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Snake River Dams: A Battle Over Values

by Michael Grunwald
Washington Post, September 12, 2000

WALLA WALLA, Wash. Phil Benge says the Army Corps of Engineers is "obviously biased" against breaching the high-profile dams on the Snake River. John Loomis believes the Corps brass has "no appreciation" for the potential of a free-flowing Snake. They both think the agency's draft economics study of the Snake dramatically underestimated the recreational benefits of dam removal. And they both agree that had a lot to do with political meddling.

Critics second-guess Corps studies all the time, but not critics like these. Benge, a Corps recreation planner, led the agency's recreation team on the Snake study. Loomis, a Colorado State University economist, is the Corps contractor doing the team's technical work. Now they both believe that Corps officials--under pressure from Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a staunch defender of the Snake dams--manipulated and misrepresented their team's results.

"I really thought this was going to be a different kind of study for the Corps," said Benge, a 20-year veteran of the Corps. "It tears me up that it got hung up in politics."

Loomis ultimately calculated a range for the recreation benefits of breaching the Snake's dams between $70 million and $416 million. Instead, after a series of Corps officials insisted that the benefits could not possibly be that high, the agency came up with its own "middle value" of $82 million.

"It was a classic case of best professional practices saying one thing, and our fearless military leaders caving in to politicians and doing something else," Loomis said.

The four dams on the lower Snake River have become the focus of the Northwest's most intense political battle. Environmentalists and fishermen want to return the river to its natural state in order to save endangered salmon, but a broad coalition of farmers, barge interests, utilities and other business groups want to keep the dams for economic reasons. In July, The Clinton administration announced that it supported leaving the dams in place for now, while holding open the option of breaching them later.

The Corps built the dams in the 1960s and 1970s, and continues to manage them for hydropower and navigation, and to carry salmon around them in barges. Now it is supposed to be the honest broker in this debate, ferreting out the costs and benefits of the various options. But the combatants on both sides of the dams debate agree that the Corps economics have been drenched in politics.

Advocates of the dams are furious that even though the Corps concluded in its draft last December that breaching the dams would cost $245 million a year, the Clinton administration ordered the agency not to recommend any course of action. Anti-dam activists are furious about the five-year study's initial conclusions, arguing that the Corps biased its analysis against dam-breaching through a series of questionable economic assumptions. The experience of the recreation team, they say, was typical of the entire study.

For example, even though the Environmental Protection Agency has found the Snake dams in violation of the Clean Water Act, the study ignored the potential costs of compliance if the dams remain. It also ignored the potential costs of salmon extinction, especially the costs to Indian tribes. The Corps acknowledged that its estimate for dam-breaching irrigation losses was "an overstatement of the economic effects," but used it anyway. It based its hydropower analysis on obsolete 1995 data favorable to dams. Environmentalists believe that a host of other Corps conclusions about transportation costs, environmental costs, farm benefits and job benefits were similarly tilted against a free-flowing river.

Benge, a 50-year-old former park ranger from San Diego, has never felt comfortable among the gung-ho engineers of the Corps. He's a nature guy; they're more construction types. But he was excited about the Snake recreation team. His bosses were saying all the right things about openness and objectivity, and Loomis had a reputation as a top recreation expert.

The team's problems began in 1998, as Loomis was preparing a survey to try to gauge how many Americans would want to visit an undammed Snake. First, Gorton delivered a speech on the Senate floor about "The Corps of Engineers Sweepstakes," lampooning the team's plans to include a $2 bill with every survey to encourage responses. Those plans were promptly scrapped. But Gorton, a member of the Appropriations Committee, kept complaining to top Corps officials about bias in the survey, until the agency finally agreed to eliminate all of its questions about "existence values."

Existence values are a fairly squishy economic concept, designed to measure the worth of a free-flowing river to people who might not even use it. But they are common in studies like this, and team members of all political stripes wanted to inquire about them. In fact, Loomis believes that given the psychic importance of salmon to the Northwest, existence values alone might have justified breaching the Snake dams. He had estimated benefits anywhere from $52 million to $2.9 billion--unscientific guesses, but that's why he wanted to ask questions.

"Gorton didn't want us to find out anything that might hurt his cause, and the generals didn't want to say no to him," Loomis said. "I guess they were afraid he'd cut their budget."

In a statement, the Corps said it recognized existence values as a "valuable component" of the study, but concluded that a survey of existence values would be unnecessary. The agency said it has received more than 200,000 comments on its draft report: "We will be further clarifying and fine-tuning the economic analyses, based on the comments received."

Gorton did not return several calls for comment, although an aide sent along language that Gorton inserted declaring that "the committee expects the Corps to work objectively in assessing the true impacts of any dam removal."

Bruce Lovelin, the top advocate for the dams, said Gorton was right to attack the inner workings of the study. "Come on: I think existence values are valid, but those numbers were ridiculous," said Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, a coalition of industry groups.

The team clashed with Benge's bosses over more tangible values, too. For example, the team's e-mail traffic confirms that a series of Corps officials simply didn't believe that transforming the Snake from a series of slack-water pools into a free-flowing river would attract many visitors. When the survey suggested that many Californians and other westerners would come to the river to fish or raft or canoe, several e-mails described the results as "implausible," and one Corps official told Benge to "get the numbers down."

"They just couldn't believe what the numbers were saying," Benge recalled. "The Corps doesn't believe in the economics of recreation. It still gets stepchild status."

Ultimately, the Corps got the numbers down on its own. Loomis, the agency's consultant, had calculated a "middle value" of 4.8 million annual visitors. He said the Corps then adopted his "low value" of 1.68 million visitors for the study--and reported it as the "middle value."

"They're guilty on that one," Loomis said. "That's not just conservative--that's wrong."

There is no way to know exactly what will happen to the Northwest economy, whether the dams stay or go. Gorton commissioned the General Accounting Office to investigate whether the Corps underestimated the costs of dam-breaching, and it recently agreed with him that the agency's analyses of transportation costs and air quality impacts were incomplete. Lovelin says that inevitably, the economics of Corps studies are in the eyes of the beholder.

"The truth is, this has been a political process from Day One," Lovelin said. "Everyone has biases, and that's not going to change. We're all like ships passing in the night."

Michael Grunwald
Snake River Dams: A Battle Over Values
Washington Post, September 12, 2000

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