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A Dam Big Issue

by Sarah McGuire
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 22, 2003

Dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have long been a contested issue among Washington residents.

However, the debate about dams really elevated in about 1997, said Les Wigen, commissioner of Whitman County.

"If dams didn't have fish passage going up and down the river, then they would have something to scream about," Wigen said.

There are those who would disagree with Wignen.

"Ever since the dams have been installed, there have been problems," said Jenny Valdivia, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Department in Portland. "If you put structures in rivers, it's not going to benefit fish or other creatures that live in it."

Millions of dollars have been spent trying to balance the problems between fish and dams, Valdivia said.

Wigen has a different perspective.

"I think the dams are one of the best assets in the Northwest," Wigen said.

In December 2001, the Walla Walla Corps of Engineers chose to modify dams by making major system improvements to help salmon in their migration. This plan is also known as the adaptive migration alternative, according to the Corps Web site.

"This is one of those things that everyone is examining, but is still in the planning stage," said Vic Yoshino, an employee for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle.

A study was conducted in 1995 by the Corps of Engineers to see what changes could be made to dams to keep the salmon population alive and growing.

After weighing the options, the Corps chose install Spillway deflectors to the four lower Snake River dams, which include Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.

Spillway deflectors redirect water and decrease the percentage of gases entrained in water. Also, surface collectors were added to redirect salmon toward a spillway instead of toward turbines, said Dutch Meier, chief of public affairs at the Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla.

Another alternative is to use barging to help juvenile salmon, called smolts, downstream. Fish Ladders - structures designed to help salmon swim through dammed areas - have been effective in helping adult salmon migrate through dams, Meier said. Juvenile salmon, however, cannot make it, he said.

Salmon transported by barging has proven to have a survival rate of 98 percent (to the point of release), Meier said.

"We would use barging to collect all of the smolts and take them to bypass dams," Meier said. "So they would never see a dam again until they came back ... as adults."

"My personal belief is that if dams were removed, salmon would have a better chance," said Andrew Ford, professor of environmental science at WSU.

"We've had a really good (salmon) run recently," Ford said. "But if you want to find low numbers to argue a position, they're there, and if you want to find high numbers to argue a position, you'll find those, too."

Meier believes dams are not the only cause of the depletion of salmon.

"Four big ones are hydropower, habitat, harvest and hatcheries," Meier said. "You can't just isolate one."

But Meier said he doesn't believe dams are the biggest factor.

In 1888, Major William Jones filed a report to Congress about the vanishing fish population, Meier said.

"(This was) 50 years before the first dam in the Columbia River went in," he said.

Meier said he believes people decimated the salmon and steelhead population long before the dams went in.

"You can't take the dams and other factors and put them on a scale," Ford said.

Not only would the removal of dams greatly impact the economy, but it would change the way of life in the region, Wigen said.

"It's a river system, a power system, a transportation system," Wigen said. "It's our culture and our heritage."

Sarah McGuire
A Dam Big Issue
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 22, 2003

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