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Saving the Snake River Salmon

by Editorial Desk
New York Times
- April 2, 2000

The Clinton administration has been willing to challenge 70 years of accepted public policy that hydroelectric dams are by definition a good thing. Led by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, it has pressed the contrarian notion that dams that are doing more harm than good -- to fish stocks, to watersheds and to the environment generally -- ought to come down. Several dams have in fact been destroyed in the last few years. But these dams have been relatively small, and the administration now faces a huge test of its resolve -- whether to order the breaching of four large hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington State. The purpose would be to restore 140 miles of the river to its natural free-flowing state and greatly increase the chances for survival of the river's depleted salmon populations.

These dams provide many benefits -- power, irrigation and shipping -- and most regional politicians seem flabbergasted that anyone would even think of breaching them. But if the administration follows the path that most scientists have drawn for it, and does an unprejudiced calculation of costs and benefits, it will ask Congress to breach these dams. In doing so, it will have partly atoned for a colossal ecological mistake and added greatly to President Clinton's environmental legacy.

The fate of the dams lies with two federal agencies that are expected to issue reports in the next two months -- the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. Both are under orders from a federal judge, Malcolm Marsh, to devise recovery plans for the salmon under the Endangered Species Act.

Dam-breaching is on the table because other efforts to save the salmon have failed. The four Snake River dams came on line between 1962 and 1975. In the last 25 years, in a futile effort to assist fish migration, the federal government has spent more than $3 billion on programs that include fish ladders, hatcheries and even a complicated truck-and-barging system to get the young fish downstream. Even so, salmon stocks, which averaged more than 100,000 adults in the 1960's, have fallen to little more than 3,000.

Although some federal biologists argue that the barging programs should be given more time, most scientists believe that breaching the dams would be the most effective step toward restoring the wild salmon runs. One team of federal, state and university scientists gave the spring-summer chinook runs an 80 percent chance of recovery if the dams were removed. No scientist can or will guarantee complete success. But what seems clear is that the salmon cannot be saved without breaching.

With the science tilting against them, opponents have relied on economic arguments. For example, Senator Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington, warns that breaching would be ''an unmitigated disaster and an economic nightmare for the region.'' But it will not. The $1 billion or so needed to decommission the dams could be rapidly amortized by saving the $200 million a year now spent running the dams and barging the salmon around them. Indeed, that annual outlay could rise dramatically if the dams are not breached, since the corps would have to take other measures, all of them costly, to satisfy Judge Marsh.

Losing the salmon could exact other costs as well. Near the end of the 19th century, the United States signed treaties with various Northwestern Indian tribes guaranteeing fishing privileges for all time in ''usual and accustomed places.'' The Indians have been wonderfully patient in not enforcing these rights over the years. But if they did, and there were no salmon to be found, the legal obligation, according to federal experts, could run into the billions of dollars.

Some people would suffer real if momentary pain. The dams supply about 4 percent of the region's power, and monthly utility bills could rise between $1 and $4 a month if breaching occurs. Even so, northwestern consumers would still pay among the lowest utility rates in the country. Barge transportation, used mainly to move wheat downstream, would be eliminated above the dam sites. But with modest public investments, the railway that served the farmers successfully until the dams were completed 25 years ago could be revived.

The heaviest price would probably be paid by 13 farms covering 37,000 acres in western Washington, which would lose irrigation water now pumped from a reservoir behind one of the four dams. Here again, modest investments in new wells or pipes to pump water from a lowered Snake River would soften the blow and keep all but the most marginal farmers on their feet. The costs that Senator Gorton regards as unbearable are in fact manageable if the government is willing to step in with targeted grants and loans, much as it did 10 years ago when the decision to save the spotted owl sharply reduced timber harvests.

Is such a program worth it in this case? Oregon's governor, John Kitzhaber, one of the few regional politicians to support breaching, said it well: ''If our salmon runs are not healthy, then our watersheds are not healthy. A highly degraded ecosystem -- which is where we are headed today -- represents a decision to mortgage the legacy with which we have been blessed for our own short-term benefit. I believe we are better than that.''

New York Times Discussion Forum

Returning River to Salmon, Man to the Drawing Board, New York Times, 9/26/99
A River of Uncertainty, New York Times, 10/5/00

Editorial Desk
Saving the Snake River Salmon
New York Times April 2, 2000

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