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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Need Right of Way

by Editors
Los Angeles Times, Metro B-9, June 10, 2000

Forty years ago, more than 100,000 adult salmon migrated as far as 900 miles up the Columbia and Snake rivers for the annual spawning season. But construction of four hydroelectric power dams on the Snake in southeastern Washington from 1962 to 1975 stemmed the migration, and the number of the fish that reach spawning grounds has dwindled to several thousand or fewer a year. Absent dramatic action, the Snake River salmon is doomed.

The federal government has spent $3 billion in recent years trying to save the species, building hatcheries and fish ladders to lift them over dams and trucking and barging young salmon downstream. These efforts haven't worked. Salmon numbers continue to decline. Four species are listed as endangered, and the Snake River coho was declared extinct in 1986. It's now apparent that the only way to save the salmon is to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake.

Scientific and economic analyses support the idea, even though destruction of the dams would put an end to barge service for Idaho wheat farmers and cut the region's electric power output by about 5%.

Both the power rates and the barge service are heavily subsidized by the federal government, and destroying the dams might mean a minor increase in electric bills until substitute sources of power can be found.

Restoration of the salmon runs will invigorate commercial and sport fishing industries and help restore the upstream habitat, where the carcasses of the spawned fish provide essential nutrients to the environment. This decision would also allow the federal government to live up to its guarantee to four regional Indian tribes in treaties of 1855 and 1856 to preserve their "right of taking fish" at historic sites. If the fish die out, the government could be liable for billions of dollars in compensation to the tribes.

The Snake River salmon actually face eight dams each way when they migrate as young fish to the ocean and then return two or three years later to their home streams to spawn. Getting past the four older, larger dams on the main stem of the Columbia is not a critical problem. But the four smaller upstream dams on the Snake pose almost impossible barriers for the tiring, battered fish. The reservoirs behind the structures are not massive, but cumulatively they back up still, warm water for a 140-mile stretch of river, poor conditions for fish survival.

There is little hope of saving the salmon without the dramatic action of partly removing the four dams, each composed of four sections--an earthen bank, navigation lock, spillway and a concrete powerhouse. Only the earthen sections would be removed.

The salmon is a symbol of the Pacific Northwest and an icon of the region's Indian tribes. There is moral obligation to restore this salmon run. The science and economics also support the obvious conclusion: These dams must go.

PHOTO: This Snake River dam, near Burbank, Wash., is among those that should be breached in an effort to save the salmon.

Salmon Need Right of Way
Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2000

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