Letting the Salmon Runby Editors
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 24, 2001
A rite of spring has begun once again in the Pacific Northwest, but there is very little right about it. In fact, it's your classic federal boondoggle, and it must end.
We don't dispute that it's well-intentioned - an elaborate annual operation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to save the endangered salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers by transporting the fish downstream with barges and trucks, past four large dams, to allow them to complete their natural migration to the Pacific Ocean. But despite the staggering federal cost, salmon populations continue to drop.
Built on the Snake River between 1961 and 1975, the four dams interfere with salmon migration. Although the feds and others have spent more than $3 billion on various unsuccessful remedies, experts predict these fish could be extinct by 2017. The only legitimate remedy is to breach the four dams: Remove the earthen portions to restore natural migration and water flow, and revitalize fishing and recreation.
Although the dams provide some benefits, including shipping, hydroelectric power and some irrigation, the benefits are limited in scale, particularly when compared with the disadvantages. These include a $250 million annual federal cost to run the dams and transport the salmon downstream, a decline in the salmon population and a negative impact on commercial fishing. The dams provide only about 4% of the region's electric power. While that might be a bigger deal in California, it isn't in the Northwest, which enjoys some of the cheapest electric rates in the nation. Breaching the dams would only add several dollars to average monthly electric bills.
Breaching would cost about $1 billion. But that needs to be weighed against the ultimately higher cost of running the dams and trucking the fish. Furthermore, if the salmon do become extinct, the feds could be successfully sued for billions of dollars in damages from lawsuits by Northwest Indian tribes with treaty rights to the fish.
Congress needs to move on this now by authorizing a comprehensive study on the costs and benefits of breaching the dams. Time, like the salmon population, is running out.
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