Salmon vs. Dam: the Snake Debate Rushes Onby Robinson Shaw
Petersburg Pilot, March 12, 2000
There were no schoolchildren dressed in colorful salmon suits. Sierra Club activists portraying Meriwether Lewis and William Clark didn't show up. And none of the Native Americans in attendance formed a drum circle and sang tribal songs in support of salmon.
But salmon was much on the minds of more than 500 citizens who attended a public meeting Wednesday in Twin Falls, Idaho, to discuss the future of four Lower Snake River dams and the endangered salmon who call the waters home.
The gathering in Twin Falls was the 13th of 15 public meetings on the salmon issue. Farmers in attendance wore yellow ribbons that have become a symbol of solidarity in their fight to keep the dams. Busloads of environmentalists wore stickers that read, "Those dams don't make sense," or "We need salmon," in their effort to save endangered salmon. Police officers turned out to ensure push didn't come to shove.
The debate in its simplest form is this: Breach the Snake River dams and save the salmon or keep the dams and spare the farmer. The majority of those in attendance favor removing the dams.
The Army Corp of Engineers organized the meetings to hear comment on its draft environmental impact statement about improved passage for salmon and steelhead that travel through the four Lower Snake River dams.
Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Association, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bureau of Reclamation also heard comment on the federal caucus' All-H paper. The All-H paper addresses four issues that impact the endangered fish: hatcheries, harvest, hydropower and habitat.
"To save the salmon and steelhead, that's the number one reason I'm in favor of breaching the dams and it's the best way, according to science, to save them," said Dave Doub, a resident of Hailey, Idaho.
The Corps has proposed four alternatives: maintain existing systems with planned improvements; maximize transport of juvenile salmon down the Snake River using the existing system of trucks and barges; make major improvements to the transport system; breach all four dams to restore a free-flowing, 140-mile stretch of river.
Native American leaders signed a treaty in 1855 giving up 40 million acres of land in return for the right to fish in the area. The federal government will owe millions of dollars to the tribes if salmon are rendered extinct.
"I'm here to speak for the salmon since the salmon can't get up and speak for themselves," said Lilisa Moses, a Nez Perce Indian who traveled six hours from northern Idaho to attend the meeting. "And to talk about the history of the Nez Perce and the fish and their importance to the whole tribe. They are part of our religious beliefs and they've been part of our life practice for years and years."
When Moses' ancestors lived and fished in the Pacific Northwest, an estimated 4 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Snake River each year. Today only 10,000 wild fish remain, and studies show some of the endangered stocks could be extinct as early as 2017 if current conditions prevail.
The four Lower Snake River dams were completed in 1975. Scientists blame the demise of the salmon on the dams.
The Corps has said the best way to save the salmon is to restore the Snake to its natural state, which means breaching the dams. Congress has final say on the issue.
Even if its vote is to breach the dams, it will take eight or nine years before Snake flows naturally again, said Corps representative Nola Conway.
Jon Wells, a farmer from Castleford, Idaho, showed little sympathy for the endangered fish. "I'd like to see a wooly mammoth. I'd like to see a dinosaur. It isn't in the cards because you can't have both (salmon and dams)," said Wells. "The economy of southern Idaho requires that we manage the water and that's done with dams. If it's between me and the fish, I'm going to choose me."
Wells is concerned that Idaho farmers won't have water for irrigation if the dams are breached. Nearly 2 million acre-feet of Idaho water is used for "flow augmentation" — supplemental water that is flushed downstream each year to reduce water temperature and push smolts through the four lower Snake reservoirs. Of this water, 427,000 acre-feet are sold by Idaho water owners to the federal government.
Federal officials have hinted they will need another 1 million to 3 million acre-feet of water if the dams are not breached.
The Corps' draft does not address the issue of increased flow augmentation. Environmentalists say that if the dams go, flow augmentation from Idaho would no longer be justified.
"The irony is that by breaching the dams and saving the salmon, farmers could save their own hides as well," said Scott Bosse, conservation scientist with Idaho Rivers United.
Opponents of breaching insisted the dams are not the reason for the decline in salmon stocks and asked the panel of representatives to look into other factors such as freshwater and ocean predators, commercial and tribal fishing, and poor ocean conditions.
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