Breaching the Dams Isn't a Sound Optionby Cyrus Noë, Special to The Times
Guest columnist, The Seattle Times, May 23, 2003
U.S. District Judge James A. Redden's recent rulings on the adequacy of federal protection for endangered Columbia Basin salmon could lead to more-aggressive mitigation measures, causing serious economic problems for the region.
Among all possible measures, breaching four lower Snake River dams needs to be dismissed as a policy option.
Breaching four big dams is without precedent, and no wonder. These dams provide 940 megawatts of power, locks for cargo barging, fish ladders, recreation and irrigation. Breaching needs a whole lot of justification.
Fish managers have a track record of big ideas they argue will effect dramatic salmon run improvements — silver-bullet solutions justified by their own assumptions and paid for by someone else.
These have included a 1990s "flow plan" that called for more water than the Columbia River could deliver. Next came a "draw down" proposal to lower dam reservoir levels on both the Snake and Columbia to speed juvenile smolt migration at the expense of power generation.
Now, breaching is the biggest of these silver bullets.
The Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition carries on its Web site the message: "Scientists predict that partially removing these four dams has an 80-99 percent chance of restoring healthy Snake River salmon runs by reversing habitat damage caused by the dams."
First off, no conscientious scientist could "predict" the success of habitat mitigation.
Second, the 140-mile reach of the lower dams was never a spawning or rearing salmon habitat; it was and remains merely a migration conduit.
During the years the dams would be breached, juveniles and adults would be at great survival risk.
Millions of smolts going to sea and as many as 150,000 returning adults would need to be collected, barged and later trucked downriver and back as barging was eliminated by breaching.
This is all new, so no one really knows how to proceed.
Costs would be enormous to dig out earthen portions of the four dams, stabilize and clean up riparian areas and mitigate collateral damage. Dirt and silt would need to be relocated. Power-replacement costs are $125 million per year from fossil fuel. Proposing conservation to replace lost hydropower is just wishful thinking.
Total breaching bill estimates range from $1 billion to $5 billion. That price tag would demand answers in Congress that would expose dam breaching as unrealistic. A huge Army Corps of Engineers study concluded as much years ago.
But if breaching is not realistic, why is it still mumbling below stage like the ghost of Hamlet's father?
For one thing, breaching was wired into the NOAA Fisheries salmon plan as a Clinton administration gesture of solidarity with salmon advocates.
And it also turned out that breaching dams to save salmon has loads of appeal in salmon-recovery politics and advocacy-group fund raising.
The dam-versus-fish message stereotypes how development has done evil things to the natural world. The simplistic choice is to smite the offending machines and save endangered fish.
I don't think dam-breaching advocates are cynics fooling the public to rake in money. They likely believe that breaching dams is a real answer to restoring runs.
But I do see them as less believable when they take no account of recovering runs.
They proclaim the importance of salmon-run health, but in fact they act like practitioners who won't admit that salmon patients are showing a positive measure of renewed health. Advocates appear to have no investment in salmon recovery, only in salmon decline.
Salmon counts by the corps at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia and Lower Granite Dam on the Snake are setting records. At Bonneville in 2002, the record chinook total was 971,827. This compares with a 10-year average of 379,118 and the first count in 1938 of 264,295.
At Lower Granite, farthest upstream of the lower dams, the 2001 record adult chinook count was 194,608 — 10 times the 10-year average of 19,597. This clearly means that dramatic improvements in Snake runs are possible with dams in place.
Does this mean salmon runs have recovered? Not that I know of. But improvements in Columbia-Snake runs are largely due to better ocean conditions and are continuing.
Counts of chinook jacks — young returning predictors of 2004 runs — are extremely high, more than twice the average now at Bonneville and three times the average at Lower Granite.
How much improvement can be credited to billions in salmon-recovery dollars remains uncertain. If it's too early to claim recovery, it's not too early to deep-six dam breaching and focus on real projects with better potential and lower costs.
Right now, lower fish-recovery costs would help avoid raising high power rates that are a big factor in a regional economic downturn with unemployment rates No. 1 in Oregon and No. 2 in Washington.
Saving declining jobs is certainly as important as saving salmon.
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