Babbitt Tackles Salmon Bluesby Andy Porter
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, March 8, 2005
The former Interior secretary suggests using money for restoration efforts
to create alternatives to the current system of dams.
"A lot of the salmon are on the brink of extinction, and the question is, `What are we going to do?"
Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt asked this question of a Whitman College audience Monday night.
What we can do, he told a crowd of about 300 people, is use billions of dollars now pledged for salmon restoration to eliminate the need for four dams on the lower Snake River and create a free-running stream in its place.
Speaking in a quiet, casual tone and peppering his talk with quips and self-deprecating humor, Babbitt outlined what he felt were ways to meet the needs of both humans and fish while removing the dams on the river.
While the four dams along the Columbia River could be retained, he said, the ones on the lower Snake River are four too many.
"You can only stack so many dams on the back of a salmon before it gives up," he said.
Babbitt charged the administration under President Bush has said it doesn"t have to restore salmon, but still intends to spend $6 billion over the next 10 years, or $600 million per year, to improve the Columbia River Basin salmon runs.
Past efforts to restore the river runs haven"t worked, Babbitt said, and putting more money into them won"t work either.
What should be done instead, he said, is use the money to create alternatives to replace the barges that transport grain on the river, restructure irrigation systems now dependent on Lake Sacajawea and replace hydropower produced by the dams with renewable resources and conservation efforts.
Babbitt said that while his projections of costs were only estimates, he projects the final costs would be less than the $600 million annually the administration wants to spend now for Columbia Basin fish recovery.
"The figures aren't still all in, but you've still got a lot left..." from the $600 million annual figure, he said.
Another immense benefit would be "if the river were restored as a real, live, vigorous salmon fishery," Babbitt said. That fishery could add as much as $500 million to the region's economy through an increase in recreation, he said.
Earlier in his talk, Babbitt recounted how the concept of dam removal and restoring rivers to their natural state is "a very new concept in environmental history."
The concept, however, has gained a foothold in recent years, starting on the East Coast and then, more recently, in the Pacific Northwest with the removal of dams on the Elwa River in the Olympic National Park and on the White Salmon River.
Over the years, about 75,000 dams have been built on rivers and streams throughout the United States, Babbitt said. The time has come to stop viewing them as untouchable objects which should never be taken out.
"We have built one dam for every day since Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence...Surely among 75,000, there are a few mistakes," he quipped.
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