the film
Commentaries and editorials

Federal Study of Snake Dams is in Error

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - November 4, 1999

Federal economists overestimated the negatives and underestimated the positives of a proposal to breach four dams on the lower Snake River to help preserve endangered salmon, an economist working for environmental groups contends.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' draft report failed to count benefits to Indian tribes and the creation of commercial fishing jobs, said Ed Whitelaw, an economic consultant working for Trout Unlimited and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. It also underestimated the number of jobs that might be created in the recreation sector, he said.

Also left out of the equation by the Army Corps team is the anticipated movement of well-educated, high-skilled workers into southeast Washington to enjoy the "second paycheck" an undammed Snake would provide with opportunities for kayaking, rafting, canoeing and the like, Whitelaw said in a report released yesterday.

And the Army Corps team appears to have attributed losses of jobs in industries that already are in decline in the area, such as seasonal agricultural work, to the possible dam breaching, Whitelaw said.

"It doesn't make sense to blame the dams (being breached) for something that's going to happen anyway," said Todd True of Earthjustice, who appeared with Whitelaw at a Seattle news conference yesterday.

Whitelaw's report comes as the issue is heating up politically.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles recently accused Pacific Northwest residents of ignoring "a killing field" threatening salmon that fishermen in his state rely on. He questioned why Alaskans should cut back their salmon catch while the Snake River dams remain in place, killing thousands of fish while providing people in the Northwest with cheap electricity, among other benefits.

At the same time, environmentalists have been purchasing full-page ads in The New York Times urging that the dams be breached.

Meanwhile, federal environmental officials are preparing to release a report detailing how important breaching the dams might prove in helping the salmon recover. Authorities are legally bound by the Endangered Species Act to take strong measures to save the fish.

Yet both Sen. Slade Gorton,R-Wash., and Gov. Gary Locke have come out against breaching the dams.

Also opposing the breaching is a large cross-section of rural interests. It includes farmers who use irrigation water from one of the dams and others who ship their crops to market on Columbia and Snake River barges at about half the cost of rail transportation. Without the dams, the barges would run aground.

Dams hurt salmon in a number of ways. Young fish migrating to sea are chewed up in turbines, bruised by screens and pipes, poisoned by excessive nitrogen in the water below the dams and killed by sudden changes in water pressure.

Pools of slack water on the upriver side of dams allow temperatures to increase to levels unhealthy for the fish. The pools also expose fish to predators they would not encounter in a faster-flowing, narrower river.

Breaching the four dams would involve punching holes through their earthen flanks.

Scientists have estimated that a sizeable number of the young fish, perhaps 10 percent, are killed as they pass each dam. Breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake would still leave a gauntlet of four more dams for the fish to pass on the Columbia River, which the Snake flows into near Pasco in south-central Washington.

Whitelaw's report is a critique of a draft economic analysis by a team of economists put together by the Army Corps of Engineers, the owner and operator of the dams. Repeated efforts Tuesday and yesterday to reach the study team's chairman, Dennis Wagner, were unsuccessful.

Corps spokeswoman Nola Conway called Whitelaw's report premature. A tentative decision about whether to breach the dams is scheduled to be made by year's end.

"We're asking the region and the nation to stay tuned," Conway said. "We're asking people to wait until mid-December. . . . We're reviewing the information and data in (the draft economic report)."

Similarly, the Columbia River Alliance, a consortium of dam-dependent businesses, attacked the environmental groups for critiquing a draft report.

"They're jumping the gun. They are criticizing a report they have not seen yet," said Bruce Lovelin, the alliance's director. "It puts us all in a difficult situation."

New information showing that young salmon can be successfully transported past the dangerous dams in barges will help buttress arguments against breaching the dams, Lovelin said.

"The pro-dam-removal folks are recognizing that the biology related to salmon is not headed in their direction. It's uncertain at best," he said. "That's why they're tending to focus on the economics."

Whitelaw, a former University of Oregon economics researcher, said the main problem with the Corps' report is that it assumed that local, state and regional economies are stable.

In fact, a huge transformation is under way in which traditional, resource-intensive lines of work such as farming, lumber and mining are giving way to a new type of economy.

"As this sector-by-sector summary confirms, bypassing the dams will generate large and widespread positive employment and other economic impacts that will continue for decades," his report says.

". . . Mitigating the negative impacts of bypassing these dams is both feasible and affordable."

For the short term, both Whitelaw and the Corps predict a boost in employment because of the dam-breaching. About 24,000 jobs would be created by construction work that would last about a decade.

Long-term, some 3,100 jobs would be created in the recreation sector, the Corps said.

But Whitelaw said the methodology used appears to underestimate that number.

Whitelaw also took issue with the Corps estimate that the dam breaching would cost some 6,200 jobs.

It's true that about 1,200 to about 1,700 current jobs held by people who operate the dams would disappear, he said.

But the Corps economists also said that about 2,200 jobs would be lost on 13 farms that use irrigation water from the Ice Harbor dam.

Those jobs may be on the way out anyway, Whitelaw said, given the years-long slide in the fortunes of Washington agriculture. Counting those jobs -- many of which are seasonal work -- as losses due to dam breaching may not be realistic, he said.

And if authorities decide they want to preserve those farm jobs, they could take steps to help the farmers.

They could spend $297 million to provide water through alternative means, such as wells, the Corps reported.

Buying out the farms would cost about $134 million.

And that might make more sense anyway, Whitelaw argues, because jobs in farming, logging and mining don't have a bright future anyway. He says the state should be looking into retraining workers in those jobs.

"The labor economist in me says that we should have those kind of programs whether or not we (breach) the dams," Whitelaw said.

Related Link:
DREW to Date Has Seriously Underestimated the Economic Benefits of Bypassing the Dams

by Robert McClure
Federal Study of Snake Dams is in Error
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 4, 1999

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation