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Commentaries and editorials

Is it Science, Or is it Politics?

by Editors
Our View, Idaho State Journal, January 5, 2002

Our View:

We’re wondering if the Army Corps of Engineers’ thinking on dam removal has merely changed with the climate.

We wonder about the Army Corps of Engineers’ recent recommendation to leave four lower Snake River dams intact.

Just a year or so ago, the Corps was actually leaning toward removing the dams and advocating an aggressive strategy toward bolstering salmon and steelhead migration to the sea and back. Of course, political times were different then.

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has supported efforts to thwart much of the environmental management progress made by the previous administration. She’s an advocate of drilling for oil in the nation’s most pristine places; she’s worked to overturn a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park; and she’s done her level best to cater to big business and industry when it comes to environmental protection.

She’s also against removing the dams.

Just a year ago, we heard from credible scientific sources that dam removal is the only viable solution to ensure Idaho’s anadromous (moving from salt to fresh waters) fish don’t disappear altogether. This information, it seemed at the time, could lead to dam breaching, even if it took a decade or more to accomplish. The Corps seemed to favor removal of the structures that all but block fish passage in southeastern Washington state.

We understood that dam removal would put an end to federal subsidization of the shipping industry into Lewiston; we understood that the removal would send large loads of silt downstream to the ocean, but that the effects would be temporary; we understood that the Northwest power grid would lose only 4 percent of its generating capacity. In return, Idaho would be the beneficiary of improved salmon and steelhead runs that once provided the state with a huge economic boon. We stood to gain much in Idaho, particularly in its rural stretches, the places the ocean-going behemoths chose to come home to and reproduce.

This year — the first in decades — we got a taste of what Idaho could be like on a consistent basis. Thousands upon thousands of salmon and steelhead returned to Idaho waters, beneficiaries of generous eastern Idaho water flushes three or four years ago and ocean conditions ideal for fish survival. It all came together.

Chances are, we’ll never see another run like it. Now, with dam removal off the table and “dam improvement” the catch phrase of a new political agenda, Idaho’s sea-run fish are once again on life support. This year, eastern Idaho, which routinely sends several hundred thousand acre feet of water down the Snake River to flush salmon and steelhead smolts to the Pacific, was able to muster about 40,000 acre feet, and much of that came from the Shoshone-Bannock tribes that could ill afford the sacrifice. It’s important, too, to remember that every drop of our water we send downstream is taken from our irrigators and our native fish that need water for survival. If the dams weren’t there, the need for sending our water downstream without making the most of it would disappear.

We question whether the decision to take dam removal off the table is based on sound science, or the politics of the day.

Is it Science, Or is it Politics?
Idaho State Journal, January 5, 2002

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