Kitzhaber Calls for Breaching Four Damsby Brent Hunsberger
The Oregonian, February 19, 2000
Oregon's governor takes a strong stand that is unique among political leaders in the Northwest
EUGENE -- Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday issued a stunning call to save threatened salmon by breaching four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.
Appearing Friday before a group of Oregon fisheries scientists, Kitzhaber argued that the Northwest is dooming Columbia Basin salmon to extinction unless it acts decisively and soon. He said maintaining river-dependent economies and environmental health is possible in a salmon-recovery effort involving dam removal.
"I believe that one way to do this and to equitably spread the economic burden is to build a recovery strategy that includes breaching the four lower Snake River dams," he said.
His statement is a first among Northwest governors and those in high public office.
It follows years of speculation and, more recently, intense and divisive debate on the subject. Those whose jobs are connected to a dammed river -- among them agricultural irrigators, bargers and inland port workers -- have become fiercely opposed to dam-breaching.
And though dam-breaching was increasingly viewed by scientists in the past two years as the best single action to help beleaguered salmon, the idea has been a political hot potato, with federal agencies in late 1999 extending their deadlines for issuing final opinions.
Kitzhaber noted in his speech, "I also appreciate that my position on this issue is, at least at present, a lonely one among the Northwest political establishment."
But he demanded that federal officials avoid further postponing a salmon-recovery plan and asked the Clinton administration and Congress to commit more money to Northwest fish-recovery efforts.
And he asserted that salmon could be helped without breaching dams -- but that compensatory measures such as habitat restoration, fishing limits and reduced electricity consumption would need to be far more extensive than they would in a plan involving dam removal.
"There is no doubt that we can move ahead with salmon recovery without breaching the dams," Kitzhaber said. "All I am saying to you today is that we have to stop deluding ourselves into believing that our choices will be easier and cheaper if we just leave the dams alone.
"It's time for this region to act. It's time for this region to step up to the plate and make some tough choices."
Kitzhaber's technical and carefully presented speech carried huge political risks. Breaching the dams would make a 140-mile stretch of slow-flowing river impassable to barges, which carry grain and petroleum products as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho. It would end 1,200 megawatts of electricity production, boosting power bills in the Northwest $2 to $5 per month. And it would dry up irrigation pumps of large farming operations around Pasco, Wash.
Republican leaders called the speech hasty and irresponsible.
But it coincides with packed public hearings on dam-breaching conducted throughout the Northwest by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the top federal agency protecting fish. And it comes soon after the fisheries service, which last year declared 12 species of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead trout as protected under the Endangered Species Act, abandoned the findings of a five-year, $8 million study that found breaching the best way to save salmon.
Kitzhaber, addressing the Oregon Chapter of American Fisheries Society's annual conference, departed slightly from his prepared text, which had called breaching "the best" way to save salmon. After leaving a standing ovation from more than 200 scientists, Kitzhaber said he could support a non-breaching strategy as long as public and private landowners made a commitment to radical changes in land management, fish harvesting, hatchery operation and hydroelectric use.
"I can support a breaching strategy," Kitzhaber told reporters. "I can also support a non-breaching strategy. It's really a question of what position the region wants to make. The federal government has got to do something. It has got to take an actual position."
He was particularly harsh about the current contentious public hearings on dam-breaching, saying interest groups have drowned out the reasonable discourse needed to map a difficult recovery plan. "The debate really has stalled now," Kitzhaber said. "We're not going to solve this debate in that forum."
Those who heard Kitzhaber's speech called it groundbreaking.
Northwest tribes, which have salmon treaty rights at potentially enormous cost to the federal government, lauded Kitzhaber. "Gov. Kitzhaber displayed a welcome dose of courage and common sense," said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. "Now we just need the public's courage and will." Minthorn's sentiments were echoed by the Nez Perce tribe, from Lapwai, Idaho.
"There were some very clear statements in favor of breaching," said Liz Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "This region's needed a leader on this issue. Apparently, we're going to get one."
But a spokesman for the National Hydropower Association, which represents 61 percent of the nation's non-federal power providers, called Kitzhaber's charge a rush to judgment. "We don't know today that breaching those dams is going to bring salmon back," said David Tuft. "But we do know what we'll lose. I'd want to know how he expects the Northwest to replace that power."
And Bruce Lovelin, whose Columbia River Alliance represents industrial users of the Columbia Basin, expressed disappointment: "We were hoping . . . that the governor would have waited and evaluated the costs and the immense biological uncertainties about dam-breaching before he made his announcement."
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, at a Potlatch Corp. mill in Lewiston receiving 4,000 petitions against dam removal, reiterated his position that favors short-term solutions such as eliminating predation by Caspian terns. "Gov. Kempthorne has said . . . that any recovery solution has to be acceptable on biological, economic and political terms," spokesman H.D. Palmer said. "Breaching doesn't meet that test. Instead of embracing an option that's guaranteed to drag out in court over a decade with nothing to show but legal fees, we should start moving forward with things that would help salmon in the near term."
Governor John Kitzhaber's American Fisheries Society Speech
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs