Flushing the Fish Might Cost More
by N.S. Nokkentved
TWIN FALLS -- Breaching four lower Snake River Dams might be the cheapest alternative to ensuring the survival and recovery of endangered Snake River salmon.
Federal officials estimate the net annual cost of breaching the four federal dams in southwestern Washington at about $250 million. If the dams stay in place, however, federal officials say they would seek more water from the upper Snake River -- an alternative that could cost as much as $500 million annually.
At issue is the fate of four federal dams on the lower Snake River that some say have to be breached to restore once plentiful Idaho salmon -- a proposal not considered seriously even five years ago.
The recently released five-year, $20 million environmental study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not include the details or the costs of other alternatives.
"I don't think we've got numbers on that yet," said Janet Sears, spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with recovery of the endangered fish.
The study was completed for the Fisheries Service. And next spring people in the Northwest will be asked to comment on the study during public hearings.
The Fisheries Service hopes to have more information in the next few months, in time for public meetings in February and March, Sears said.
Meanwhile, other Fisheries Service officials have said that if the dams stay in place, the agency would be looking for more water from the Upper Snake River region, which includes southern and eastern Idaho and parts of eastern Oregon.
Some studies have shown that increased flows through the reservoirs at certain times improve the survival of some salmon. Water from the upper Snake region would be used for such "flow augmentation."
A Bureau of Reclamation study of the costs and effects of acquiring an additional 1 million acre-feet of water from that region shows it could cost as much as $550 million a year -- or more than $400 million a year plus a one-time $1.3 billion.
The Northwest regional economy is estimated to be $300 billion annually.
The bureau's study estimated a loss of agricultural production of $133 million to $369 million; a loss of income of $57 million to $81 million. In addition the study identified transfer costs of about $20 million.
The cost to acquire the water rights was estimated at $10.4 million to $87.2 million -- or a one-time cost as high as $1.3 billion.
That adds up to a range of costs from about $220 million to about $557 million annually.
The bureau, which operates storage reservoirs in Idaho, already releases 427,000 acre-feet from southern and eastern Idaho and 1.2 million acre-feet from Dworshak Reservoir on the Clearwater River, and Idaho Power sends about 237,000 acre-feet from Brownlee Reservoir.
An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre, one foot deep -- 325,850 gallons or 43,560 cubic feet.
But removing the earthen portions of the four dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- or leaving them in place might not be the only decision involved in recovering salmon that have been driven to near extinction by logging, grazing, mining, irrigation, fishing, agriculture, dam building, hatchery operations and other developments.
Recently released documents suggest that breaching the dams alone might not recover all species and other measures might not recover the species without also breaching the dams.
And other alternatives discussed by the Northwest Power Planning Council would include dam breaching as well as some increase in flow in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.
Some scientists have held that any recovery effort would have to include breaching the dams.
But whether the dams come out or not, Fisheries Service officials are working with state and private landowners in Idaho to involve them in conservation programs, said Ted Meyers, branch chief in the Snake River habitat office in Boise.
Those efforts include promoting agricultural practices that reduce the runoff of sediments and pollutants, water conservation practices, and protection of vegetation along streams. In areas where erosion affects streams, some roads may have to be closed or obliterated, though some roads may be moved, Meyers said.
Until the past few years, salmon habitat recovery efforts have mostly involved federal agencies, he said.
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