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Opening Dams Can Help Save Salmon

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 18, 1999

Report says economic impact would be small

Punching holes in four dams to return the Snake River to a more natural state would help restore salmon runs with relatively modest economic impact, according to a new federal study.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' wide-ranging draft report on breaching the dams, released yesterday, provides new ammunition for both sides in the long-running debate over the dams.

But both sides agreed the impact on the region's economy would be fairly small.

"This is not going to devastate the Northwest. It's not going to cause a mass exodus to California," said Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents dam-dependent businesses fighting against breaching the dams. "But . . . is it worth the cost of doing this? They have not made their case."

The five-year, $20 million study examined four options for reducing the number of young salmon killed by the dams during migration to the ocean. The Corps built and operates the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Goose and Lower Granite dams, which provide the region with about one-twentieth of its low-cost electricity.

The net economic effect, Corps economists estimated, would be a loss of $246 million a year.

That sounds large, but Terry Morlan, manager of economic analysis for the Northwest Power Planing Council, noted that the combined 1997 gross state product for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana was $320 billion, meaning the loss would be about one-tenth of 1 percent of the region's economy.

"That's a lot of money to invest. That's maybe a year's worth of growth," Morlan said. "The question is, what do you get for it? Do you get an assured return? I think a lot of people would feel that is a good investment if you would definitely get the salmon back."

Will Stelle, National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator, called the report "a piece of the information we need . . . (for) a durable and effective salmon-recovery plan."

"We need to make some tough choices here in the Pacific Northwest," Stelle said at a news conference. "The idea that we can let these (salmon) stocks go extinct is not acceptable. If we do not change what we are doing now, we will be letting those stocks go extinct."

But Stelle, appearing with other federal officials, stressed that no single plan -- including dam breaching -- would save all 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers. "There are no silver bullets here," he said.

For the most-endangered runs, chinook salmon that return in the spring and summer, there is a 1-in-7 chance of extinction in the next decade, according to the report.

Breaching the dams would not, in itself, preserve those stocks, said a Fisheries Service report released in conjunction with the Corps' draft dam-breaching document. It would rescue chinook that return in the fall and steelhead.

Other options studied were:

The Corps had originally intended to select one or more alternatives yesterday. Instead, federal agencies asked citizens to read the draft report and respond. A final recommendation will go to Congress after a series of public hearings scheduled for February and March.

"We are absolutely prepared to make federal decisions on this subject in the springtime of this year, and we intend to do so," Stelle said.

Arvid Lyons, who manages the Lewis-Clark Terminal at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, was among those who criticized the federal agencies for delaying a decision.

Lyons' wheat-shipping business would get kneecapped if the dams were breached -- the river would be too shallow for barges to ply the Snake past the Tri Cities.

"It's a morality issue, almost," Lyons said. "To take the dams down is plain stupid. It doesn't make sense."

Economically, decommissioning the dams would produce a mixed picture, the Corps found.

Nearly 21,000 jobs would be created in building gas-fired power plants to replace the lost electricity, new grain elevators and related projects. But those jobs, paying perhaps $32,500 a year, would be temporary. Within a decade, they would vanish.

Long-term, about 3,000 jobs would be permanently lost, mostly in operating the dams and on farms that irrigate with water from the Ice Harbor dam.

After that, there would be about 2,300 new jobs running the new power plants and handling the increased surge of tourism expected along the restored river, the Corps said.

On balance, just over 700 jobs -- less than 1 percent of employment in the Lower Snake River region -- would be lost. But those jobs pay about $33,000 a year, just over the average for the region, while new jobs would pay about $22,300 annually.

"You're talking about trading real, live jobs, such as farming and other jobs, and saying you're going to run an espresso stand at Little Goose Dam," said Lovelin, of the Columbia River Alliance.

"We don't want to be the reason the fish go extinct," said Lyons, the terminal manager in Lewiston. "By the same token, you've got to put a little reason into this thing. How much are you willing to spend, per fish, so you have the peace of mind that you have fish in the river?"

Environmental economist Ed Whitelaw, meanwhile, has criticized the Corps' figures on a number of counts. For example, he says they fail to take into account the benefits of Indian tribes once again fishing the spring and summer salmon runs.

"If they would do it right, (dam breaching) not only eliminates the deficit -- it probably yields a plus," Whitelaw said. "But either way, we aren't talking about huge numbers."

Lovelin said he doubts there would be $82 million a year in increased tourism by people kayaking or otherwise using the restored river.

Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican who has opposed dam breaching, yesterday applauded the federal agencies' reports. He echoed Stelle, saying the documents prove "removing the dams is not the silver bullet for salmon recovery."

Maybe not, said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited, a dam-breaching proponent, "But this says that it's one of the bullets you need."

As for the $246 million-a-year cost?

"Even if you accept it, which I don't, these species survived the last ice age. And we're going to sacrifice them for six one-hundredths of the regional economy?" Curtis asked.

For full report:
The Draft Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement,
Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla
509-527-7015, or 509-527-7020.

Robert McClure
Opening Dams Can Help Save Salmon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 18, 1999

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