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Snake River Debate:
Put Facts Before Forks

by Editorial Board
Tri-City Herald, May 20, 2007

A tip of the puffy white chef's hat to the environmental and fishing interests sponsoring the "Vote With Your Fork" campaign.

About 200 chefs from across America gathered in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to launch a lobbying effort that's ultimately aimed at Snake River dams.

As a marketing ploy, the event was five-star. The lure of celebrity chefs from some of America's finest restaurants was too much for the national press corps to resist.

The irony of serving a salmon feast while complaining about the endangered status of wild runs didn't seem to register with lawmakers or journalists, however.

But no matter how delicious the meal, the group's message - if you want wild salmon to survive, eat more of them - is hard to swallow.

For starters, the debate over breaching the Lower Snake River dams centers on whether it would help endangered wild runs - fish that spawn the old-fashioned way.

Unfortunately, the wild-caught salmon on your favorite restaurant's menu might be from one of the populations protected under the Endangered Species Act.

But more likely, that wild filet in dill sauce started out in a hatchery. And no one is talking about tearing down dams to save hatchery fish.

Good arguments exist for protecting natural spawning runs but superior flavor isn't one of them. The most discerning gourmet couldn't tell the difference between hatchery salmon and a wild run.

Granted, a few hundred chefs descending on Washington, D.C., makes great political theater, but the debate isn't about the dinner plate.

If it were that simple, then the more hatcheries the better.

But of course, salmon politics are the opposite of simple. They are mired in complexities, uncertainties, competing interests, litigation and emotion.

Easy answers don't exist.

Why not restrict fishing so more salmon return to spawn?

Sounds good, but that's about where we've been. With West Coast fishing all but shut down in 2006 and more of the same on tap this year, the commercial salmon industry already is near collapse.

Why not tear down dams?

For one thing, it's not clear that it would work. At best, the science offers conflicting answers about the potential benefits.

Even under optimistic scenarios, dam removal would hardly be a panacea for Pacific salmon. The threats are far too varied, ranging from global warming to overfishing.

However, the costs - economic and environmental - are known - and they're staggering.

In terms of electrical production alone, the Bonneville Power Administration estimates it would cost $400 million to $550 million yearly to replace the power generated by the four lower Snake River dams.

That ignores environmental costs of replacing the 1,022 megawatts of energy the dams generate annually, which is enough to power the city of Seattle.

Wind and solar aren't realistic alternatives. They're great in the mix, but cities can't operate on supplies that shut down whenever the sky is cloudy or the air is still.

Using trucks instead of barges to move grain out of the Palouse would have financial and environmental costs as well. A four-barge tow, for example, holds more than a 100-car grain train and the same as 538 trucks.

In 1998, 3.5 million tons of grain moved down the Snake. To move that amount with semi-trucks, it would take nearly 100,000 trips, or about 275 trucks a day. (presumably to Pasco, WA on the Columbia River - bluefish adds)

We've always maintained that dam breaching ought to be off the table. The costs are too great and the benefits too uncertain.

Less drastic measures, such as barging fish around the dams, seem to be working. The five-year average for 12 of the 13 listed stocks in the Columbia Basin is up significantly from the time they were listed, the BPA reported last November.

The most improved is wild Snake River fall chinook - from 700 returning adults at listing in 1992 to the most recent five-year average return of more than 4,900 wild fish.

It's unlikely any chefs were serving up that fact in Washington, D.C.

That's the problem with publicity stunts. They attract attention but rarely make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.

Related Pages:
Council says Snake River Spring Chinook Survival Rate Improving Associated Press, September 12, 2006
Navigation Tonnage on Snake River, Summary by Commodity by Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District
Dam the Salmon, Wall Street Journal, by Shikha Dalmia, May 30, 2007

Editorial Board
Snake River Debate: Put Facts Before Forks.
Tri-City Herald, May 20, 2007

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