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Returning River to Salmon,
and Man to the Drawing Board

by Sam Howe Verhovek, photos by Jackie Johnston
New York Times, September 26, 1999

LITTLE GOOSE DAM, Wash. -- Of all the ways in which Americans have reshaped the land to suit their priorities, none is more audacious than the vast network of hydroelectric dams that stretches across the Pacific Northwest, taming wild rivers, opening shipping passages and bringing the region the cheapest electricity rates in the nation.

The construction of these huge dams, dating back to the Great Depression, was an epic engineering achievement, amply glorified by Woody Guthrie in the 1940's. "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn," ran his folk song, "so roll on, Columbia, roll on."

Jackie Johnston for the New York Times.  John Cummings returns a fish to the current of Washington's Snake River last week near Little Goose Dam. But whatever their benefits to man, the great dams have proved lethal on a gigantic scale to the region's wild salmon, striving to complete their own remarkable journey from the rivers out to the Pacific Ocean and back again to spawn, right where they were born. And here on the lower Snake River, two Federal agencies are exploring a proposal that is proving to be far more contentious than building the dams was in the first place, and could have just as enormous consequences: taking four dams out of service, including the Little Goose, and restoring a 140-mile portion of the Snake to its wild, free-flowing condition.

As required by the Endangered Species Act, the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service are now studying the most radical step of all to save the salmon. It is an idea passionately favored by environmental groups, many American Indians and commercial fishermen as far away as Canada and Alaska, who could someday catch a healthy run of Idaho-born fish in their waters, and bitterly opposed by farmers and many others in this region, who rely on the dammed and placid river for shipping and electricity.

The debate will almost surely wind up in Congress, where most lawmakers from the area are vowing a tooth-and-nail fight against breaching the dams, which would involve removing the earthen portions, and rendering the dams inoperative.

But the once unthinkable idea is clearly on the table because for 25 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, has been struggling to find ways for the dams and the salmon to coexist on the Snake.

Despite Federal spending of more than $3 billion on programs that include fish ladders, hatcheries and even a truck-and-barging system "custom-made to make the trip as safe and comfortable as possible" for the salmon, according to a Corps brochure, the fish remain in a terrible decline.

The river's coho salmon have already been declared extinct, and every other species of salmon and steelhead in the Snake River is now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Two centuries ago, when the explorer William Clark wrote that the Snake was "crouded with salmon," about 2 million adult salmon a year completed the trip back to their spawning grounds, biologists estimate. Last year's official count, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, was as follows: 8,426 spring and summer chinook, 306 fall chinook and 2 sockeye.

Environmental groups have already scored some major victories in their bid to take down dams in various parts of the country. This summer, for instance, an aging hydroelectric dam on Maine's Kennebec River was demolished, under Federal order, to open the river so that several species of Atlantic fish, including salmon and sturgeon, could regain access to their traditional spawning grounds.

Jackie Johnston for the New York Times.  Ice Harbor Dam's hydroelectric turbines, spillways and, in the lower left, fish ladders. And a Northwest electric utility, Pacificcorp, said recently that it would take down the Condit Dam on Washington's White Salmon River by 2006 rather than pay the $30 million Federal regulators would have required to make it less harmful to fish.

The dam, which is 125 feet high, is the tallest dam ever slated for demolition in the United States, environmentalists say.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the plan was "yet another example that river restoration is on the national agenda."

But the breaching of the Little Goose and three other Snake River dams would dwarf either of those actions, and would signal a remarkable shift in national priorities.

Opponents of the breaching plan seem flabbergasted that the idea is even up for discussion. The dams provide about 4 percent of the Northwest's electricity and were also built to turn Lewiston, Idaho, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and nearly 500 miles from the Pacific, into the West Coast's most inland seaport.

None of the dams are used for flood control.

The opponents trust that even if Federal agencies do recommend the action, it can be blocked in Congress. A draft report by the fisheries service earlier this year called breaching the dams "more likely than any other hydrosystem action to meet survival and recovery criteria for the listed species," bureaucratic language nonetheless greeted as a bombshell around here.

Still, the opponents have staunch defenders, like Senator Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington, who says that breaching the dams would be "an unmitigated disaster and an economic nightmare" for the region.

On the other hand, 107 members of Congress, in a letter to President Clinton, called the salmon and steelhead "an economic and environmental asset whose preservation is a national responsibility," and urged the Administration to consider breaching the dams as an option. Most of the letter-signers are Democrats outside the Northwest.

In the end, the question broadly comes down to whether saving the salmon outweighs the dam's economic benefits to eastern Washington and parts of Idaho, a state that has found itself deeply split over the issue because restoring the salmon could be hugely beneficial for the state's recreational industry but would also effectively wipe out Lewiston's position as a seaport.

Looking at the issue in terms only of the salmon, which Cecil D. Andrus, a former Interior Secretary as well as Idaho Governor, once called "the ultimate symbol of the Pacific Northwest," there is something very close to a consensus among biologists that breaching the dams would be the single most effective step toward restoring their wild runs.

"The biological leg of this stool is very clear," said Ed Bowles, Idaho's manager of anadromous fish, those that hatch in freshwater and migrate to the sea.

"If you want to have recovery back to fishable levels and to de-list the fish from the Endangered Species Act, if you want to do this with a reasonable or high likelihood of success, you need to restore a natural river in the Snake. Other options do not provide you with even lukewarm security of getting the job done."

But even Bowles acknowledges that there are other legs to the stool -- the economic and social questions surrounding the decision. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the breaching would save the salmon from extinction, since their downward spiral seems to be linked to other actors as well, including warming waters in the north Pacific Ocean.

"Would the fish be better off without these dams?" said Danny Consenstein, the Columbia Basin coordinator for the fisheries service. "Yes, but that's sort of an incomplete analysis. Will it lead to recovery? That's a much tougher question."

And many opponents of breaching, even as they say they would like to find a way to help both the Snake River dams and the Snake River salmon survive, leave no doubt as to which they believe to be the higher priority.

"I don't want to see the salmon disappear," said Roger W. Koller, a wheat farmer in Pomeroy, Wash. "They are a part of Northwest culture and history. But I don't want to see my farm disappear, either."

And even as many people who live here fondly recall the wild river before the dams were built, in the 1960's and early 1970's, they are skeptical that breaching them would restore a lost world.

"I refer to it as a kind of environmental religion," said Bob Jenson, a Republican state representative in northeastern Oregon. "I think some people look at these dams as concrete obstructions in the environment and they'd like to return to a pristine natural environment, but that seems to me, personally, ridiculous. We live in a different world than Lewis and Clark experienced when they first came down the river. We can't restore that."

But Buzz Ramsey, president of the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association, said: "If we don't do something and we don't do it soon, these fish are going go extinct. That's very clear. And what does it say about us as a society if we are willing to simply let these magnificent fish become extinct?"

The whole issue is enormously complex, and it is not even possible to calculate with certainty, from an economic perspective, whether it would cost more to keep the dams or remove them.

Breaching them would cost about $1 billion and unquestionably add, in the short term, costs for farmers and anyone else who ships products out of the area. And by removing some of the region's electric power capacity, it would probably add as much as $4 to the average monthly electrical bill in the areas around the dams and about $1 to the bill of customers as far away as Seattle.

On the other hand, breaching could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars annually from fishermen, rafters and kayakers who would most likely flock to the river if it was restored to a free-flowing condition. And keeping the dams has potentially enormous costs, too. One is that of continued and expanded programs to keep the salmon alive.

"We've spent billions of dollars trying to tweak a system that cannot be tweaked enough to meet the goal," said Rob Masonis, regional director of hydropower programs for American Rivers, an environmental group. "It's failed miserably. And it's crazy to keep throwing in that money when we know we have an option that can work."

Another potential cost of keeping the dams, possibly a colossal one, could come in lawsuits from American Indian groups whose guarantees of perpetual fishing rights in the Snake and other rivers have been rendered all but useless by the dams and other actions that have harmed the fish. Similarly, the United States recently concluded a dispute with Canada over salmon fishing by signing a treaty that commits the Federal Government to steps that could restore healthy salmon runs from American rivers, like the Snake, to Canadian coastal waters.

The issue is already exacerbating tensions between urban areas like Seattle, where there are car bumper stickers proclaiming "I'm pro-salmon, and I vote," and rural areas east of the Cascades, in which "Save the dams" stickers are abundant.

"There's some massive wealth generation going on on the western side of Washington, but there aren't a lot of dot-coms in this region," said John W. Mitchell, an economist with U.S. Bank in Portland, Ore., adding that the farming areas have also been severely hurt by falling wheat prices worldwide. "They're getting hit, and they're going to feel very defensive about the dams."

The timing of a final decision about the dams -- the others are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite -- is unclear. Both the Corps of Engineers and the fisheries service are scheduled to release major analyses of the costs and benefits of breaching by the end of the year, although there are already indications that they may put off full recommendations until late next year, not at all coincidentally after the 2000 elections.

In Lewiston, the port manager, David Doeringsfeld, said breaching could be ruinous to the local economy. "It's 3,000, maybe 4,000 jobs in a region of 50,000 people," he said. "It would be like Seattle losing Boeing."

Still, in an editorial in June, even the local newspaper, The Lewiston Morning Tribune, conceded that breaching the dams was probably the "biggest and best means" of saving the fish.

"Now it becomes a political decision as to which uses of the river the people and their political leaders value more -- the fish saved at any cost, or doom the fish and keep the benefits of the dams," said the newspaper. "That, of course, is a rock and a hard place."

by Sam Howe Verhovek, photos by Jackie Johnston
Returning River to Salmon, and Man to the Drawing Board
New York Times, Front Page, September 26, 1999
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