Corps Dam Report Offers No Solutionsby Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, December 18, 1999
Introduction to report on breaching calls scientific evidence inconclusive
Dam-huggers and dam-haters waited four years for a $20 million study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But a draft of the report released Friday did nothing to bring resolution to the region's biggest environmental debate: whether to breach four dams on Washington's 140-mile stretch of the Snake River to save endangered fish.
"As you read the summary, you will see that the scientific evidence is not conclusive and that we face some hard choices," engineer William Bulen wrote in an introduction to the report.
However, the regional head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered her agency's unequivocal opinion during a joint news conference in Portland by federal officials.
"The bottom-line biological conclusion is really a no-brainer," Anne Badgley said. "For native fish and wildlife, a free-flowing river is better than a dammed river."
The corps environmental impact statement is perhaps the most-anticipated document in the dam debate. In it, the agency looks at the environmental, economic and social consequences of removing the dams and leaving them whole.
During hearings in 1997 and 1998, corps officials repeatedly said the draft released this year would include a recommendation on whether the dams should be breached.
This year, the agency backed away from that pledge, saying there are too many unanswered questions and too much scientific evidence to sort through. Corps officials now say they'll make a recommendation after a series of public hearings early next year.
The corps' analysis included four alternatives:
Currently, about half the fish are barged to the mouth of the Columbia River. Opinions vary on whether barging saves fish, with many scientists contending that barged fish are more susceptible than nonbarged fish to death from predation, disease and other factors during their first several weeks in the ocean.
Because the corps no longer would have to spill water over the dams for the sake of salmon, it could generate more electricity. That would more than offset the $6 million annual cost of improving the dams, a panel of economists concluded.
Predictably, the Corps of Engineers' report satisfied no one on either side of the dam debate. Instead, environmental groups praised Badgley's agency for a report concluding that breaching "would provide many more benefits to fish and wildlife than the other three alternatives." Badgley cautioned that the report was not intended as a recommendation for breaching.
"Fish and Wildlife Service needs to be commended for at least being honest," said Justine Hayes of American Rivers. "The science is just becoming crystal clear."
Hayes and other environmentalists noted that the corps did not estimate the cost to southern Idaho's economy if the dams aren't breached and more water is needed to flush juvenile fish to the ocean. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that cost at $432 million a year, far more than the cost of breaching.
Nor have federal agencies analyzed the cost of protecting salmon habitat and reducing the commercial catch of salmon in the Northwest and Alaska. Officials at Friday's news conference stressed that such steps will be necessary whether or not the dams are breached. But a National Marine Fisheries Service study suggests restrictions will be far more severe without breaching.
Politicians were quick to issue statements of their own.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., called the corps report "a great disappointment" because it doesn't include a recommendation.
"This isn't where I had hoped we would be after four years and $20 million," he said.
Former Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho, predicted the nation is "decades away" from a decision on breaching.
"The fact is," McClure said, "if removing the dams is the only means of recovery, the fish are gone."
WHAT'S NEXT: Public hearings
Early next year, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Army Corps of Engineers will host a series of public hearings about salmon recovery. The schedule is not complete, but hearings are planned for Feb. 8 and Feb. 17 in Spokane and the Tri-Cities, respectively. The agencies have not announced the times and locations of the meetings.
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