Familiar Talking Points Appear
by Eric Barker, Associated Press
MOSCOW - There was a fleeting moment in the midst of a panel discussion here Thursday night on whether the four lower Snake River dams should be breached to save wild salmon and steelhead.
It was a moment when it looked as though the discussion might veer off on a tangent and away from partisan panelists arguing from entrenched positions.
An audience member asked if there might be a middle-ground solution to the problem of dwindling wild fish runs - a non-breaching solution, one that wouldn't cause harm to the region's farmers.
Breaching the dams "would hurt more than people realize," the young man said.
Barbara Cosens, a University of Idaho law school professor serving as moderator, pressed the panelists to respond.
Rebecca Miles, executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe and a former chairwoman of the tribe's executive committee, said compromise was nearly at hand four years ago during litigation over the biological opinion, a document that attempts to reconcile management of the federal hydrosystem with the needs of fish.
All of the parties were waiting for a ruling from now-retired U.S. District Judge James Redden, and there was talk of a plan to spill significantly more water over the dams during juvenile fish migration. Known as an aggressive non-breach approach, she said it may have been something the region could have coalesced around.
"We were very close to being there," she said. "Judge Redden wanted to see in the bi-op an aggressive non-breach approach."
But she noted dam operators viewed more spill, water that bypasses hydroelectric turbines, as flushing revenue downstream.
"We have to be willing to do whatever we can if we don't want these dams breached, and this is what we have not done," she said.
John McKern, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist, said the addition of spillway weirs - mechanisms that allow water to be spilled with much less force and buildup of dissolved gasses that can harm young fish - made dramatic spill unnecessary. More spill, he said, was a political and not a scientific solution.
From there, Thursday's discussion veered back to its natural channel, with panelists staking out their familiar talking points. Another audience member, Steve Pettit, a retired Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologist, took McKern to task on his claim that fish survival at each dam is high.
He said survival of juvenile spring chinook between Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River and Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River was only 36 percent this year, and it was worse for steelhead. He said about 10 years of positive ocean conditions have masked problems at the dams, but warned the ocean has taken a change for the worse and could stay there for up to a decade and cause wild fish runs to plummet.
"We are going to see more and more of that as climate change grabs hold," he said.
Earlier, Cosens asked panelists what has changed in the salmon-versus-dam debate over the past decade or so. She asked them to tailor their responses to students who were too young to recall the heated debates of the late 1990s and early 2000s - when dam breaching was being considered by the corps.
Linwood Laughy, a salmon advocate and frequent Port of Lewiston critic from Kooskia, said plenty is different today. He cited the reduction in cargo being shipped from Lewiston to the Port of Portland in Oregon.
"Freight transportation is down 70 percent," he said. "We have no container shipments going on. The waterway has been abandoned by lumber, logs and petroleum."
He noted wind energy has boomed in the past decade. Now, wind farms in the Northwest produce three times the energy that are put out by the dams.
"We have a surplus of energy now and the Northwest Power Planning Council predicts we will have a surplus for quite some time," he said.
Todd Myers, environmental director of the Washington Policy Center at Seattle, a free market think tank, countered that dam breaching and reducing carbon releases from the burning of fossil fuels is incompatible.
"At a time we are concerned about climate change and reducing our carbon emissions, it makes sense to keep this clean energy," he said. Port of Lewiston Manager David Doeringsfeld said the issue is incredibly complex, and in his view focussing on the dams ignores many other problems faced by the fish. He and McKern said the fish runs were in big trouble long before the four lower Snake River dams were built.
"We decimated the fish runs prior to these dams ever going in," Doeringsfeld said.
Laughy lamented the amount of propaganda surrounding the issue. He said industry groups and the corps itself is putting out fuzzy facts
"Before we can ever have a good dialogue about these dams we have to agree on science and we have to agree on a set of facts and put that on the table," he said.
Patrick Wilson, a political scientist with the UI College of Natural Resources, said agreement on facts is difficult to come by in political discussions and he said the question of dams and fish boils down to politics. Some people see big chunks of concrete when they look at the dams, he said.
Wilson also said there may be a few new discussion points around the dam-versus-fish debate. But he said the issue, as of now, lacks the type of crisis that is likely to move political leaders to seriously consider breaching.
"We just don't have that crisis so it's really hard to transcend the status quo," he said.
Perhaps, he said, the decade or more of poor ocean conditions predicted by Pettit will lead to a downward trend in fish returns that will change the politics.
"It might be a different political reality," he said. "I'm not sure it will be enough."
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