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Facts Over Furor

by Editorial Board
Spokesman Review, May 16, 2007

Lawmakers right to seek data on salmon recovery

Taxpayers and ratepayers have spent more than $6 billion over the past 25 years on salmon recovery in the Northwest. The Bush administration predicts that another $6 billion will be needed over 10 years, according to its 2004 plan.

Not once have the feds reached their original annual target of preserving 63,500 fish. But has the effort still been worth it?

That's what many members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., want to find out. They also want to discern the economic implications of breaching the earthen portions of the four Lower Snake River dams, which have served as a political lightning rod for the past decade.

Their bill can't quantify the emotions invested in this controversy, but it could provide the independent information needed to move past the duel of data points, which always confuses the issue. Many studies have been conducted, and, predictably, cost estimates have ranged wildly depending on which group was doing the counting.

For instance, a coalition of environmentalists and fishing groups estimates that breaching the four dams could produce $4 billion to $24.4 billion in new tourism money over 20 years. However, the Bonneville Power Administration says that projection underestimates the amount of money it would take to replace the electricity those dams are capable of producing, which they put at $400 million to $500 million per year.

Beyond the economic debate is the scientific one. Is breaching a better answer than current efforts to restore habitat and make dams more fish-friendly?

It's worth finding out for two reasons:

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden has sharply rejected the Bush administration's biological opinion and thus its restoration plan. In April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals strongly sided with him, saying the plan doesn't satisfy provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The administration has until July to come up with a satisfactory revision.

A better solution involves the gathering of independent data that would serve as the navigation tool for the future. HR 1507 calls on the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate restoration efforts. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office would be asked to weigh current expenditures against the economic impact of breaching the four dams, including the cost of replacing the electricity, mitigating the damage to slack-water communities and improving rail lines and highways that would supplant the barging of goods to market.

For a decade, this issue has been buffeted by emotions with little to show for it. Congress should anchor the debate with the facts.

Editorial Board
Facts Over Furor
Spokesman Review, May 16, 2007

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