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Congress Waits for Corps Report

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 1999

Recipe for trouble:

Start with endangered salmon.

Combine with a heap of cheap electricity and a dash of threatened transportation subsidies.

Add a generous dose of federal agencies, environmental groups and farm advocates. And do all this during federal election season.

Now mix in $20 million in paperwork but reserve several billion dollars for later.

Let simmer. (Serves the nation)

In December, the Corps of Engineers plans to release its contribution to the Northwest fish recipe: a long-awaited - and months-overdue - $20 million report to Congress about whether to tear down the four Lower Snake River dams to help endangered salmon and steelhead.

Of course, it's impossible to say with 100 percent certainty what would happen if the dams go down - an unseen combination of events could buoy or sink the regional economy.

But corps studies indicate the result would be more of a shift in jobs rather than a huge net loss. Ten years after the dams go, according to the corps' "most likely" scenario, the Northwest would be down about 1,300 jobs - almost entirely in Franklin, Walla Walla and the other counties along the Snake reservoirs.

In the short term, the corps predicts 13,000 temporary new jobs to do tasks such as tear down the dams, build roads and modify wells.

Still, razing the dams would have a physical and psychological effect on the Mid-Columbia unlike anything since plutonium production stopped at Hanford in the late 1980s.

The corps study will include approximately 3,000 pages - roughly the same amount of ink that lobbying groups on both sides of the issue have spilled putting out their spin since the discussion became a regional controversy.

Over the last several months, the corps has released pieces of its draft report on the Internet at

"They are attempts to provide rough approximations as to what kind of impacts we would expect to see," said Dennis Wagner, one of the study managers in Portland.

Many find fault with the corps numbers, with river users saying they don't accurately reflect the costs and environmentalists saying they don't show enough of the benefits.

However accurate the corps' vision proves to be, it is important for one simple reason - Congress will use the revised document to determine what to do with the dams. With congressional approval, nearly four decades of life built around those huge dams could come crashing down.

Before that would happen, however, Northwest residents will get to weigh in at a series of public hearings planned this winter. Dates have not been announced.

As of Friday, it was still not made public if the corps will recommend the best way to revive salmon runs. Besides breaching, it could promote its current operations or suggest a variety of technical attempts to upgrade the hydrosystem - two options that are largely lost in the rhetoric about breaching.

"I strongly suspect (federal agencies) will kick that can down the road and leave that controversial issue to be decided by the next president," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

But the region wants to see a proposal - and there is some indication the sides are getting closer to the point where they can talk civilly about what kind of economic assistance package it would take to ease the impact of a "natural" river.

American Rivers, a national environmental group, recently released a report about how to fix the transportation system to accommodate life without barges - its attempt to get Congress to look at costs beyond saving fish.

"If this is going to happen, how can we do it in a way that doesn't throw it on the backs of farmers?" asked Rob Masonis, with American Rivers.

While river users object to American Rivers' estimates, at least some of them appreciate the sentiment.

"It's not about numbers. It's got to be about having the conversation," said Frank Carroll, spokesman for the Potlach timber company in Lewiston, which stands to lose millions of dollars if the dams are breached. "If they are not trying to kill us, maybe we can talk."

Mike Lee
Congress Waits for Corps Report
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 1999

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