Snake River Promiseby Editors
Editorial, Boston Globe, August 11, 2002
FORTY YEARS AGO the federal government started building four dams on the Snake River in the Northwest that are slowly but surely destroying the river's wild salmon population. The government has made costly but ineffective efforts to save the fish, not least by trucking and barging them around the dams. The one solution scientists place much faith in is removing large portions of the dams and permitting the salmon once again to swim from their upriver spawning grounds down to the Pacific and back again.
A bill before Congress would make it clear that federal agencies have the authority to make this decision if they conclude it is the only feasible way to protect the fish. The bill also calls for studies on the engineering for the dams' removal and mitigation measures for the region, which would lose the dams' two major benefits: cheap hydroelectric power and a barge route for grain and timber.
Right now, taxpayers and the region's electric power customers are paying $400 million a year for a fish assistance effort that is failing. The baby fish that are trucked and barged are often descaled, exposed to infection, and so traumatized they lose the homing instinct that is critical to their return to the Snake River.
For the population to rebuild so that fishing is again possible, 4 to 6 percent of the young must return each year; to keep the fish at their current, endangered levels, 2 percent must return. Actual return rates have ranged between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent.
When Lewis and Clark came upon the Snake and Columbia rivers early in the 19th century, 10 million to 16 million salmon were returning from the ocean each year to spawn. According to David Wise of the advocacy group Save Our Wild Salmon, the total for the Snake is now fewer than 10,000. Wise's group estimates that with a restored fishery, the region could have a recreational fishing and tourism industry providing enough jobs to support 25,000 families.
The dams provide about 5 percent of the Northwest's electricity. Without them, monthly utility costs would rise $1 to $3 a month, still leaving the region with some of the nation's cheapest power. Because power in the Northwest is so cheap, average residential usage is substantially greater than the national average. If better conservation cut that disparity in half, it would more than offset the loss of the dams' hydroelectric power. The barge access could be replaced by rail lines, which did the work of the barges until 1975.
If the dams aren't removed, fish stocks will continue to dwindle, and at some point the federal government will face a suit by tribes in the region, who were promised in a treaty the right to harvest river fish. One federal estimate of the cost of a finding against the government is $10 billion. The US government should do right by the salmon, the tribes, and the entire country by removing the dams.
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