Report Focuses on Benefits
by Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia bureau
Environmental and fishing organizations released a report Wednesday suggesting removing the four lower Snake River dams could reap $4.2 billion to $24.4 billion in savings and increased economic activity over 20 years.
Critics were quick to poke holes in the 19-page report, which mostly compiled numbers from an array of already published studies from interest groups, government agencies and the Yakama Nation while adding analysis from the interest groups that authored it.
The dam breaching issue was greatly debated in the 1990s when environmentalists argued it was the best way to improve struggling fish runs. It became a charged political issue symbolizing the divide between urban and rural Washington that was largely put to sleep when President Bush was elected in 2000.
Democratic leaders in Washington have distanced themselves from the movement since, calling it a wedge issue Republicans are eager to bring up to win elections.
Gov. Chris Gregoire as well as U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have pressed for better salmon management plans that don't involve breaching.
Environmentalists are hoping their report will make breaching seem less taboo in their eyes and in the minds of other policy makers.
"That's certainly what we would expect," said Sara Patton, executive director of the Northwest Energy Coalition. "It's not the disaster they had worried about."
The report, available at www. wildsalmon.org, indicates the impacts of removing Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams would range from costing an extra $900 million to saving $7.1 billion over 20 years.
Those weigh costs of operating and maintaining the dams and funding the re-write of the government's salmon recovery plan vs. the costs of removing the earthen portions of the dams, reduced salmon recovery costs and costs to replace benefits provided by the dams.
Those benefits would be replaced by using conservation programs and wind farms to replace the lost power generation, building new railroad lines to replace barge transportation and adapting irrigation systems, wells and other water systems to draw from a reconfigured river.
On the other side of the equation, the study indicates new revenues from sport and commercial fishing and other recreation could equal $5.1 billion to $17.3 billion over 20 years.
Supporters say they hope the study's focus on economics will help policy makers see that dams are no sacred cow.
"This is not St. Peter's or the holiest mosque in Mecca," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
David Jenkins, government affairs director for Republicans for Environmental Protection said the study "clearly shows removing the four lower Snake River dams a fiscally responsible thing to do."
Critics saw it differently.
"These groups will go to any extreme to push their dam removal agenda," U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, said in a written statement. "They'll manufacture a study or ignore scientific facts, whatever it takes to tear out our dams."
"You'd probably have to distort some of the underlying facts to get to the point where it makes sense to tear out the Snake River dams," said Terry Flores, director of the Northwest River Partners, a coalition of Bonneville Power Administration utility customers. "You can't get there from here."
Two federal agencies, the BPA and NOAA Fisheries, questioned the assumptions the study used to draw its conclusions.
The study assumes the dams' 1,200 average megawatts of electric generation could be replaced by yearly investments of $79 million to $170 million in conservation and wind farms.
"We think that is highly optimistic and improbable," said Mike Hansen, a spokesman for the BPA, which markets the power from those dams and other federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
(See Seasonal Hydropower on Lower Columbia & Lower Snake Rivers" ACOE data)
He said the agency's most recent estimates suggest it could cost $600 million annually to replace that power, he said.
Further, he said the dams can easily ramp up generation during demand spikes, something you can't get from new conservation programs.
Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said the report is overly simplistic and questioned the cost savings it touts.
"It's not just a matter of a single action fixing everything," he said. "The report seems not to recognize the complexity of the problem."
"President Bush has made a clear commitment we will recover salmon runs while leaving the dams in place," he said.
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