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Commentaries and editorials

One View from Lewiston

by Marty Trillhaase
Post-Register, May 20, 2007

If Lewiston City Councilman Jim Kluss is willing to challenge the economics supporting the four lower Snake River dams, why shouldn't the rest of us?

For eastern Idaho, the dams mean uncertainty: Will they eradicate Idaho's already devastated salmon runs? How much will hatcheries and other operations aimed at keeping the fish from going extinct cost electric ratepayers? And will those federal efforts to spare the fish one day demand eastern Idaho's irrigation water?

For Lewiston, the dams are a fact of life. They provide an inland seaport and "slack water" recreation.

Yet here's what Kluss told The New York Times last week: The dams haven't kept economic promises made more than three decades ago. Barge transportation has delivered agricultural and timber products to markets. But the port didn't greatly expand or diversify the area's economy. Lewiston has remained relatively stagnant while Idaho went on a growth spurt.

"If the question is, did the slack water create a real economic boon to the city, I would say, no," Kluss says. "Not that it hasn't been helpful to certain groups and that's good. But it didn't deliver the goods."

Not that Kluss supports breaching the four dams and restoring the Snake River's natural flow -- something environmentalists say offers the best chance of reviving salmon runs.

Now these dams pose a new cost, however. Collecting along the river bottom for 30 years, silt has reduced the freeboard -- the distance between the river's flood level and the top of the levees separating Lewiston from the river -- from five feet to 1.5 feet. In less than 20 years, the freeboard will be gone.

To remedy the problem, the feds could dredge the river -- but it's expensive and environmentally disruptive.

Or they could raise the levees another three feet -- but the community's residents oppose it. They don't want any more walls between the city and its river. (Imagine how 15- to 18-foot walls would undermine Taylor's Crossing or the hotels and restaurants along the Snake River in Idaho Falls.)

Here's one more reason to ask: Are the dams worth it? Do the economic benefits -- a port and electricity -- justify the costs of maintaining the dams, preserving the fish and going without another salmon fishing season in places such as Stanley and Salmon?

So Kluss finds himself agreeing with sponsors of the Salmon Economic Analysis and Planning Act -- directing the National Academy of Sciences and the Government Accountability Office to conduct objective cost-benefit studies.

"It's like anything else. If you're trying to make an educated decision, you better have some factual information out there," he says.

Kluss is open to getting the facts.

Why can't Idaho's congressional delegation join him?

Marty Trillhaase
One View from Lewiston.
Post-Register, May 20, 2007

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