Saving the Salmon
The fate of the Snake River salmon may seem a distant issue to Minnesotans, living so far from the dammed-up waterways of Washington and Oregon. But it is worth careful attention here and everywhere across the nation, for it raises core questions about the American commitment to species preservation, the future of industrialized rivers and, not least, the political courage of Al Gore.
The salmon and steelhead facing extinction in the Snake and Columbia rivers have been part of American legend since they fed the last westward push of Lewis and Clark. One salmon species has already vanished; every other is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Federal agencies are under court order to develop a recovery plan but keep missing the deadlines.
There is little question about what a realistic plan must require, since the reasons for the salmon decline are clear. Habitat destruction and overfishing have long taken a toll, but the real plunge followed the construction of four hydroelectric dams on eastern Washington's Lower Snake River in the 1960s and 1970s.
These federally financed dams extended barge shipping 140 miles farther inland to Lewiston, Idaho. They now provide about 4 percent of the region's electric needs, at rates among the nation's lowest, and make irrigation somewhat easier for 13 grain farmers. And they have turned a wild river into a series of slow-flowing, overheated pools separated by fish-pureeing turbines.
Taxpayers across America have paid to build and operate these dams, and also to conduct salmon-preservation programs whose ineffectiveness might be comical were less at stake. Young salmon, or smolts, are netted upstream from the turbines and moved to the sea by barge or tanker truck; those that grow to adulthood are provided "fish ladder" conveyors that help them over the dams when they come back upstream to spawn. But few complete the cycle -- too few to maintain even today's tiny populations.
Among most scientists and a few courageous political leaders -- including Oregon's Gov. John Kitzhaber -- there is only one way to save the salmon, and that is to breach the earthen components of the four dams, allowing the river to return to its natural flow. There is no guarantee that breaching alone will bring back the salmon; habitat restoration, fishing restrictions and other steps may also be required. But there is no realistic hope of recovery without breaching.
Breaching is a billion-dollar proposition; it will also be expensive to provide the assistance that fairness requires to farmers who use the river to run irrigation systems and ship grain. But it now costs all Americans $200 million a year to run the dams and ship the fish. And a bigger cost of keeping the dams is looming in the not-distant future -- multibillion-dollar damage claims by Indian tribes who have treaty rights to salmon.
The Clinton administration's responsibility is to support breaching, thereby correcting one mistake among many the nation has made in turning rivers into heavily subsidized, environmentally degraded conduits for industry. But it prefers to duck the issue until after November; Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has said the decision "will not -- and should not -- be made on my watch."
And Gore, who claims environmental stewardship as a hallmark of his candidacy, has managed to do his own ducking. That's an unfair and unwise stance to adopt with a nation that wonders how the tough environmental issues might be addressed if the next watch is Gore's.
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