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Commentaries and editorials

Washington's Dams vs. Our Water

by Donovan Bramwell
Idaho Falls Post Register, November 16, 2003

Idaho has almost nothing to lose, and has a whole lot to gain,
with the removal of four federal dams on the lower Snake River (in Washington)

A lone salmon Recent events have brought the salmon recovery problem in Idaho to the forefront. More than 100 members of Congress have joined in promoting, as a salmon recovery option, the removal of the four federal dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington. Environmental groups are pursuing a lawsuit that would pull water out of the Upper Snake River Valley for flow augmentation in the four reservoirs. Idaho's U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo is working with the environmental groups to postpone the lawsuit so that negotiations can take place.

Make no mistake. The loss of Idaho's formerly abundant salmon was caused primarily, almost entirely, by the construction and operation of the four federal dams in eastern Washington, a fact that can easily be proven from publicly available data. We can argue 'til the cows come home about seals, terns, barging, commercial fishing, American Indian fishing, ocean conditions, etc., but this simple fact remains: Young salmon need a free-flowing river current (or something a lot like it) during their downstream migration to the ocean, and they get stalled in the slow-moving slackwater behind those four dams.

That's why Idaho's salmon are on the Endangered Species List. That's why sportfishing for salmon in Idaho was completely banned for so many years, and that's why even now, with the best salmon runs we've seen in a couple decades, salmon fishing in Idaho is limited to hatchery fish on a few short stretches of river near the hatcheries.

Hundreds of miles of river in central Idaho, abundant with salmon as late as the early 1960s, still remain closed to salmon fishing.

Flow augmentation, as called for by the lawsuit I mentioned earlier, is a mitigation strategy whose ostensible intention is to increase the velocity of the slackwater behind the dams in order to better accommodate the downstream migration of the young salmon. My non-expert opinion is that flow augmentation will not help. If we took all the water in eastern Idaho and sent it down the river for flow augmentation in eastern Washington, this is what we'd get: Water that is nearly standing still in the four reservoirs would speed up a little, but it would still be nearly standing still.

I strongly suspect that most the people pushing the lawsuit for flow augmentation would agree with me, that flow augmentation won't help the salmon. If so, then I am left to speculate, as others in the debate have done, that the environmentalists' intention with the lawsuit is not to help the salmon, but to impose on Idaho's politicians and opinion leaders to reconsider their position on dam removal.

Maybe people like 1st District Congressman Butch Otter, R-Idaho, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Mark Gendron of Idaho Falls Power and Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norman Semanko - people who publicly and adamantly oppose dam removal will change their position when taking out the dams is the only way to prevent the federal courts from seizing eastern Idaho water via the power of the Endangered Species Act, sending it down the river for salmon recovery and drying up the irrigated farmland of the Upper Snake River Valley.

Too bad it might come to that. It's completely unnecessary. Maybe the reason Idaho's leading politicians keep saying that the dams are important to Idaho is because they think that's what the people want to hear; and maybe the reason so many Idahoans think the dams are important to Idaho is because that's what the politicians are telling us. An unfortunate vicious circle.

The truth is, the dams are not important to Idaho.

These four dams serve only two purposes: first, barge transportation, and second, hydropower. They provide no storage or diversion for irrigation and no flood control. Barge shipping can easily and economically be replaced with shipping by rail and truck. The hydropower production of the four dams, a tiny drop in the very large bucket of the Western power grid, can be replaced by a modern natural-gas-fired plant powered by the equivalent of the turbine engines on six Boeing 747s.

So here's the bottom line: Idaho has almost nothing to lose, and has a whole lot to gain, with the removal of those four federal dams.

Idahoans need to know it.

Idaho's politicians and opinion leaders need to say it.

Idaho's congressmen and senators need to support the bill that will authorize funding of dam removal. Idaho needs its salmon more than it needs dams in eastern Washington.

Related Pages: Straight from the Playbook by Norm Semanko, Post Register, 11/12/3

by Donovan Bramwella Lewisville farmer, is a member of the Libertarian Party and has run for office under that party's banner. He is one of six local columnists who appear Sunday on a rotating basis.
Washington's Dams vs. Our Water
Post Register, November 16, 2003

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