Good Corps Plan Needs Vigilanceby Editors
Editorial, Capital Press - September 20, 2002
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a good, sensible decision when it chose to make major system improvements to the four lower Snake River dams.
Reaching that decision involved years of research that turned up a wealth of information about subjects ranging from fish management to irrigation costs and transportation economics.
The Corps announced last week that it had chosen to make structural improvements and operational changes that will cost about $390 million over a period of 10 years.
Three other alternatives it had considered were to keep the existing condition, to conduct maximum transport of juvenile salmon, or to breach the dams.
This choice fits with 2000 biological opinions from the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Corps also said its choice minimizes the economic effects on river users and on other environmental resources.
That's an important balance to keep. The river isn't only for salmon, just as it's not only for irrigation or for barge transportation or for power generation. The Snake River is a multiple-use waterway and any analysis about its future rightly considers all the types of users.
Annual maintenance cost for the dams and locks runs $36.5 million, but that's a bargain relative to the returns. The Corps said the annual value of power, transportation and water supply provided by the dams is $324 million.
Now the Corps plans to make changes to improve the existing system.
Those are current plans, said a Corps spokesman. The basis question had been whether the four dams needed to be breached to restore salmon runs. "The answer is no, not at this time," she said. In the long term, following the current plan depends on getting funding and on how well the operational changes and installations work.
People in the Northwest had complained that too many agencies have been involved in managing the river resources; the Corps, other agencies and related groups worked together on this study and will keep cooperating.
But the new Corps record of decision is still just one step in a dynamic process.
The process goes on and questions resurface. In late July, the General Accounting Office issued a report saying that federal agencies had put $3.3 billion into Columbia River Basin salmon recovery in the past decade, with a generally positive sense of success, but "there is little conclusive evidence to quantify the extent of their effects on returning fish populations." And RAND Corp., a research company, issued a report early this month saying that removing the four lower Snake dams would reduce hydroelectric power and disrupt some farming and other businesses, but wouldn't have a major impact on the Northwest economy.
Irrigators, shippers, carriers and others who rely on the river system will have to stay involved and participate in the process. They'll need to see that as the plan adjusts to change, they help guide a balanced approach.
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