Idaho Must Find Ways
Hydropower can be replaced. Wild salmon can't.
This summer's installment of the salmon recovery debate has centered on an old fight: saving fish vs. producing power at dams.
Critics decried the loss of power -- and the Bonneville Power Administration calculated this summer's costs at $67 million -- after U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered the federal government to "spill" water at five of its dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.
And when the discussion turns -- as it should -- to the idea of removing portions of the four lower Snake River dams to help save Idaho salmon, one argument for the dams is power production.
It's a familiar but unconvincing argument.
The argument places power -- only 5 percent of the electricity used in the region -- ahead of wild salmon. Recovered and restored wild salmon are simply worth more than this fraction of our power portfolio.
Wild salmon, which have migrated from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean and back for more than 10,000 years, are an icon, a legacy of the wild Northwest's natural heritage. Salmon are an important cog in the complex ecology of our rivers; bald eagles, bears and other animals feed on salmon, and nutrients from salmon carcasses nourish the entire river ecosystem. Salmon also could feed an economic boon in small towns such as Stanley, Riggins, Challis and Salmon, which would benefit from an Idaho salmon season worth $544 million a year, according to a February study prepared by Don Reading, a Boise economist.
The four lower Snake dams, located in Washington state downriver from Lewiston, generate considerable hydropower. The total production is enough to light the city of Seattle, as Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, points out in today's Reader's View.
But that analogy suggests this power is a constant supply used exclusively in the Northwest. Neither is the case.
The four dams are known as "run-of-river" dams. They generate hydroelectric power when water is flowing downriver and through their turbines.
The dams have a combined power capacity of 3,483 megawatts, but may hit peak power only during a heavy spring runoff. Their actual average production is 1,231 megawatts, said Ed Mosey, a BPA spokesman.
And since the dams produce peak power in the spring -- not in the summer, when the region's power demand spikes -- the BPA sells most of this spring power to the Southwest, Mosey said. Idaho, which receives about one-fifth of its power through BPA, gets only an indirect benefit. Selling power allows BPA to keep consumer rates down, Mosey said.
Compare that to the direct affect the dams have on Idaho salmon. The dams kill young fish migrating downriver to the ocean, then impede the path of adult fish returning to their spawning grounds. Many fisheries biologists say dam removal provides wild Idaho salmon with their best and perhaps only shot at recovery. That's one reason The Statesman has supported dam removal since 1997.
We recognize there are other arguments for keeping the dams -- particularly the argument that the dams create ports and provide slackwater recreation in towns such as Lewiston. It won't be easy for the region to negotiate a consensus solution that saves wild fish while protecting the interests of shippers and port communities. But it's time to negotiate.
Let's start with a simple truth. We can, and must, find ways to replace power generated at these dams.
The Northwest is growing, and cannot afford to sacrifice power sources without replacing them. We agree with Craig on that. We're also intrigued by Craig's Plan B: While he'd prefer to keep the lower Snake dams in place, his second choice would be nuclear power, Craig spokesman Sid Smith said.
Is that a reasonable trade -- nuclear power to save salmon? It would make for an interesting regional dialogue, so let's discuss it. At least it would get the Northwest, a region that draws 49 percent of its power from dams, thinking outside the hydro box.
Breaching Dams Would Harm Man, Nature by Larry Craig, Capital Press, 8/19/5
Sen. Larry Craig Responds to Stateman Questionaire by Larry Craig, Idaho Statesman, 8/7/5
Well-known Biologist Reverses Stance on Dam Breaching by Alyson Outen, KTVB News, 8/11/5
Statesman's 1-Sided View on Dam Breaching is Absurd by Norm Semanko, Idaho Statesman, 8/6/5
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