It's Time to Consider Breaching Snake River Damsby Editors
Idaho State Journal, March 15(?), 2000
Sometimes progress is regressive. That's the case with four lower Snake River dams targeted by conservationists and government agencies for breaching in order to restore salmon and steelhead runs to Idaho.
The mere thought of removing one of the very symbols of man's progress, laughing in the face of Manifest Destiny and the ability of mankind to tame and harness a mighty river seems almost sacrilegious. To remove four such symbols seems a fantasy. "Dams, per se, are good," Idaho Falls farmer Jerry Scheid said Tuesday prior to a hearing in Idaho Falls on the federal salmon and steelhead recovery plan. He's right. Dams, over the course of generations, have proven very effective in helping to irrigate crops, control spring flooding and create electricity. The reservoirs they create behind them provide recreation - fishing, boating, swimming.
But, Scheid said, "It's time we reevaluate our thinking. We need to see the whole picture here."
Water in much of the West is more valuable than gold. Scheid understands this. He also understands that if the four dams that, according to scientists, have effectively blocked upstream migration of most of Idaho's endangered salmon and steelhead, aren't removed, more water will be called for to help sustain the fish while other recovery methods are sought.
And that water may come from his back yard and the back yards of the very irrigators who are fighting dam breaching based essentially on a tired philosophy that holds dams in high esteem.
Idaho Falls businessman and sportsman Jimmy Gabettas recognizes, too, what the loss of upper Snake River water would mean to our region. Gabettas owns and operates All Seasons Angler in Idaho Falls - a business almost solely dependent on fish and the water flowing in the upper Snake River drainage.
It would be a real shame to lose the steelhead altogether, Gabettas said. Idaho anglers can still catch hatchery-reared steelhead in the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, and Gabettas' shop does benefit from the presence of the fish. But what he's most concerned about is the loss of local water if the dams don't come down.
"We're a local shop dependent on local water," he said. Trophy populations of rainbow trout lurk in the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, and a rejuvenated Yellowstone cutthroat trout population swims in the waters of the South Fork of the Snake.
Both rivers could be drawn down during key times of the year in order to help flush young salmon and steelhead over the four dams, located hundreds of miles downstream in Washington state. "If the dams aren't breached, they (the feds) are going to have to go and get our water. We could lose two ways."
Also on the losing end of this equation would be local American Indians, people who for centuries depended upon salmon for their very existence. By building the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River - which produce less than 2 percent of Idaho's power - the government violated countless treaties with native peoples, who were extended the permanent right to fish for salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia river systems. While they still technically have that right, the fish are no longer available.
"Mother Nature has provided ways to protect her salmon and steelhead," said J.J. Wadsworth, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Business Council in Fort Hall. "But she's run out of ways. We've put too many barriers in her way."
Granted, those barriers provide the city of Lewiston with an economically important shipping industry. But, as Shoshone-Bannock tribal leader Lionel Boyer pointed out at Tuesday's hearing, Lewiston's port is completely subsidized by the four hydroelectric dams.
We've essentially traded in one economically important resource for another, and in the process, we're threatening the very culture of the Northwest.
While breaching the four dams is not the single solution to restoring salmon and steelhead to Idaho, it's certainly a key piece in the overall puzzle. We support the breaching of the dams, and we encourage federal biologists to continue their research into the decline of the fish. Removal of the dams should be the first of several steps taken to restore salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake River system.
"Salmon mean a lot to our people," Wadsworth said. "And they should mean a lot to you, to your children."
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