Breaching 4 Out of 221 Dams
by Tom Stuart
I want to thank the Idaho Statesman for its thoughtful analysis and forward-looking leadership on Idaho salmon recovery. The Statesman has been a beacon of reason, measured thinking and courage. Many Idahoans already share the Statesman's views, and eventually a vast majority will - based on the needs of a diverse economy, our beautiful state's ecology, and our values.
Although the new U.S. Congress probably isn't prepared to remove wasteful federal dams right now, public sentiment and political pressure are shifting, because it will save both salmon and money. But the question of what to do with four salmon-killing dams in eastern Washington state reaches far beyond concerns about electricity. Here's the bigger picture:
In the Columbia/Snake basin (including Idaho's Salmon and Clearwater rivers) there are 221 major dams. About 100 produce electricity; 30 are owned by the federal government, paid for with ratepayer and taxpayer dollars. And the 221 dams are not equal. Some are quite valuable (like Grand Coulee or Bonneville), while others create tiny benefits with far higher costs (like killing off Idaho's salmon runs). The four big Idaho salmon-killers are on the Lower Snake between Clarkston and Pasco, Wash.
Now, no one is talking about removing all 221 dams. That's irresponsible and silly. We're talking about removing four. That's right - keeping 217, removing four.
What's the impact of removing those four on electrical power? Well, the Northwest "power pool" is 40,000 megawatts - the amount of electricity generated by public and private dams, coal plants, gas generators, nukes, wind farms and everything else. Of the 40,000 megawatts, the four dams we must remove to restore Idaho salmon generate 801 megawatts of firm power. You do the math.
Bottom line - if those salmon-killing dams disappeared today, electricity users wouldn't notice. Idaho Power customers wouldn't notice at all, but a few companies who buy all their power from the feds might see a tiny increase in power rates, depending on rain and snowfall. But most of these companies aren't tied to the feds - and can shop for cheaper power.
Why should the region remove any dams at all - even four outdated, expensive, destructive extras owned by the feds?
I remember fishing the Salmon River before those last dams were built. As recently as 1970, Central Idaho was the mother lode of salmon fishing, with thousands of fishing families traveling there to spend money in motels, restaurants, gas stations, tackle shops, stores - bringing jobs, personal income, tax revenue.
Historically, in the Columbia River (the world's greatest salmon producer), the Salmon River alone produced 40 percent of all the spring/summer chinook and 45 percent of the steelhead. Because our river habitat is still healthy, fishery scientists now say that Central Idaho contains 75 percent of the entire Northwest's salmon recovery potential.
Simply said, the biggest opportunity to restore salmon in the region is right here, in our backyard. We live at the heart of the world's richest salmon country - that's one reason living here is special.
So, here's the real question. To achieve 75 percent of the region's salmon recovery potential (benefiting Idaho most of all), does it make sense to remove four dams that produce only 2 percent of the power?
Can we replace that power? Can we replace any other benefits? Of course we can. Those four wasteful, salmon-killing dams deserve a good, hard look; all dams are not created equal.
I'm convinced that these four low-value dams will eventually be removed. The question is, will it happen before Idaho salmon runs go extinct? How long will it take for a political leader in Idaho to step forward?
The Case for Breaching is Stronger than Ever by Editorial Board, Idaho Statesman, 7/22/7
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs