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Commentaries and editorials

Time's Running Out On the Columbia

by Ed MacMullan and Ed Whitelaw
The Oregonian, December 19, 2007

Once again, federal Judge James Redden has raised serious questions about the Bush administration's draft plan for endangered Columbia River salmon. At the end of this process, operation of the Columbia Basin's hydroelectric dams may fall to a federal judge unless the administration delivers a viable plan by early next year -- something it has failed to do for more than a decade.

The Oregonian's coverage of this issue has suggested that if Redden steps in to protect endangered salmon, the region could face an economic disaster. Such claims simply don't withstand scrutiny. Restoring wild salmon will have considerable economic benefits. And its costs can readily be addressed, even if a successful plan requires removing the four lower Snake River dams -- a step hundreds of scientists have said is the single most significant action we could take to revive salmon runs.

Last year, the Independent Economic Analysis Board of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council called for further analysis of just this alternative, urging a follow-up study to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 2000 economic analysis of removing the Snake River dams. Such a study, the IEAB said, should address weaknesses in the Corps' original analysis and include improved calculations of the economic benefits of dam removal. The IEAB also recommended that the study look at current economic, transportation and power conditions as well as the latest information on fish-recovery efforts, ocean survival and other biological factors.

We heartily agree. These issues urgently need a new, comprehensive economic review so that the region has the facts and isn't stuck with reflexive predictions of economic doom if dam operations are changed in ways to restore wild salmon.

Since the Corps' report in 2000, federal and state agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on salmon protection, but the fish are no better off today than they were years ago. We need to change how we're addressing this issue, beginning with the rigorous application of professional standards to the cost-benefit analysis of removing the Snake River dams.

We can look to the Northwest Forest Plan for insights into effective protection for salmon in the Columbia Basin. Like the forest plan, a salmon plan will work if it's based on science, obeys the law and includes training, transition employment and other benefits for those made worse off by its implementation.

The sky will not fall.

This issue demands our attention now. Why? Because the latest draft proposal to protect Columbia and Snake River salmon looks all too much like past plans that have failed and that were needlessly expensive, because the Corps' economic analysis of removing the lower Snake River dams was incomplete, because conditions have changed since the Corps' study, and -- most of all -- because our salmon and steelhead are running out of time.

Ed MacMullan and Ed Whitelaw are economists at ECONorthwest, an Oregon-based economic consulting firm. The views expressed here are their own.
Time's Running Out On the Columbia
The Oregonian, December 19, 2007

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