Editor’s note: This editorial was originally published on July 20, 1997.
Four dams in Washington are holding Idaho’s economy hostage. The dams on the Lower Snake River once provided cheap power and hope for economic prosperity for Lewiston. But now these dams are a burden on Idaho and the Northwest. The region won’t be set free until the salmon and steelhead these dams kill are recovered and balance is restored to our economy, environment and culture.
This can’t be done unless the four Lower Snake River dams - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite - are breached. Breaching is an effective way to save taxpayers and electricity ratepayers the expense of maintaining and fixing dams, boost the region’s economy by $248 million, end the burden of the Endangered Species Act, protect Idaho water and restore natural and economic balance.
Undeniably, some Idahoans would be hurt in the process. Lewiston is Idaho’s biggest concern, because closing the port and lowering the reservoir to river level would cost some people their jobs. Those losses are serious and need to be mitigated. Some of the savings from breaching should be reinvested in economic development in Lewiston, Clarkston, Wash., and other port communities.
The eventual long-term gain in new jobs and revitalized communities would make the short-term loss worthwhile. Like any tough-minded business owner, Idahoans and all Americans need to honestly face reality, cut their losses and devise a balanced plan before the situation is irreversibly bankrupt.
Four dams too far
Economics can’t justify taking out the other four dams - Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary - on the Columbia River between Idaho and the Pacific Ocean. They are too important for producing the hydropower the Northwest needs to keep refrigerators humming and industry moving. The same is true for other large dams in Idaho. Some critics have suggested taking out John Day Dam in addition to the four Snake dams. John Day presents problems for fish migration, but the important power-producing capacity of John Day makes breaching infeasible. Alternative solutions, such as lowering the level of the reservoir at peak migration times, might prove beneficial.
The dams on the Lower Snake are the final hurdles the resilient ocean-going fish couldn’t overcome. For more than 2 million years, salmon adapted to survive Ice Ages, floods of biblical proportions, geological upheavals, hostile predators and severe ocean conditions.
They even withstood the arrival of European settlers. Dams cut off vast portions of their historic range throughout the Northwest, including all of southern Idaho. Yet even after the four Columbia River dams were built, the fish returned to Idaho. The runs dropped dramatically, however, after the Snake dams were built, from 1962 to 1975. Idaho fish cannot overcome the cumulative effects of all eight dams. Each one exacts a deadly toll. The dams kill young fish as they move downstream through power turbines, in bypass systems and on barges used to transport them around the dams.
Despite fish ladders and other technological fixes, adult fish also die while trying to scale eight dams on their way back to Idaho.
In the 1960s, Idahoans and the Northwest enjoyed the benefits of both dams and fish. Returning to those halcyon days requires the region to go back, not 200 years to Lewis and Clark, but just 35 years to pre-Lower Snake dams. Here is why breaching makes sense for the 1990s: |It works. Breaching is an effective way to restore fish runs to the levels of the 1960s, when 75,000 adult salmon returned to Idaho streams and rivers.
There is a high probability that the same number could return in 20 years. The National Marine Fisheries Service Recovery Team said that lowering the reservoirs to river level was the only scenario that resulted in noticeably larger numbers of fish surviving to the mouth of the Columbia River compared to present operations.’’ There is a high probability that without breaching the fish eventually will disappear, especially if ocean conditions worsen or a prolonged drought occurs. Humans can’t do much about droughts and oceans, but they do have control over the dams, which are a primary cause of low fish numbers.