the film
Commentaries and editorials

Breaching Snake Dams
Will Hurt Economy

by Don Brunell
The Columbian, May 30, 2006

It must be nice to be a judge. If you don't like the law, you can make new public policy and hand down rulings with no consideration of the consequences.

At least that's how it seems in the wake of U.S. District Judge James Redden's most recent decision. It should come as no surprise because Redden's rulings have consistently attempted to set public policy rather than interpret it.

On May 23, Judge Redden rejected a carefully crafted multi-agency plan to operate 22 federal dams on Idaho's Upper Snake River in a way that protects salmon. Redden sent federal officials back to the drawing board with a not-too-subtle hint to come back with a plan that includes removing four dams on the lower Snake River.

In 2004, Redden ruled that the government's plan for making hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake and Columbia safe for salmon violated the Endangered Species Act because it didn't consider removing the dams. It ignores the fact that barging young salmon around dams is a proven way to enhance salmon and steelhead runs. Thankfully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency charged with protecting marine mammals like salmon-devouring sea lions, is appealing Redden's ruling.

Referring to that earlier ruling, the judge wrote in his latest opinion that NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration "have failed to demonstrate a willingness to put the needs of salmon first."

While environmental activists hailed the decision, all four members of the Idaho delegation issued a joint statement saying Redden's ruling showed "blatant disregard for the critical needs of the Northwest" and accused Redden of "clearly advocating for one side while ignoring the necessary balance between people and the environment." While the judge may not be concerned about the consequences of removing the four lower Snake River dams, others are.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that breaching the dams would increase electricity bills for Northwest ratepayers by $300 million, add $40 million to transportation costs, eliminate 37,000 acres of prime irrigated farmland, wipe out 2,300 jobs, and cut personal income by $278 million a year.

The Corps says the lion's share of the impact would fall on Eastern Washington and the Columbia Basin. Entire farming communities dependent on irrigated cropland could disappear.

There's more. Because the Snake River dams include a lock system that allows barge freight from Lewiston to the Pacific Ocean, goods that are shipped by barge would have to be shipped by truck or rail. The Port of Clarkston points out that one barge carries the equivalent grain of 37.5 railroad hoppers and 150 semi-trucks with 25 ton capacities. That means the state would have to invest billions for new roads and rail lines if the dams are breached. Sea lions, terns imminent threats

While Judge Redden seems fixated on breaching the dams to save the salmon, he is apparently unconcerned about the impact that federally protected terns and sea lions have on salmon runs. Thousands of terns nesting on manmade islands in the Columbia River feast on millions of salmon smolts each year, while sea lions gorge on thousands of adult salmon as far upriver as Bonneville Dam. And that doesn't count the millions of salmon smolts devoured each year by Northern Pike, walleye, shad and small-mouthed and large-mouthed bass.

Redden also ignores the one factor that impacts salmon survival more than any other -- ocean conditions. Natural shifts in ocean temperatures that appear on predictable 30-year cycles affect salmon survival by as much as 50 percent. When ocean temperatures are cool along the lower West Coast, salmon thrive here while Alaskan salmon runs dwindle. When temperatures shift, Alaskan salmon runs thrive, while ours diminish. That is a phenomenon of nature, not of humans.

Judge Redden should broaden his perspective and not look at just one part of the problem. He also needs to consider the consequences of his decisions on people as well.

Reader Comment by Ken - posted on The Columbian website May 30, 2006
It must be nice to be a business man. If you don't like the law, you can buy new public policy and make dams that will never pay for themselves, using public money, with no consideration of the consequences. Do you really think that these dams aren't subsidized with tax dollars, let alone with our fish and wildlife? How dim do you have to be to think that the killing of the buffalo, all the wolves and grizzly bears, and the indians wasn't a government subsidy? You have to have a very limited view of history to think that these dams are not the cause of the massive declines of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin especially the Snake River. Compare the Yakima River smolt-to-adult ratio to those of the Snake River and you will find that they are routinely higher. Why would that be? The Yakima has poor habitat with temperature problems in its lower stretch. The Yakima fish have similar life histories and migration timing. The Snake River system, including the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers in central Idaho, are mostly wilderness with pristeen habitat. There just aren't enough fish to use the habitat. What's the difference between the two? The 4 Lower Snake River Dams. The Yakima fish don't have to travel through those reservoirs and do much better for it. Your propaganda doesn't fly. What about those people that depended on salmon for their living? Salmon provides much more for the effort than wheat could and it doesn't have to be subsidized. Ocean conditions only amplify the problems of the system caused by the dams. If the dams weren't in place the terns and seals wouldn't be as successful at harming the salmon populations. The dams also provide good habitat for those non-native Northern Pike, walleye, and small-mouthed and large-mouthed bass. Don't take the Corps of Engineers as a reliable source of information. They have always had an agenda. They want the dams to stay in place and skew the numbers to fit their agenda. They leave out the fact that the fishery brought $46 million to Idaho alone when the large run of 2001 came back. 2001 wasn't even a large run in historical terms and doesn't reflect what a recovered fishery would bring to rural towns of Idaho. Think again and don't be so biased towards those with the power next time.

Reader Comment by Tim Weaver - posted on The Columbian website May 31, 2006
Unfortunately Mr. Brunell's opinion, allegedly representing all Washington state businesses, is horribly biased in favor of a few rich Eastern Washington grain growers and the almighty federal power system. The ignores the fact that destruction of snake River salmon runs to generate electricity and to make the list in Idaho a "seaport", largely contributed to the death of Washington state's formerly number one business-the fishing industry. Why suppose if representatives of "business" in the states of Oregon and Washington are able to ignore the economic devastation brought to virtually every coastal community in the state due to the destruction of the salmon is simply beyond me. Of course no one can expect anyone to recognize that the Clem your tribal people also had a very significant salmon based economy which has also been destroyed in order to barge grain to the ocean chiefly, and provide a few meager kilowatts from the snake River dams. Someone who allegedly represents Washington's business community should be ashamed to present such a shortsighted analysis of this complex question. Obviously the Idaho congressional delegation is going to complain, as they negotiated a sweetheart deal that locked up 7 million acre feet of snake River water solely for Southern Idaho potato growers. Again it's pretty amazing to see Mr. Brunell side with interests in Idaho who would be happy as clams at high tide see the snake River dams reached so that the pressure would be off on their ability to deprive snake River salmon of the water that they need to survive. Rest assured, Mr. Brunell, your supposed and friends in Idaho care one whit about Eastern Washington grain growers, Lewiston as a seaport, and the meager kilowatts generated by lower snake River dams. While you criticize judge Redden's decision requiring that Idaho's "snatch" of our snake River water be considered in the biological opinion remand, you'd better make very sure that people who "snatched" it don't suddenly turn on you if they feel it's necessary. You should check your facts a little better and actually support all Washington state business interests if that is what you are truly about in your organization.

Reader Comment by Jay - posted on The Columbian website May 31, 2006
Historic perspective of harvest rates of Columbia Basin Salmon The 2001 salmon run "wasn't even large in historic terms"? Even the Fish Passage Center (defunded for supposed bias in favor of environmentalist agenda) shows the 2001 returns for both the Columbia and Snake Rivers to be 4 to 5 times larger than the next largest run since 1938 (when the first dam went in). If you look at a graph of the annual salmon returns since 1938, the line actually looks fairly level (except for a large shift UP in 2001, which has stayed at that historically high value since). If dams were that large of an impact, wouldn't the graph trend down as more and more dams were put in place? As for the 'meager' kilowatts generated by the dams, I've heard that 'conservation and wind' can compensate for the removal of the dams. Based on the latest conservation figures from the NW Power and Conservation Council, removing the four dams on the Snake River would also remove the energy savings of every conservation program run by every utility in the region since 1982 AND the next 15 or so years of energy conservation at the same level of effort. OR require the development of nearly every technically feasable wind site, regardless of the owners wishes or the impact of the construction of hundreds of miles of additional transmission lines to get that power to the loads. Development of wind resources also requires a backup for times when the wind doesn't blow (which is nearly 2/3 of the time!). That backup has been the hydro system. But, due to recent decisions affecting river operations, BPA recently informed utilities it could no longer commit to new backup services. Which means new coal, gas or nuclear generation to back up the non-polluting hydro and wind.

Reader Comment by Felton Jenkins - posted on The Columbian website June 2, 2006
I have to agree with Tim and Ken's comments above. Wild salmon runs have trended down significantly since the installation of dams. As for the long term, wild salmon runs are at less than 5% of historical levels for the Columbia and Snake basin rivers. If anyone thinks that is "balanced," then they are either dishonest or ignorant. And the Corps and others completely ignore the costs of keeping the Snake dams in place and the benefits of healthy rivers and healthy fish runs.

Don Brunellis president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit
Breaching Snake Dams Will Hurt Economy
The Columbian, May 14, 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation