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A Practical Case for Breaching

by J. Robb Brady
Our View, Post Register, September 18, 2002

When a premier think tank says it's time to breach dams on the Lower Snake River, it's time for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, and Reps. Mike Simpson and Butch Otter to pay attention.

They didn't care when conservation groups like Idaho Rivers United said breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River would save imperiled salmon stocks.

They dismissed newspapers, such as this one and the Idaho Statesman, when they reached the same conclusion.

Taxpayers for Common Sense backed breaching as a wise use of public dollars. Hardly a ripple.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission did little better. When it essentially backed dam breaching, the commission got the attention of the governor and the Legislature. But instead of fixing the dams, the state's politicians went to work on the Fish and Game Department - transferring jurisdiction for endangered species to a special office under Kempthorne's thumb.

Now two hard-nosed outfits have added to the case for breaching.

In an 80-page report, the Rand Corp. says removing the dams would neither impede economic growth nor harm the Northwest's power supply.

The four dams provide only l.8 percent of Idaho's power needs and 5 percent of the power used throughout the Northwest.

In fact, the Rand study says removing the dams would cost the region about $70.9 million initially and then provide the region with $179 million per year in public benefits thereafter. Looking ahead, Rand concluded that a combination of natural gas, energy conservation and emerging alternate fuels like solar and wind would be the base for future energy needs in the Northwest.

This is no liberal, environmentalist group. Rand was the nation's first think tank. The U.S. Air Force created it in 1946. It's nonpartisan and fiercely independent.

But it's not alone. The General Accounting Office - the place Congress turns for answers - has concluded the present strategy of trying to save fish without removing the dams has cost the government billions. The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, has rejected breaching and prefers relying on structural improvements to the dams to help juvenile salmon to pass through the dams to the ocean. The Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees Salmon recovery, emphasizes habitat improvement for the fish throughout the Columbia-Snake river system. While that does some good, these efforts keep fish on life support but do not help sustain a viable population. The process also is expensive.

The Bonneville Power Administration reports it has spent $3.3 billion on fish recovery between 1982 and 2001. The GAO thinks the true cost may be twice that amount. (And the GAO hasn't counted what BPA lost in electricity when it spilled water to help juvenile salmon reach the ocean.) At the same time, the fish continue inching toward extinction. The migrating Salmon population has dropped 90 percent since the dams were constructed.

Meanwhile, a separate study by Northwest Resource Information Center of Eagle showed the Army Corps - its conflict of interest is obvious; it wants to maintain the dams - inaccurately projected economic statistics on dam removal. When it looked at the impacts of dam removal, the center found Idaho would actually gain $90 million in economic benefits.

Rand and the GAO concede breaching the dams would mean the loss of barge shipping from Lewiston down the Snake-Columbia river system. That means losing jobs in Lewiston. And it means higher shipping costs for grain farmers who would be forced to rely on truck or rail.

But the Lewiston port is hardly thriving. It can't operate without subsidies. Local taxpayers provide $500,000 a year. Federal taxpayers and BPA ratepayers kick in $30 million a year, according to the Northwest Energy Coalition.

Thirteen farms covering 36,000 acres draw irrigation water from the Ice Harbor Dam reservoir, and those operations also would be affected.

Still the total benefits after absorbing all costs make a strong case for dam removal. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., is sponsoring a bill that would move that process along. It would instruct the GAO to study the effects of breaching the dams, and it would give the Army Corps authority to take the dams out.

Undoubtedly, McDermott faces an uphill fight. But he has facts on his side. The question is, why are Idaho's politicians continuing to fight him and ignore those facts?

by J. Robb Brady with Editorial board: Marty Trillhaase, Dean Miller & Roger Plothow, acting publisher.
A Practical Case for Breaching
Post Register, September 18, 2002

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