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Salmon Must Be Our Top Priority

by Editorial Board
The Daily Astorian, June 15, 2010

Refurbishing the dams must include improvements in fish passage

Columbia River dams have been around long enough to engender thoughts that they are as immutable as the landscape in which they were built, but in fact some noteworthy and laudable changes are under way.

As described in an Associated Press story last week, a $120 million project at Chief Joseph Dam is among several around the country that aim to replace aging equipment and employ new technology to produce more power from the same amount of water. Ten new electricity-generating turbines will be installed at the dam by 2014. At nearby Grand Coulee Dam, work is wrapping up on 18 new turbines.

The two dams are numbers one and two in the nation in terms of producing hydropower. Because of advances in turbine technology, the modernized equipment will produce enough extra power to run an additional 60,000 homes.

For all the heartburn dams cause here in salmon country because of impacts on fish and fishing seasons, there's no denying that the Pacific Northwest hydro system remains one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century. The 31 dams in the Columbia River system are enough to eliminate the carbon dioxide emissions that might otherwise be necessary from 20 coal plants, while also offering safe and rapid response to fluctuations in the power generated by new wind-turbine farms.

News about improving these dams also makes it clear that the enhancements offer potential fisheries benefits. It's also clear that there are unrealized gains still to be achieved in terms of getting fish around some dams and back into habitat that has long been off limits.

Michael Garrity, Washington state conservation director for American Rivers, told AP that upgrades like those the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee can help operators facilitate salmon migration elsewhere in the river system. More power created at one dam can allow additional water to be released somewhere else.

But Garrity also notes that dam operators should be moving toward a time when fish passage is restored to the Upper Columbia River, obstructed at Chief Joseph Dam since the early 1950s.

Considering all the money and agony that has gone into salmon restoration, it is ridiculous that the vast Upper Columbia region is still blocked. Yes, there are enormous physical and technological constraints to be overcome.

Helping salmon over dams and through large bodies of slack water will take incredible effort. But the payoff could be significant if salmon are restored to unblocked tributary streams in northern Washington and southern British Columbia.

The hydropower system proves that Americans can do just about anything we really set our minds to, and after half a century, it's time to set our minds to getting ample salmon back into the Upper Columbia.

Editorial Board
Salmon Must Be Our Top Priority
The Daily Astorian, June 15, 2010

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