently concerning removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River. I thought this issue was settled in 1999 when the House Resources Committee approved a resolution opposing removal of the four dams. The resolution, while not having the force of law, clearly underscored the fact that House members do not support any recommendation to breach the dams.

Supporters of breaching point out that more than 100 members of Congress recently signed a letter supporting removal of the four dams. Conversely, that means that more than 400 members of Congress did not support the idea. Apparently dam removal, like a bad headache, will not go away.

Donovan Bramwell made some questionable statements in an article on this subject Nov. 16. With all due respect, I would like to address some of those questionable statements.

Bramwell claims the loss of Idaho's formerly abundant salmon runs are caused almost entirely by the construction and operation of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River. In fact, there is still a great deal of scientific disagreement about the decline. Many scientists, including state and federal fishery biologists, professors of fish biology, research biologists and private sector biologists now believe ocean conditions are the primary cause of salmon population declines. They point out a number of facts to support this conclusion.

First, salmon populations were in trouble before the first dam (Bonneville) was built on the Columbia River in 1938. Between 1889 and 1938 there was nearly a 90 percent reduction in salmon runs. Most of this decline was due to over fishing, especially commercial fishing.

Second, salmon are declining along the entire West Coast of the United States and British Columbia, even on rivers where there are no dams. In all, 214 stocks are in trouble, of which more than half live in streams without dams. The common denominator in the decline of all of these fish populations is the ocean, not dams.

Third, the North Pacific Ocean experiences cycles of food production lasting 25 to 40 years. The last dam completed on the Snake River, Lower Granite in 1975, coincided with the start of a low ocean productivity cycle. That period seems to have ended in 1999. We have had four years of high fish returns since then. (see Count the Fish)

Taken together, these three factors could explain that fish populations already were in trouble when the first dam was built on the Columbia River and that poor ocean conditions at about the same time as completion of the four dams on the lower Snake is the main reason for the decline in the Snake River populations, not the dams.

Another questionable statement Bramwell made is that young salmon get stalled in the slow-moving slack water behind the four dams, and that is why various species of salmon are endangered.

If slack water behind dams is the main problem, why is it that more than half of the 214 fish stocks in trouble occur in streams without dams? Slack water is not a problem there.

Besides, we have been in a drought for four years now, but the slippery little devils seem to have found their way through the slack water and are now returning in numbers not seen for 30 years (see Count the Fish), 70 years for some species. If slack water is the all-encompassing problem, those increasing numbers could not occur in four drought years when river flow was low. Clearly, slack water behind dams is not the big problem some would have us believe.

Third, Bramwell says in his article that the four dams serve only two purposes, transportation and power, and they are not all that important in the bigger scheme of things. In response, I point out that one of those dams, Ice Harbor, provides irrigation to 37,000 acres, with an annual economic value of $72 million. In addition, the four dams also provide flood control (according to former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt (bluefish adds that both of these politicians were misinformed) and recreation values at least equal to the fishing potential in the four reservoirs behind the dams.

In reference to power, Bramwell says the dams provide only a "tiny drop" in the large bucket of Western power, and can be replaced by a modern natural gas-fired plant. That is true, but the replacement cost is estimated to be nearly $1 billion and the "tiny drop" Bramwell speaks of is actually 1,225 megawatts, enough power for all of the residential customers in Idaho and Montana. This is not nothing. It is something.

And the barging industry that Bramwell so easily dismisses is a $120 million per year business employing between 1,580 and 4,800 employees from Lewiston to Astoria, Ore. It would require 700,000 18-wheelers a year running up and down Oregon's and Washington's roads to replace the barges (just for grain), not to mention the extra gasoline needed to power those trucks.
(bluefish adds that 700,000 trucks is another of Slade Gorton's mistruths that is unfortunately still being promoted here. 700,000 trucks represent the entire Columbia/Snake barge system. Senator Gorton lost his re-election in 2000 on this campaign. see Gorton Peddles Salmon-Recovery Myths to Easterners)

Bramwell doesn't tell us it will cost nearly $1 billion to remove the four dams. In exchange, we will lose 1,225 megawatts of energy, 37,000 acres of irrigated land, lose flood control along the two rivers, lose recreational values and lose barging income, but we will get more salmon.

Actually, we don't know if there will be more salmon if the dams are removed or how many. Those dots have not been connected.

The final statement Bramwell makes that I question is his either-or approach to recovery of salmon populations. That is, either remove the dams or increase flow augmentation, thereby drying up thousands of acres of irrigated farmland in the upper Snake River valley. It is certainly not clear that flow augmentation has any affect on salmon. Flows in the lower Snake River have not changed since 1916, long before the dams were built. In that time fish populations have increased and decreased in apparent disregard of river velocity. More recently, flows have been low during the past four drought years, yet salmon populations have increased significantly, again in apparent disregard to flow.

I conclude from this that flow augmentation is no more a solution to the salmon problem than dam removal is.

A third, and more promising approach, is to continue with the dams but make additional improvements to dam operation, collector bypass, barging, fish ladders, turbine improvements, etc. It is not a silver bullet, but it has the potential for steady recovery.

by Jim Gerber, of St. Anthony, is a retired Forest Service staff member and is active in natural resources organizations. He is one of six local columnists whose opinions appear on these pages Sunday.
Dam Breaching Dots Don't Connect
Post Register, November 30, 2003

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