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Dam Breaching Effects Questioned

by Tribune and Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, September 1(?), 2002

Report released by Rand Corp. says removal will neither impede growth nor hurt power supply

WASHINGTON -- Breaching four Snake River dams in eastern Washington would neither impede economic growth in the Northwest nor hurt the region's power supply, according to a new report by the Rand Corp.

The report, released Wednesday, said the dams provide just 5 percent of the power in the Pacific Northwest and could be removed with little impact on the overall economy. Removal of the dams could help the region diversify its power supply, the report said, while providing up to 15,000 new jobs over a 20-year period, primarily in recreation.

The Rand group is an independent nonprofit research and analysis firm. The study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Environmentalists immediately hailed the report, saying it provided clear-cut evidence that dam removal is in the region's best interest. Conservationists have long pushed to breach, or remove the earthen parts of the dams, to hasten recovery of threatened salmon and steelhead.

"The Rand report rejects the myth that dam removal must pit jobs versus wildlife," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, an advocacy group. "A healthy economy and healthy ecology go hand in hand."

Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United in Boise agreed.

"I think this is a big deal for the whole salmon issue," he said. "The Rand study confirms what Idaho Rivers United has been saying for years -- removing the dams makes sense for people and salmon."

But Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., whose district includes the four lower Snake River dams, said the report did nothing to convince him that breaching is a good idea. The dams at issue are the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams in southeastern Washington.

"I think it's a nonsense option for us in Eastern Washington and really in the Pacific Northwest," Nethercutt said.

The costs of breaching are high, he said, while the benefits, if any, are questionable. Partial removal of the dams is estimated to cost at least $1 billion and disrupt activity in the river for years, Nethercutt and other opponents said.

Breaching would end barge transportation to inland ports such as Lewiston that are heavily used by farmers to ship their crops to Portland and overseas. It would also effect irrigation of some farms along the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who remained neutral on dam breaching while in office, said Wednesday that the Rand report convinced him the time has come to remove the dams.

Babbitt, who served as Interior secretary under President Clinton, said that when he took office nearly a decade ago, the idea of removing a working dam "somehow seemed to be an unnatural act."

Now, experience has taught him that "the dams really aren't the pyramids of Egypt," Babbitt said. "Once they've served their purpose, they ought to come down."

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., has sponsored a bill to allow removal of the dams, but the measure faces long odds. No other Northwest House member has signed on as a cosponsor, and no action has been taken on the bill since December.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, has rejected breaching in favor of a strategy that relies on structural improvements to help juvenile salmon pass by the dams on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

A spokesman for the Corps' Walla Walla district office declined to comment on the Rand report.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with restoring salmon and steelhead runs now protected under the Endangered Species Act, rejected dam breaching in December 2000 after studying the matter for five years.

Its alternative plan, labeled "aggressive nonbreach," calls for leaving the dams in place while taking significant steps to restore streams where salmon spawn, reform hatcheries to reduce harm to wild fish by hatchery-raised fish and increase fishing restrictions. The agency says breaching should again be considered if specific goals are not met by 2003, 2005 and 2008.

Federal officials concede that last year's drought set the plan back, but urged patience. They maintain that efforts to revitalize the runs are still on track -- a view conservationists reject.

"If we're on track, we're heading for a train wreck and it's called extinction," said Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Tribune and Associated Press
Dam Breaching Effects Questioned
Lewiston Tribune, September 1(?), 2002

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