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Commentaries and editorials

Council, Mind Your Own Dam Business

by Solveig Torvik, Editorial Board Member
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - September 3, 2000

Here's a news flash: The Seattle City Council unanimously supports breaching the four lower Snake River dams to assist salmon recovery.

Dunce caps all around, please.

With all due respect, these people are clueless. The Seattle City Council knows as much about the Snake River dams as a pig knows about Sunday school.

And the Seattle City Council has as much dispensation to make official pronouncements on removing the Snake River dams as the Yakima City Council has to declare the Space Needle a public eyesore and vote to demolish it.

Yes, Seattle City Light is a big customer for electricity produced by the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power produced by the dams. It's true, as the council's Aug. 21 resolution suggests, that we must shoulder some costs of salmon recovery on the river system.

But it's a great leap from there to endorsement of breaching.

Even if the council were composed of nothing but fisheries experts, its collective opinion in this matter would be profoundly irrelevant. Whether the Snake River dams stand or fall is none of the Seattle City Council's business. We've hired other people to make that call.

The federal entities that do have the dams in their portfolios -- the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, et. al. -- have been taken to task in this space for assorted failures in managing this ecological crisis. Now the Clinton administration, armed with the best science our money can buy, has concluded -- conveniently or correctly, only time will tell -- that it will take eight more years before we can be certain that there's no hope of salmon recovery unless the dams go.

But the Seattle City Council, unburdened by constraints of anything so vexing as science, has substituted its official judgment for that of those whom we pay to present us with the facts -- and those who at least can lay claim to some scientific basis for their conclusions about the dams.

The Seattle City Council was not empaneled to advise us on the Snake River dams, human rights in Burma or the likelihood of finding water on Mars. Its members were hired for such mundane tasks as paving the streets, installing public toilets downtown and exerting due diligence on contractural arrangements to protect taxpayers when a World Trade Organization wants to party in our town.

Since they have no real dog in this fight, this was an easy vote for the council. No one cares what the Seattle City Council thinks about the Snake River dams in any case -- with one major exception. The people in Eastern Washington care.

The citizens who live in the dry half of this bifurcated state do not take kindly to what they see as our cavalier, dismissive, patronizing attitudes toward their problems.

Let's get one thing clear: The discord on the Columbia/Snake system has never been about salmon. It's always been about water. As far as I can tell, everyone in Eastern Washington wants salmon to swim in these rivers. But nobody feels obliged to give up a drop of water to make it happen.

Water, like money, is in short supply in arid Eastern Washington. Here in Seattle, both are relatively abundant. So most urban dwellers don't understand the value of water. That makes it easy for us to be insular and uninformed on a highly charged political and economic issue.

This is embarrassingly manifest in the council's pronouncements on subjects on which it has no competence, such as this witless dam-breaching resolution. The council seems blithely oblivious to the fact that dam breaching has become the flashpoint symbol of everything that's going wrong between Eastern and Western Washington.

The council could not have acted truer to arrogant, elitist Seattle stereotype if its resolution had been scripted as parody by residents of Oroville.

Rural people in this state are struggling to adjust to frightening economic changes. They fear new rules may be imposed on use of their land and "their" water. They fear loss of income -- or they've already lost it. People lose livelihoods in Seattle too, but when that happens, we have options. That's not often true in Eastern Washington.

The much-belated government request for sound ecological stewardship in rural Eastern Washington is perceived there -- wrongly, I believe -- as unwarranted government meddling, though it's true that its application often has been ham-fisted.

The dizzying disparity in wealth between east and west has added to the bitter resentments in much of Eastern Washington against wetlanders. We're blamed for abetting the demise of drysider communities with our insistence on enforcement of environmental laws.

Given this painful schism, advice from the Seattle City Council on taking down dams is not just unhelpful; it's inflammatory. It's politically counterproductive. It serves only to further divide the state's residents and polarize a complex issue. The last people anyone in Eastern Washington wants to hear from on this subject is Seattleites.

Because in the salmon crisis the federal government has adopted the novel approach of asking its citizens to obey environmental laws rather than requiring them to do so, whatever progress is made on salmon salvation largely will be made by agreement of volunteers to the cause.

But the council's incendiary resolution makes it harder for those charged with rounding up volunteers and implementing solutions on the ground. It's hard to get much cooperation if you're seen as an agent of overpriviledged, moronic city people incapable of feeding themselves.

If members of the Seattle City Council are as concerned as they say about having this city do its "fair share" to "fulfill our legal and moral obligation for salmon restoration," the time has come. Why not send a portion of our street-paving funds to Eastern Washington irrigators to install fish screens in their ditches?

Council members would be prudent to save their instructions on how to save salmon for the day -- fast approaching -- when their own constituents may be asked to sacrifice a little something from their own pocketbooks in the cause of Puget Sound salmon.

We trust the council's enthusiasm for salmon-recovery sacrifices won't wane when those sacrifices must be made at our own doorstep.

Solveig Torvik is associate editor of the Post-Intelligencer's Editorial Page and member of the Editorial Board.
Council, Mind Your Own Dam Business
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 3, 2000

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