Rough Water of Political Realityan editorial from Portland Oregonian - July 16, 1999
Removing Snake River dams may be dead issue politically, but let's wait to see Army corps' study results
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., may be right when he says that any plan to breach four dams on the lower Snake River to aid the region's ailing salmon is a dead issue in Congress. But that's not a scientific judgment. Not yet, anyway.
But Smith's comments underscore two realities in this long debate about dam removal on the main stem of the Columbia and Snake rivers:
We believe it's premature to second-guess the corps' comprehensive review of the best possible options to restore salmon and steelhead trout in the Columbia Basin. Despite what Smith says, the breaching option is still on the table. And, indeed, it should be. Science, not politics, should determine whether the dams get taken out.
The breaching option, however, is not a slam-dunk scientifically. Recent data plugged into the Army corps' study from a fish-monitoring program, in which migrating fish were tagged and tracked to determine their survival rate, showed only a narrow difference in outcome between the breaching option and barging the fish around the dams.
Given the economic impacts of breaching the dams, the decision would require a greater level of scientific certainty than we've seen thus far. Public support for breaching the dams also could wane if salmon, as predicted, return in greater numbers over the next few years. Improved ocean conditions could generate a false sense of success. Even if the salmon do experience better times, salmon recovery strategists must continue working to improve fresh-water habitat to aid the fish when ocean conditions worsen.
Neither public opinion nor even political opinion should drive the decision about the Snake River dams.
Science should make the decision. And the question that needs to be answered is pretty simple: If we breach the four Snake River dams, is the benefit to salmon sufficient enough to justify the cost of doing it?
That's what the Army corps' study will determine. And that reality should override political reality.
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