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Commentaries and editorials

Will Snake River dams
go the way of Maine's Edwards

by Associated Press
Times-News - July 3, 1999

The hole punched through the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River on Thursday just might, environmentalists say, symbolize the beginning of a breach in American thought on the permanence of dams.

"Not too long ago, dam removal was really considered a wacky, Earth Firster idea," said Pete Rafle, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group that worked for the removal of the Maine dam. "It's really gone mainstream now."

Dam removal, or breaching, has been touted by some as "the silver bullet," or sure sure, for saving native fish populations. More than a dozen salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia-Snake system have been listed as threatened of endangered in recent years.

Opponents say the economic costs of dam breaching would be so great and the gains to fish so uncertain that it's not worth the risk.

While small dams have recently been taken out in Oregon, California and elsewhere- and two on the Olympic Peninsula may soon be removed, none of these structures comes close to matching the hydropower or economic output of southeastern Washington's four Snake River dams.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying dam breaching on the Snake as a means of trying to save imperiled salmon populations. The corps is expected to make a recommendation next year to Congress, which will decide the issue.

Other salmon-saving options under consideration include such improvements as installing dams turbines that are less damaging to fish, and continuing such practices as barging young migrating fish downstream past dams.

Many of those involved in the dam debate are careful to note that it's unclear what, if any, precedent the removal of Edwards Dam might set. They note that each dam is unique, and there are few similarities in the breaching of Edwards Dam and any plans to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River.

"It's an apples-and-oranges kind of comparison," said Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, a Portland, Ore.-based group that represents shippers, utilities, farmers and others.

The Edwards Dam, built in 1837, was a small privately owned hydroelectric operation on north-cental Maine's Kennebec River, which runs about 130 miles from Moosehead Lake to the sea.

It is small by Western standards - 19 feet high, 917 feet long - and its power output was just 3.5 megawatts, or about one-tenth of 1 percent of Maine's electrical needs.

The four Snake dams in question - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- stud a 140-mile section of river corridor from Pasco, Wash., east to Lewiston, Idaho. The Snake travels more than 1,000 miles from its headwaters in Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Columbia River near Pasco.

The four federally owned Snake dams began operating in the 1960s and '70s, producing 1,200 megawatts of power or about 5 percent of the region's electricity -- enough to serve all residential customers in Idaho and Montana.

The dams are multipurpose, generating not only electricity, but providing irrigation for 36,000 acres of farmland and navigation for shippers. And they are much bigger than Edwards -- ranging from 2,655 to 3,791 feet long and about 100 feet high.

The similarity between the Edwards Dam and the Snake dams is that they both block fish protected under the Endangered Species Act, said Margaret Bowman, senior director of dam programs for the enviromental group American Rivers, which this year named the Snake the most endangered river in the country and supports breaching the four dams.

"Every dam is different -- the removal of Edwards dam does not prove that Snake River dams should be removed," she said.

Associated Press
Will Snake River dams go the way of Maine's Edwards
Times-News - July 3, 1999

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