the film
Commentaries and editorials

Dam Breaching Debate Resurfaces

by Staff
The Idaho Statesman, September 9, 2003

George W. Bush ICE HARBOR DAM, Wash. — After several years of lurking below the surface, the issue of breaching four Snake River dams to revive wild salmon runs has returned with a vengeance.

President Bush’s recent visit to this giant hydroelectric dam, and a May ruling by a federal judge jump-started a debate that appeared to have lost much of its steam in recent years.

Suddenly the environmental community ramped up demands that the dams be removed, while Republican politicians proclaimed the dams would never fall on their watch.

During his late August visit, Bush noted that salmon runs were recovering and reinforced his support for Ice Harbor and three other Snake River hydropower dams.

“It’s an important part of the past, and I’m here to tell you it’s going to be a crucial part of the future,” Bush said of the dam.

The dams-versus-fish debate exhausted Northwesterners for much of the 1990s, revealing the fissures between the state’s more urbanized, Democratic west side and more conservative, natural-resource based Eastern Washington.

President Bush’s 2000 campaign promise to save the dams, and the release the same year of a federal salmon recovery plan, largely seemed to put the issue to rest for a few years. Organized save-the-dams groups disbanded. The slumping economy and the war on terrorism loomed larger in the Northwest consciousness.

There were lingering effects from the issue. State GOP chairman Chris Vance credits his party’s unwavering support of the dams with cementing its electoral hold on Eastern Washington.

“Eastern Washington used to be competitive, but that was before Democrats decided fish count more than farmers,” Vance said this week.

Then U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland, Ore., in May rejected the federal salmon plan as inadequate, and ordered a replacement plan within a year that could include a breaching option.

“That gave energy to dam-breaching advocates and they raised that specter again,” said Tom Gorman, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Fisheries, the federal agency charged with restoring salmon runs.

Then came Bush’s Aug. 22 appearance.

The renewed debate appears in some ways to be motivated by the looming 2004 elections, since dam breaching tends to polarize people along party lines.

“Republicans are opposed to breaching the dams, period, exclamation point, end of statement,” Vance said. “The radical environmentalists are in this for the long haul. Their objective is to tear down the dams.”

Democrats, more tied to organized environmental groups, want the issue on the table.

Liberal Seattle Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said the existing salmon recovery plan is not working. Earlier this year he introduced a bill to study the likely costs and benefits of partially removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.

“The court has stated clearly that partially removing the four lower Snake River dams is an option on the table,” McDermott said recently.

Such comments anger Grant County (Wash.) Public Utility District Commissioner Tom Flint, who figures the debate won’t end until the dams are breached.

“The environmentally challenged folks are truly the extremists and have had this agenda for quite awhile,” Grant said. “It has and will continue to be a political issue.”

After Bush’s visit, a coalition of business, fishing, and conservation groups informed federal agencies they planned to file a lawsuit to ensure that operation of the dams did not violate Endangered Species Act protections for the fish.

“This case is about complying with the law,” said Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League, one of the groups.

“Since 2000, the government has consistently failed to meet flow targets at the lower Snake River dams and water delivery targets for upper Snake River water,” said Bill Sedivy with Idaho Rivers United, another of the groups.

While all sides agree that salmon runs are larger this year than in recent years, most of the returnees are less desirable hatchery salmon. Salmon advocates also say favorable ocean conditions, which are cyclical, are also a major reason for the increase.

Even with good conditions, this year only 12 sockeye salmon made it past all four dams on the lower Snake River to their spawning grounds in Redfish Lake in central Idaho, fish advocates said.

But NOAA-Fisheries contends it’s efforts are working.

“The trend since listing began has been for steady improvement,” Gorman said. Even if advocates were successful in winning approval for dam breaching, that process would take at least a decade, Gorman said.

“Salmon have a 4-year life cycle and you can’t turn around 100 years of insults to their habitat in the course of a couple of years,” Gorman said.

Dam Breaching Debate Resurfaces
The Idaho Statesman, September 9, 2003

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation