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Seattle's Dam Resolution Brings Flood of Criticism

by Gene Johnson, Associated Press
The Seattle Times, October 30, 2000

Dam politicians.

It started in August, when the Seattle City Council passed a mostly meaningless resolution designed to help salmon: Hey, Eastern Washington, it said, it's time to haul down those dams on the Snake River.

The people of Eastern Washington took the suggestion like a hook in the cheek. At least 11 outraged communities, from Colton and Clarkston to Quincy and Coulee Dam, and two counties passed resolutions or sent letters in response.

Now, it's become a bitter campaign issue. U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. George Nethercutt, both Republicans, are fighting off their challengers by accusing them of being from Seattle, where people want to destroy the dams.

"It's gotten a lot more attention than we thought it would," said Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin, a co-sponsor of the offending document.

Needless to say, the four Snake River dams are a touchy subject east of the Cascade Mountains. The dams provide jobs and electricity and allow barge travel - the cheapest way to ship wheat, which is among the region's top crops.

Many people believe removing them would help salmon, which can circumvent the dams via fish ladders while swimming upstream but have trouble coming back down.

The dams are federal and could not be breached without an act of Congress. The Seattle City Council has no practical say, and that's one reason the resolution came across as big-city arrogance.

"There's a lot of resentment of Seattle here in the eastern part of the state, and this just fed into the resentment," said Jim Dornan, Nethercutt's campaign manager. "It just adds fuel to the fire for people who think we live in two different states."

Seattle has spent tens of millions of dollars to help restore salmon, Conlin said, and the council wants the rest of the state to try just as hard.

"We do put our money where our mouth is," he said.

Some communities have responded by calling, only half-jokingly, for Seattle to remove the Ballard Locks, which link Lake Union and Lake Washington with Puget Sound.

Nethercutt has used the issue to attack his Democratic challenger, Tom Keefe. But Keefe, who was born in Seattle and now lives in Eastern Washington, has repeatedly said he wants the dams to stay put.

"Keefe's position on the dams is ambiguous," Nethercutt said in one news release. "He has publicly stated support for the dams, yet hails from Seattle, where support for dam breaching is very strong."

Keefe called Nethercutt's attack ludicrous and criticized the resolution himself. "The resolution gives false credence to the notion that people in Seattle don't care about the people in Eastern Washington. We are one state," he said.

Meanwhile, Gorton is running television ads in the eastern part of the state criticizing his opponent, Maria Cantwell.

"Politicians and extremists from around the country want to remove our dams," the commercial says. "Seattle City Council says `Tear them down.' Maria Cantwell's position? The Seattle Times said she had none. Then Cantwell said she was opposed. Now she says, `Wait five years to decide on dam removal.' "

Cantwell spokesman Ellis Conklin says Cantwell doesn't want to remove the dams and that the attack is typical of Gorton's politics.

"Gorton does this every six years," Conklin said. "He finds an opponent and tries to tarnish them by calling them Seattle liberals. He tries to divide the state in two."

Now that they have blown off some steam, some Eastern Washington communities are trying to forge a detente with Seattle.

Whitman County commissioners, who after one meeting ate a cake with the frosted message "Seattle, leave our dams alone," have invited the Seattle City Council on a trip east to see the importance of the dams first-hand.

Other officials, including Wenatchee Mayor Dennis Johnson, have made similar offers. Still, all are calling on the council to take back its resolution.

Even 11 of Western Washington's 19 counties have asked Seattle to reconsider.

Conlin, who co-sponsored the resolution with Heidi Wills, said the strong reaction shows the city's message needed to be said. But he regrets not discussing it with Eastern Washington officials before voting.

"It's disconcerting to have people so upset about it," Conlin said. "The fact is we need to figure out a way to protect salmon and salmon runs."

Gene Johnson, Associated Press
Seattle's Dam Resolution Brings Flood of Criticism
The Seattle Times, October 30, 2000

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