Breach Snake River Dams,
by Erik Robinson
PORTLAND -- Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the Northwest this week to make the case he now believes he should have made while he was in a position of authority:
Four federal dams on the lower Snake River ought to be removed to help imperiled salmon.
Babbitt, who has also been a presidential candidate and governor of Arizona, joined former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to speak with The Columbian before a Friday appearance at a City Club of Portland meeting.
"In the last 20 years in the Columbia River (basin), we have spent $8 billion currently $700 million a year with the majority of it directed at trying to tinker with those dams," he said. "That's long enough. It hasn't worked. There's a point at which taxpayers and ratepayers very soon are going to say, 'How long can the politicians avoid responsibility by spending our money and throwing it down a rathole?' "
Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation organizations, sponsored Babbitt's visit to Portland and Spokane.
With 13 stocks of Columbia basin salmon now listed under the Endangered Species Act, much of the money spent for salmon recovery is based on the notion that federal dams are a major cause of salmon decline. Dams kill fish as they pass through turbines or over spillways. They also harm fish by creating large reservoirs where predators lurk, water temperatures rise and slow currents stymie migration.
Conservation groups have revived a long-standing campaign to breach the four dams on the lower Snake River.
Breaching the dams would connect 140 miles of free-flowing river to the largest intact salmon spawning habitat in the Pacific Northwest an area of central Idaho, western Montana and Eastern Oregon that historically produced half of all the salmon returning to the basin, Babbitt noted. Bush administration officials countered Friday that technological improvements have boosted salmon survival through the dams, which continue to enable inexpensive barge transportation and cheap hydroelectricity.
With the exception of Kitzhaber, few Northwest political leaders of either major party have supported dam-breaching.
Babbitt, who served eight years in President Clinton's cabinet, acknowledged that the Democratic Clinton administration also took a pass on dam-breaching. It issued an "aggressive nonbreach" strategy in July 2000 after years of study. That plan gave preference to measures such as harvest reductions, habitat restoration, improvements at hatcheries and investments in various chutes intended to safely scoot fish past the dams.
Asked whether that decision was a mistake, Babbitt replied bluntly:
"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely. It was a total failure."
Babbitt, who spoke in Spokane on Thursday, acknowledged that dryland farmers in the interior Columbia basin operate on thin profit margins. He said it would be cheaper to improve rail lines or to simply pay farmers to offset the increased cost of transporting crops without barges.
"We could remove the dams and hold (farmers) harmless for a lifetime for no more than a few tens of millions of dollars a year compared to the hundreds of millions that we're spending on barging and tinkering with the structure of the dams and all these different things that aren't working," he said. Kitzhaber challenged political leaders who, he said, pay lip service to salmon recovery.
"The central question isn't whether or not you remove the dams," he said. "The central question is whether we as a region want to restore the health of the Columbia and Snake River system and the salmon that depend on it. If you assume for argument's sake that the answer to that is 'Yes,' and you just decide to take the dams off the table, then you've got to spend a huge amount of money on aggressively changing land management practices on private land and get into some big changes in our hatchery policies to do that.
"If you're not willing to do that and you're not willing to talk about the dams," he said, "basically what you're saying is, really, 'I don't care.' "
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