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A River Runs Against It:
America's Evolving View of Dams

by Bruce Babbitt
Open Spaces Quarterly, August 19, 2000

. . . excerpt beginning after several pages . . .

The next big test for river restoration is approaching on the lower Snake River and its four salmon killing dams. And it will be an epic debate, rivaling the great controversies of past years over Hetch Hetchy and Dinosaur National Monument. This time it will not be about protectiing scenery within a National Park. It will be about restoring a river ecosystem and its salmon runs. That fact alone demonstrates how we as a nation have come to comprehend that our stewardship obligation extends beyond park borders to encompass entire watersheds and landscapes.

The Columbia-Snake is one of the most industrialized rive systems in America. The largest of its dams, Grand Coulee, cuts off more than a thousand miles of salmon streams in Washington and British Columbia. Bonneville Dam, dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1937, initiated the damming of the lower river. After that the dams marched relentlessly up river - The Dalles, John Day, McNary, Priest Rapids.

Through all this dam building the salmon managed to hang on, continuing their annual migration rites up the Columbia, then into the Snake and on into the Salmon River system of Idaho. Fish ladders helped some. Hatcheries were built by the dozen to boost production of declining stocks and offset fish ground up in turbines and eaten by predators in the long stretches of slack water.

Then the scales tipped toward extinction in the 1960s with congressional authorization to build four more dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite -- on the Snake River upstream from its confluence with the Columbia. The four dams together were projected to add only a small increment of additional power to the northwest grid, and by then the rationale for adding still more power was wearing thin. Enter a bold new justification - an inland seaport for Idaho.

Idaho would have a seaport from which to barge Montana wheat down to the Pacific. Never mind that the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific were already shipping grain by rail on tracks that parallel the river. By 1975 the four Snake River dams were complete, and barges were on the river from Lewiston, Idaho to the Pacific.

The salmon runs plummeted. In 1988 just one sockeye salmon managed to find its way back to Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. The following year it was six. Almost none have been seen since. The over-the-edge effect of these four dams can also be seen in eastern Oregon where the John Day River, a tributary of the Columbia, still has viable salmon runs, while to the east the Grand Ronde, a tributary of the Snake, is virtually devoid of fish. A key difference is that the Grand Ronde enters the Snake above the four dams.

One approach to the collapse of salmon runs is to manipulate natural systems even more intensively. Take the fish out of the river and put them in trucks - even as we take the grain out of trucks and put it in the river. Shoot the sea lions that congregate at Ballard Lock to feed on salmon and steelhead. Get rid of the flocks of birds on Rice Island that prey on salmon smolts. Offer bounties for fishermen to catch more of the squawfish that prey on smolts in the lakes behind the dams. More hatcheries.

This tinkering in the name of "mitigation" has now gone on for over two decades with little sign of success. It may not be possible to have all the dams and viable salmon runs in the upstream river stretches. There are economic considerations on both sides. Barge transportation does provide a marginal saving over rail transportation. Even small amounts of hydropower do have value as do the disappearing salmon fisheries.

But there are also values beyond calculations with pencil and green eyeshade. In 1856, Isaac Stephens, the Governor of Washington territory, set out to make treaties with northwest Indian tribes. The Columbia River tribes ceded land and agreed to reservation boundaries on one condition - that they would be entitled for all time to use customary fishing sites and to share equally in the salmon harvest. Yet without fish there can be no harvest, and the tribes are demanding that the United States, in execercise of its trust responsibilities, take steps to protect and restore the salmon runs.

The salmon runs of the Northwest, for both Indians and non-Indians, are an emblem of hope, an object of reverence. Like the sound of migating geese in autumn or the scent of a campfire, wild, native salmon are a part of us, a link to an older, mysterious world. They are swimming, spawning, biological coordinates that give us a sense of where and who we are. Lose that and you lose something basic, something that all the museums and mitigation projects in the world can never repair.

The national debate over the Snake River dams is under way. All parties, including the states and the Indian tribes, are turning to the scientists for an objective look at the alternatives. And the fisheries biologists are moving toward a consensus assessment - marginal mitigation projects are not enough. We probably cannot have salmon runs up into the Rocky Mountains and maintain four dams on the lower Snake River. We have reached the point where the arteries are so clogged that surgery to reduce the blockage may be the only hope, and it will finally be up to the people of the Northwest, their Governors and other elected representatives to decide.

Several months ago I participated in a dam busting event in California, the removal of McPherrin Dam on Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramenton River. A farmer who had helped construct the dam in the 1950s told me he was sorry to see the dam go, but that the new substiture water delivery system would probably work, although he wasn't entirely convinced. And then he got to the point. "Are you going to try to take down all the dams?" I told him not to worry, that we had so far taken down only about a dozen structures, all with community support, and that, by my reckoning, meant that we had 74,988 more to go. Those dams are still blocking 600,000 miles of what was once free flowing rivers. That's about seventeen percent of all river mileage in the nation.

No, we're not taking aim at all dams. But we should strike a balance between the needs of the river and the demands of river users. Where the balance should be is something I can't predict. We have no comprehensive inventory of the dams in this country, much less knowledge of the benefits and environmental costs associated with each. In all probability the process will continue on a dam by dam basis, with states and community stakeholders making most decisions. But there can be no doubt that we have a long way to go toward a better balance.

Bruce Babbitt
excerpts from A River Runs Against It: America's Evolving View of Dams
Open Spaces Quarterly, August 19, 2000

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