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Commentaries and editorials

Breach Dams, Not Trust

by Editors
Denver Post, May 19, 2000

May 19 - The governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana are expected to meet with George Frampton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in Denver today to consider the fate of four dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington State. Breaching these outmoded and costly relics may be the last chance to save from extinction salmon and steelhead trout that once flourished in the river. One species of salmon, the coho, already has vanished. The rest are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The dams do have their defenders, primarily the barge industry that enjoys heavily subsidized access to Lewiston, Idaho. The dams also provide irrigation water to 13 large grain farmers and contribute about 4 percent of the state's hydroelectric power.

Balanced against those modest benefits are enormous losses for American taxpayers, who already have anted $3 billion in a failed effort to save the salmon by a series of "fish ladders" and barging operations.

Columbia Basin tribes, including the Bannock and Shoshone, signed treaties with the federal government in 1855 and 1856 guaranteeing them "the right of taking fish" at their usual and accustomed fishing sites. Experts have estimated the U.S. government - that's you and me, friend - would have to pay the Indians as much as $10 billion in compensation if their treaty rights are destroyed by extinction of the salmon.

In contrast, the estimated $1 billion price of breaching these outmoded dams is a bargain compared to the annual $200 million cost of trying to ferry the salmon past the dams. We also believe the government should pay reasonable compensation to the farmers whose transportation or irrigation costs would rise.

But clearly, both economic and environmental equations come down on the side of saving the salmon. Washington should learn from Colorado, where we've turned tourism and sport fishing into lucrative industries.

These four dams, built between 1962 and 1975, are dinosaurs in the 21st century economy. No one would build such wasteful and wanton projects today. But there's still time to remedy old mistakes.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has come out against breaching the dams. He's wrong, but at least Bush took a stand. Vice President Al Gore continues to tap dance around the issue.

It's time Gore and the Clinton administration came out in favor of saving the salmon. It's better to breach four outmoded dams than to breach the federal government's solemn promises to the American Indians at the expense of the American taxpayers.

Breach Dams, Not Trust
Denver Post, May 19, 2000

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