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Commentaries and editorials

Breaching Dams Makes Sense

by Editors
Petersburg Times, June 19, 2000

Unlike many environmental debates, the issue of whether to breach four federally funded dams on the Snake River in Washington does not pit profit against preservation. The proposed move, which would protect eight species of salmon and trout from extinction while restoring their natural environment, makes good ecological and economic sense.

So it is hard to understand why the Clinton administration has delayed several months in determining the dams' fate. It probably has something to do with presidential politics, which may explain why Vice President Al Gore so far has avoided taking a clear public stand.

The White House should place this issue above politics and approve the partial removal of the dams to save the endangered fish -- and save billions in taxpayer dollars. Gore, in particular, has an obligation, to his environmentally conscious constituents and to the people of the Pacific Northwest, to express his support for the proposal.

The ecological benefits of removing the earthen portions of the dams are numerous.

The dams, built at a time when their long-term environmental consequences weren't fully understood, are responsible for a dramatic decline in salmon and trout populations. Great numbers of fish have been killed or injured by the dams' turbines while attempting to migrate to the Pacific Ocean or attempting to return to the Snake River beds to spawn. Some experts say the fish will be on the brink of extinction as early as 2017 unless the dams are breached, allowing the fish to migrate and breed freely.

Analysts predict that the partial removal of the dams also would lead to increased commercial fishing and recreational activities on the Snake River, pumping as much as $500-million into local economies every year. It also would save billions of tax dollars by ending the government's well-intentioned but ineffective program of trucking fish downstream beyond the dams.

The government's negligence in allowing the Snake River fish population to be decimated also violates an 1855 treaty with several American Indian tribes. The accord entitles half of the fish harvest in the region to the four tribes. If the fish die off, the government would owe these groups up to $12-billion.

Critics, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., contend that breaching the dams would have devastating consequences to the surrounding communities. A handful of industries that benefit from the dams apparently have had enough political clout to keep Gorton and others on their side. But most of their concerns are overstated. For example, the dam removal would cut off hydroelectric power to only about 5 percent of the region.

This issue should be simple for Gore, who praised a recent move to protect a section of another Washington river with a large salmon population, the Columbia, from damming and other development.

If he doesn't get behind this proposal, he risks losing supporters in the Northwest, where a recent poll shows Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader gaining support. But regardless of Gore's position, or lack thereof, on the issue, President Clinton should take action before it's too late.

Breaching Dams Makes Sense
Petersburg Times, June 19, 2000

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