Taking a Long Look at Damsby Editors
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 30, 2000
Across the nation, officials are taking a hard, well-deserved look at dams, recognizing that the structures often harm more than help. Wisconsin leads the nation in dam removal, a strategy that has improved water quality and restored fish habitat.
But our dams are small. In the Pacific Northwest, the dams and the stakes are much bigger, which has made their removal a national controversy.
The establishment of four large hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state has led to a perilous reduction in the population of salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers.
Those salmon are close relatives of the chinook, coho and rainbow trout successfully introduced into Lake Michigan roughly 20 years ago, which spawned an entire recreational industry.
The four dams provide electric power and other benefits, but they have stymied natural salmon migration. The federal government and others have spent $3 billion on various remedies, including a program to truck and barge young fish downstream.
But nothing's working. The numbers of salmon continue to drop, and some experts fear these remarkable fish could soon become extinct.
It's clear the only practical answer, as most scientists argue, is for the federal government to expedite the breaching of the four dams - removing the earthen portions in order to restore natural migration.
Breaching would cost about $1 billion, but the feds and electric customers in the region already spend about $200 million each year operating the dams and shipping and trucking salmon. The extinction of salmon could expose the federal government to billions of dollars in damages from lawsuits that would likely be brought by Northwest Indian tribes under old treaties.
Breaching would add an estimated $1 to $4 per month to electric bills in that region, but rates there are among the lowest in the nation.
Jim Thompson, a fisheries technician with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, correctly points out that preserving any species, particularly one as important as Pacific salmon, benefits all Americans.
"Our salmon in Lake Michigan are not far removed in time from their relatives on the West Coast," Thompson said, adding that our transplanted salmon have by and large lost their ability to naturally reproduce.
"It would be a shame if the Great Lakes were the final repository for these species in the world."
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