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Hue and Cry About Snake River Dams Overdone

by Richard Swart
Wallowa County Chieftain, March 9, 2000

The hue and cry over the recent suggestion by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber that four Snake River dams be removed has been overdone to the point that it is embarrassing and counter-productive.

Kitzhaber has become the whipping boy of the agricultural community, chambers of commerce, and power companies since he stood up at a conference of the American Fisheries Society and said that removing the four dams is the single most beneficial thing society could do for the Snake River salmon.

One of the most extreme and vitriolic responses to Kitzhaber's comments was issued by the Oregon Cattlemen's Association board of directors, which voted to recall the governor on grounds he "constantly supports environmental issues that threaten the ability of the cattle producer to exist in Oregon." The sharply worded press release entitled, "Breach Kitzhaber NOT Dams!" makes clear the cattlemen's outrage but neglects to say a single word about how removing dams would hurt cattle producers. Therefore, the argument fails. Furthermore, the tone of the announcement constitutes a disservice to the rank and file members of the cattlemen's association, who probably do not understand why their "leaders" would go out on a limb by advocating a politically impossible recall and driving a wedge between their industry and the governor on issues they might agree upon in the future. Cattle producers need to be building bridges, not burning them.

Another extreme response to Kitzhaber's words was issued by one of our readers in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and carbon copied to us as a letter to the editor. In this diatribe the author used Kitzhaber's speech as an excuse to tee off on the Nez Perce people for their support of improving passageways for native fish. "The only thing the Native American hasn't adopted of the pale face culture is the responsibility to get a good job," the author wrote in a fit of xenophobia. We will spare you the remainder of his views on Native Americans.

What we have in these examples, and hundreds, if not thousands, like them, is the age old fear of change rearing its ugly head.

The danger of such passionate holding on to the status quo is promoting blindness to the possibilities of something new, and maybe something better, going forward.

We are not going to pretend there would be no adverse consequences from removing the dams. There would be tradeoffs, as there always are. One of the most obvious adverse effects would be the loss of reservoirs which hold the water used to irrigate thousands of acres of farm land in the Snake River basin. Pendleton and Lewiston would be devastated short term. Another downside would be the loss of cheap transportation for agricultural commodities - barge traffic from Lewiston to the Columbia. But let's not forget that there would be winners, too - fishing and tourism interests, which would flourish with a free flowing Snake River. Trucking and railroad companies would stand to benefit as well, with the shift away from river transportation.

One of the favorite arguments of those who are opposed to removing the dams is the end of "cheap" power in the Pacific Northwest as a result of its hydroelectric facilities.

In the short run that may be true, depending on your definition of the word "cheap." In the long run, however, removing the dams will help the region to move forward with next generation energy systems that are the future - high efficiency turbines, stand alone local generators, rechargeable batteries and solar panels.

The current power grid is a dinosaur, with or without the fish problem.

The Gilder Group, headed by futurist George Gilder, which identifies coming trends and new paradigms for stock market investors, recently published a report called "The Huber Mills Power Report," which identified future demand for "clean power systems."

Bottom line: The power grid is going away.

The point of the report is this: The rise of semiconductors has created demand for systems that provide a higher level of reliability, systems that are not subject to "car-tree interactions," and wind storms. Companies that rely upon computer systems - hospitals, banks, newspapers, and dot-coms, to name a few - increasingly cannot afford to be without power for even a second, let alone the eight hours a year that the current system of power lines is down. So they are developing their own, free-standing power supplies.

Electricity currently accounts for 37 percent of energy consumption, and by the end of the century is expected to increase to more than 50 percent. More important than sheer volume, Gilder and his colleagues say, is increasing demand for quality electricity that the Internet economy requires - clean, stable, and reliable electricity that cannot be provided by the same old "Rube Goldberg" technologies that power our light bulbs, electric motors, and air conditioners.

In other words, many of the big utilities will wither and die and be replaced by the technologies of lots of little companies ... Capstone Turbine, Caterpillar, Trinity Flywheel, and American Superconductor.

Even if the dams were to remain, over time they will provide a smaller and smaller percentage of our electrical needs and thus will become less and less important, and eventually obsolete.

The way to breach dams is to link their demolition to developing new sources of energy. The Columbia Gorge is known as the wind surfing capital of the world because it is rich in wind power, which could also be used to generate electricity. The arid lands around Washington's Tri-cities are known for being hot and sunny and could be used to harness the vast untapped potential of solar power. The Dutch are experimenting with ocean barges connected to hydraulic arms that push electrical turbines, technology which might also be adapted to Oregon's coast.

With so many promising alternatives to hydro power on the horizon it seems that now, while there are still fish in the stream, might be a good time to start letting go of antiquated dams and focus with renewed enthusiasm on technologies of the future.

Richard Swart
Hue and Cry About Snake River Dams Overdone
Wallowa County Chieftain, March 9, 2000

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