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Commentaries and editorials

Sen. Smith and the Lower Snake Dams

by Michael C. Blumm
The Oregonian, December 20, 1999

On Dec. 3, 1999, Sen. Gordon Smith told the City Club of Portland that his opposition to the removal of four federal dams on the Lower Snake River was one of the defining moments of his year in in the Senate. Earlier, he had told the City Club that if the four Lower Snake dams were demolished, he would go down with them, chained to their facade.

Smith offered several reasons for his opposition to the dams' removal, including the observations that 1) virtually every modern amenity is the product of electricity, 2) control of floods, 3) protection of jobs, and 4) once one dam is breached, others will be vulnerable. Let's look closely at each of the senator's reasons:

The threat to all dams. No one is suggesting breaching all of the Columbia Basin dams. The Lower Snake dams are vulnerable precisely because they are so marginal economically, which is really no surprise since before they were constructed the Corps estimated their benefits at just 15 percent of their costs.

The biggest mistake that dam defenders like Smith make is their assumption that maintaining the dams is cost-free. Including the costs of maintaining an expensive salmon barging and trucking operation to help salmon avoid the dams, the current cost of operating the Lower Snake dams exceeds $200 million annually. Moreover, the Snake was once home to the largest salmon runs in the Columbia basin and, according to the Institute of Fishery Resources, dam-related salmon losses throughout the basin costs $500 million annually and 25,000 lost jobs.

The chief benefit the Lower Snake dams provide is navigation; they make Lewiston, Idaho, a seaport. But the cheap transportation they provide comes at a price: about a $30 million annual taxpayer subsidy.

A recent study by Washington State University professor Ken Cassavant indicates that rail improvements, which would cost less than the dams' current taxpayer subsidy, would increase farm transportation costs only one cent per bushel of wheat. Cassavant also predicts only modest increases in truck traffic, since truck hauls from farm to rail terminal are shorter than from farm to the Snake River ports. So Smith's dire warning to the City Club of significant increases in air pollutants causing global warming was sheer hyperbole.

Breaching the Lower Snake dams would provide a 220-mile stretch of free-flowing river, more than five times as long as the Hanford Reach, the only free-flowing area of the Columbia River, and home to the only self-sustaining salmon runs in the Columbia Basin. Many of the Snake River runs are now on what amounts to life support. Dispensing misleading economic information, as Smith did to the City Club, may help ensure that they go extinct before the public learns the economic truth.

Michael C. Blumm professor of law at Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College
Sen. Smith and the Lower Snake Dams
The Oregonian, December 20, 1999

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