the film
Commentaries and editorials

Dam Removal Advocates Wrong, But Here to Stay

by Robert Stokes
Guest Column, Spokesman Review, October 7, 2002

Save Our Wild Salmon (SOWS) leads a national coalition of environmental groups seeking to remove the Snake River dams. Recently, SOWS declared that "Removing the four federal dams on the lower Snake River ... can create almost 15,000 new jobs and leave the Northwest economy unharmed."

The group's recent comments are based on a RAND Corp. economic study of dam removal. The RAND study concludes, "The lower Snake River dams could ... be replaced with alternatives without creating negative economic consequences ... for some options ... their replacement could produce positive net employment in the region (Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana)."

The RAND study used input-output analysis to estimate regional output and employment. Useful for other purposes, input-output studies are poor indicators of economic well-being. More automobile accidents would also increase employment, if they create more jobs for ambulance drivers and tow truck operators than they subtract elsewhere in the economy.

Benefit-cost analysis is the method preferred by the economics profession and the federal government for analyzing decisions such as building or removing dams. Benefit-cost economists examine how public decisions affect revenues and costs of impacted industries, firms and households.

For example, to qualify for funding the Snake River dams had to show hydroelectric, water transportation, irrigation and other benefits exceeding construction and operation costs.

Based on data supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers, I calculate the present, or asset value of services that would be lost upon removal of the Snake River dams at $4 billion to $5 billion, the difference depending on offsets for fishing and recreation benefits. Removal would cost an additional $1 billion.

Northwest residents would be the primary losers if those benefits were withdrawn. They would also pay for dam removal if the project were financed from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) revenues such as other salmon recovery measures.

The Snake River dams provide 1,230 megawatts of electrical generation, although their peaking capacity is higher. That's 11 percent of BPA's power, 5 percent of the Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana total, and nearly half the size of the shortfall that created last year's Northwest electricity crisis. The dams also provide low-cost water transportation for Eastern Washington farmers (fertilizer and petroleum upstream, grain downstream) and for the forest products industry. Plus, the dams support 37,000 acres of irrigated farming.

SOWS and RAND notwithstanding, the costs of removing the Snake River dams to protect wild Snake River salmon vastly exceed benefits. Indeed, there may be few economic benefits, at least from fishing. Commercial and sport fishing for hatchery salmon make a modest economic contribution. However, managers will likely continue efforts to minimize the already small wild fish harvest.

The motivation for dam removal is not economic. Proponents claim it is the least burdensome way to comply with the Endangered Species Act. I strongly disagree. Consult the Northwest Power Planning Council ( for information on Columbia River salmon programs and make up your own mind.

The issue stays alive because supporters work harder and smarter than opponents. Supporters include skilled environmental advocates working for groups such as SOWS, American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United and Trout Unlimited. Legal expertise is provided by Earthjustice, the former Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Realizing that their success is linked to other salmon recovery measures, dam removal advocates often oppose competitive measures such as barge transportation of juvenile salmon, hatcheries that support instead of impede natural spawning, and salmon saving dam modifications.

Dam removal requires congressional authorization before it can be undertaken by federal agencies or compelled by federal courts. The idea has little regional congressional support and much opposition. President Bush stated his opposition on national TV.

However, there is little organized opposition in Northwest communities, outside of Lewiston, which would lose its deep water port. Elsewhere, opposition is limited to individuals who sporadically address the issue out of personal interest or as representatives of irrigators, electricity ratepayers and other affected groups. Some opponents think congressional authorization means the regional delegation can kill the idea by just saying "No!" That may be a serious mistake. Presidents and members of Congress come and go, and change priorities.

But the dam busters are here to stay. The Sierra Club's Web site describes another of the many anti-dam campaigns, this one to remove California's Hetch Hetchy dam, continuing a battle Club founder John Muir began a century ago.

Robert Stokes resides in Spokane and is a retired natural resource economist. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Washington where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Dam Removal Advocates Wrong, But Here to Stay
Spokesman Review, October 7, 2002

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