the film
Commentaries and editorials

An Idaho Daily Breaches the Northwest's
Silence Over Tearing Down Dams

by Susan Whaley
High Country News, September 1, 1997

Map: Lower Snake River dams. The Idaho Statesman likes to think its editorials are felt far beyond the modestly populated Boise metropolitan area in southwestern Idaho where the paper is headquartered. We were never sure just how far, however, until recently.

That's when the six members of the editorial board, which includes the publisher, top editors and a community representative, called for tearing down four earthen dams downstream from Boise on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

In a three-day series of editorials called "Dollars, sense & salmon," the board concluded that allowing the river to function more like a river again would recover endangered salmon and steelhead, the majority of which now die during migration trying to get past the dams or through the slack-water reservoirs above them. A revived fishery would contribute significantly to the economy of Idaho and the Northwest.

The response was swift.

Some thought we were lunatics; after all, an entire economy has developed in the 22 years since the dams were completed, including a port at Lewiston, Idaho, some 400 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Others called us geniuses. The truth, I'm pretty sure, lies somewhere in between.

In a nutshell, here's what we said:

Within a week, the Portland Oregonian, the Tri-City Herald in Pasco, Wash., and the Lewiston Morning Tribune in north Idaho all editorialized - predictably - on the other side. "Bad science. Bad economics. Bad timing. Bad politics. Bad neighbors. Bad stewardship. Bad biology," thundered the Tri-City Herald.

Some sympathized with our conclusion but said that political realities make breaching impractical. Since when is political reality the issue? The people of this nation overcame the deeply entrenched political realities of segregation more than 30 years ago to usher in a new era of civil rights because it was right. Surely we Americans can summon the will to do the right thing with four dams in eastern Washington.

Other downriver critics suggested that if we were so gung-ho for breaching, we should also support taking out Lucky Peak Dam, located 10 miles up the Boise River from the capital city.

Then see how you like breaching, they cried.

Our response is simple: Fine, let's take a look. Every dam should be able to withstand close scrutiny. The benefits should outweigh the costs. The environmental trade-offs should be well understood and widely accepted. The editorial board argued, for instance, that the four large hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River - Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary - are too important to the Northwest's growth and prosperity to lose, despite their problems for fish.

Still, critics charged that the Statesman has created a slippery slope that will lead to the removal of every last dam in the West. Wrong. We did a cold-eyed study of just four dams whose costs outweigh their benefits and whose removal offers a good chance to restore fish and jobs.

Breaching is good for Idaho and the region because:

We believe we have put the dam issue where it belongs - squarely on the table of public debate. The editorials will have done their job if they move readers - everyday citizens - to pressure their political leaders for smart, bold action that is right for Idaho, the Northwest and the nation.

Susan Whaley of Boise has been an editorial writer at the Idaho Statesman for 10 years.
An Idaho Daily Breaches the Northwest's Silence Over Tearing Down Dams
High Country News, September 1, 1997

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