Tear down these Snake River dams. A natural river saves fish and money.

On July 20, 1997, the Idaho Statesman launched a three-part series of editorials titled "Dollars, Sense & Salmon" that made the case for the removal of the four Snake River dams to help restore endangered wild salmon. Seen here is the cover. It was researched by Rocky Barker and written by Susan Whaley.
On July 20, 1997, the Idaho Statesman launched a three-part series of editorials titled "Dollars, Sense & Salmon" that made the case for the removal of the four Snake River dams to help restore endangered wild salmon. Seen here is the cover. It was researched by Rocky Barker and written by Susan Whaley.

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.

Money ahead

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.

Lighten the burden.

Restored salmon and steelhead runs would staunch the deep fiscal wound caused by a failing effort to keep the fish alive. Breaching reduces the need to spend money on fish fixes, much of it wasted on ineffective programs.

Breaching also means an end to taxpayer-subsidized barge transportation on the Lower Snake, which moves goods through a series of locks at the dams to Portland 369 miles downstream. Taxpayers currently pay $98 million a year to subsidize barge transportation, according to Boise economist Phil Lansing. The end of subsidized barging can be compensated by free-market rail and truck transportation.

Economy improves.

The Institute for Fisheries Resources estimates that $500 million in annual economic benefits and 25,000 jobs in the commercial and sport fishing industry have been eliminated in the Northwest through the loss of salmon. A healthy fishery can restore some of that loss. Boise economist Don Reading estimates $150 million in benefits to Idaho’s economy, much of it in ailing rural communities hard hit by declines in timber, cattle and mining. West Coast and tribal fisherman, their boats and nets idled by disappearing salmon, will benefit when more fish spawn in Idaho, which historically supplied up to half of the Northwest’s ocean catch. Northwest tribes, including the Nez Perce, stand to gain another $98 million in personal income from commercial fishing and processing. Breaching offers the chance for an economic rebirth of rural Idaho and Lewiston.

Government goes away.

Recovery would end the status of Idaho salmon as an endangered species and ensures the future of steelhead, which also are expected to be listed soon. Fewer federal land and water restrictions would be necessary in the name of fish recovery. Taking salmon and steelhead off the Endangered Species Act list would lighten the heavy hand of government burdening loggers, miners, ranchers and outfitters from Orofino to Stanley.

Protect Idaho water.

Breaching the dams would eliminate the need to send additional water out of state to help flush juvenile salmon to the sea. That’s good news for Idaho farmers. By contrast, strategies that leave the dams in place call for taking more water from Idaho, washing dollars from Idaho farming communities to downstream states. Currently, the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets cheap hydropower from the Columbia and Snake dams, uses water from Idaho farmers to help flush salmon and steelhead past the dams. Idaho Power also releases water from its reservoirs in the spring when power brings less money on the open market. People in Cascade and Orofino are affected, too, by dramatic shifts in reservoir levels during the busy summer season and the accompanying effects on local economies. Breaching would end such nonsense. It is the financially sensible way to reach Gov. Phil Batt’s worthy goal of not one drop’’ to augment downstream flows.

Balance returns.

Restoring salmon would replenish Central Idaho forests with nutrients that spawning salmon bring back from the ocean and release when they die. This ancient relationship is vital to the environmental and cultural health of a region that has relied on the yearly return of salmon for more than 10,000 years.

What dams?

Average Idahoans won’t miss the four dams when they are gone. Their contribution to the Northwest power picture is small - up to 7 percent of overall production. Conservation and alternative energy sources, such as gas-fired turbines, can replace the lost hydropower at competitive prices. In addition, the water at Dworshak Dam could be used more efficiently to produce power instead of flushing young fish to the sea.

The Snake dams provide no flood-control benefits.

Just 13 heavily subsidized eastern Washington irrigators draw water from the four reservoirs to farm 37,000 acres. These farmers could be bought out or offered low-interest loans to extend pipes and pumps to the lower river level. The loss of irrigation is minimal. Civilization progresses by using the experience of the past to make life better for the next generation. With the advantage of three decades of hindsight, it is easy to see that breaching would put the Northwest back on track. Breaching the four dams is not a step backward. It is a step forward.