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Commentaries and editorials

Removal of dams not the most effective way to restore salmon

by U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA)
Seattle Times, Opinion, May 3, 1998

The Seattle Times published an editorial April, regarding legislation I introduced that addresses the debate on dams on the Elwha, Columbia and Snake rivers ("Gorton's ransom note: Elwha or Snake dams.") The editorial's assertion that I am playing politics is wrong. The Times is correct in one area: this is a very complex issue. I want to decipher parts of this issue that have not been thoroughly explained.

The root of this debate is whether dam removal is the most effective way of spending your money for salmon restoration. I believe that it is not. National environmental groups, Vice President Gore and some in the Northwest media believe that removing dams is worth the costs because it will be good for select salmon runs.

The cartoon-like characters created by those who disagree with me on the issue of dam removal portray me as "anti-salmon." I don't know anyone in the Northwest who does not care about having a healthy salmon fishery now and forever. I, too, want more salmon, which is why I have backed the following pro-salmon initiatives: double-hulled oil tankers in Puget Sound, Fish and Wildlife funding for salmon-habitat restoration, funding for biological research on Pacific salmon and land acquistions of critical salmon habitat.

Let's get past cartoon characters. Instead let's debate the real issue that my Elwha bill raises. The real issue is whether the removal of public dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers should occur and who should be empowered to make that decision. Q. What does the legislation do?

A. My Elwha bill authorizes money to remove the lower Elwha River Dam. It also protects the local water supply in Port Angeles and protects the jobs at a local paper mill. At the same time, the bill would stop the effort to cripple the Bonneville Power Administration and remove or significantly modify dams on the Columbia or Snake system. Why are the Elwha dams and Columbia River Dams joined together?

Dam removal advocates want to take out dams on the Elwha as a test case for removing the larger dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Because it has proven to be of little economic value to the region, I am willing to support the removal of the lower Elwha dam in exchange for protection of the Bonneville Power Administration and our irreplaceable Columbia River hydro system.

Q. Who wants to remove the Columbia River system dams and why?

A. Dam removal advocates are pushing the Clinton administration, and most prominently Vice President Gore, to support the removal of four federal dams on the lower Snake River and to substantially reduce the capacity of the at least one dam on the Columbia River. As proof of this, Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director of the Sierra Club, in April said "We don't believe you can sweep any potential (and) legitimate solution off the table, and we think one might have to remove one or more dams on the lower Snake River." Today, the Clinton Administration is spending millions of dollars studying dam removal. The dam removal movement is being carried out under the same name of salmon recovery.

Q. How will this affect Washington state?

A. The Columbia and Snake River dams were built as the result of conscious decisions by many of the giants in our national and state history - Franklin Roosevelt, Scoop Jackson, Warren Magnuson. These dams represent a monumental federal investment in the region and the tremendous returns on that investment continue to accrue to the Northwest.

These dams provide water to farmers (bluefish notes that Senator Gorton continues to confuse the issue: the lower Snake River dams do not provide irrigation storage) those farmers provide jobs for workers and the workers generate goods that we export all over the world. Before the dams, Eastern Washington had few farms and was mostly a dustbowl. The entire agricultural community in Eastern Washington is tied to the dams. I can't begin to imagine the economic damage to Eastern Washington if those dams are removed. That won't happen on my watch.

In other words, if we removed the Snake River dams, we can't be sure of the benefits. But we can be sure of the consequences - among them:

Q. We know the cost of dam removal - what are the benefits for salmon recovery?

A. We just don't know. Salmon runs are depressed throughout Washington, Oregon and California, many on rivers without dams. All the rivers on the Olympic Penisula currently have lower than normal returns, and almost all have no dams. Something other than dams is hurting salmon runs, and removing the Elwha dams won't begin to address it.

The current weak returns across the Northwest might suggest this is the least opportune time, biologically, to try to prove that dam removal works. Warmer currents have brought makerel north, which swarm off the mouth of the Elwha and other nearby streams, devastating whole year classes of migrating juveniles.

As important, little is known about the process and effects of dam removal on stream ecology (bluefish notes that a natural river will be similar to other natural rivers that have existed for millions of years). This is trial and error, and no one can state with certainty when, or to what extent, salmon will repopulate the river above the first dam. This is the principal reason my bill requires careful evaluation of the Elwha experiment: prove the removal of the first dam was worth it, before spending more money to remove the second.

Q. What else are we doing for salmon recovery?

A. My proposal does not roll back present law. For example: the 1993 and 1995 National Marine Fisheres Service (NMFS) decisions to scale back the federal hydroelectric system's capability in the name of salmon recovery would still be in effect. Further, nothing in my bill would prevent agencies such as NMFS to continue charging Northwest ratepayers a total of $435 million annually for salmon recovery measures or to conduct future studies on salmon recovery. To put that dollar figure into perspective, that's nearly the same amount of money Washington state spends each year on K-12 special education for children with disabilities. All my proposal asks for is regional involvement in our salmon recovery.

Q. For those who want to debate the Elwha issue - does the U.S. have the money for dam removal?

A. Last year Congress approved my bill to spend $699 million to purchase environmentally sensitive land around the country. At President Clinton's insistence $315 million bought redwoods in California and mining claims in Montana. The other $384 million is for the rest of the United States. The President and four members of Congress, including me, will decide how this money is spent.

For this money, I can pretty well guarantee the rest of the $29.5 million needed to buy both Elwha Dams, and $10 million more for the "Mountains to Sound Greenway" project here in King County, but my colleagues will never agree to another $65 million for dam removal thus giving almost one-third of this money for the whole country to one state.

The only other possiblity is to take the money from the Park Service budget. That will be challenging too. The capital budget for Park Service is $100 million to $150 million per year. Individual projects within this amount are generally a few million dollars each, and are typically for projects such as stabilizing historic structures at Antietam National Battlefield, providing adequate water treatment facilities for Lake Mead, or providing employee housing at Mount Rainier. It is exceedingly difficult to set aside these types of projects to make room for a $100 million million-plus dam removal project.

Setting aside the Elwha, there are a number of other salmon recovery efforts within the state also require funding. Many of these efforts will compete for funds within the Interior appropriations bill. Long Live the Kings, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group and other regional salmon enhancement groups have done wonders with their funding. Recent land acquistions on the Black River, the Skagit river, and as part of the Pacific Northwest Streams initiative will improve salmon habitat. King, Snohomish and nine other counties have identified a significant need for salmon recovery projects to comply with the proposed salmon listings in the Puget Sound area.

Q. So what's the bottom line?

A. Northwest citizens should have the final say on whether they are willing to continue paying billions of dollars to save fish. Under my proposal, Northwest citizens would be given unprecedented power in this debate by giving the people they send to Congress - not unelected federal bureaucrats with a political agenda - the ultimate say over these monumental decisions affecting the economic and ecological future of the region.

The administration must come to Congress to remove a small dam on the Elwha River. Why shouldn't the administration come to Congress to take down a big dam on the Columbia River?

Slade Gorton - United States Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA)
Removal of dams not the most effective way to restore salmon
Seattle Times - May 3, 1998

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