Saving Salmon - But at What Cost?by Editors
The Daily Inter Lake, March 2, 2000
As people attending a federal hearing last night learned, the downstream clamor to save Columbia River salmon will reverberate all the way upstream, sooner rather than later.
It has been an easy issue to ignore. The struggle is over a fish foreign to our waters, and itís mainly annoying to be asked to flush more of our water downstream, at some inconvenience to ourselves.
Even drastic measures downstream would seem to have little impact here. If the experts decide to breach four dams in the Snake River, as many salmon defenders want to do, why should we care, hundreds of miles upstream? The biggest economic losses would be felt in downstream states: Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Studies there show it would raise farmersí shipping costs and lower their irrigation reservoirs. Workers would lose jobs; consumers would pay higher prices.
But there would be consequences for western Montanans if those dams were breached. The four dams in question generate about 5 percent of the electricity in a region, including Montana, that already consumes all the power available to it. In fact, officials with Bonneville Power Administration, the regionís electricity broker, predict an energy crisis that could hit as early as this summer ó and thatís with the turbines spinning on those four targeted dams. One estimate says the regionís capacity deficit could be as high as 3,000 megawatts, enough to power three cities the size of Seattle.
That power deficit will put tremendous pressure on industrial users, such as aluminum reduction plants, and irrigators. And unusually severe weather could cause blackouts in the region as early as next winter. And removing those dams from the power grid arguably could lead to more erratic flows from Hungry Horse to keep up with peak demands. That would further disrupt native bull trout and cutthroat ó our endangered species.
Obviously, downstream interests are not necessarily Montanaís interests. Nevertheless, the Endangered Species Act requires that the salmon be saved. And if scientists and politicians cannot devise a workable plan, the matter will be left to a federal judge. Then the deciding factors will deal not with recreation or jobs or even the environment, but simply legal points.
After witnessing the disruption caused by a judicial order to save the spotted owl some years ago, the region must devise a compromise that will fix what needs fixing without devastating the economy.
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