the film
Commentaries and editorials

Removal of Snake River Dams
makes Ecological and Economic Sense

by James Norton
Guest Opinion, The Idaho Statesman, November 8, 2003

While I was pleased to see The Statesman cover the escalating conflict over water rights in the upper Snake River, I remain disappointed that the article failed to give sufficient credibility to the proposal to remove four downstream dams in an effort to restore endangered salmon stocks.

The increasing momentum for overcoming unfortunately typical Statehouse inertia is a function of the public´s increasingly sophisticated understanding of the issue — and the realization that removal of the dams will not only help protect Idaho´s uncommon natural heritage but also help secure our economic future.

As the article pointed out, it is well-established that salmon populations have declined precipitously since completion of the four dams, that current runs are only large relative to the pathetically low numbers of the last 10 years, and that the health of those runs is largely attributable to a cyclical improvement in ocean conditions.

There is nothing to suggest that this will prove anything more than a temporary increase on the way to extinction — a blip in the heart monitor of a dying patient — and only the current state and federal administrations could stand by the bedside and have the nerve to claim their medicine is working.

The facts remain that the dams are unforgivably expensive. Current estimates project the extinction of Snake River salmon stocks as early as 2016, exposing taxpayers to billions or tens of billions of dollars in compensation payments to Columbia River Basin tribes with whom we have treaties.

Over $3 billion have been spent on fish mitigation programs that have failed to stop the decline in populations.

These costly efforts are necessary to ensure an inland navigation channel whose maintenance and operation is entirely subsidized by taxpayers — barging receives the highest percentage of subsidy of any form of freight transportation in the country.

Furthermore, non-partisan analysis, including Taxpayers for Common Sense and the RAND Corporation, have independently concluded that removal of the dams would create over 15,000 new long-term jobs in the region and have no deleterious effect on the Pacific Northwest´s economy.

Here in Idaho, the 2001 salmon fishing season, over a very limited range and time period, generated over $90 million of revenue, most of it in our rural communities.

The effect on power rates, far from the apocalypse predicted by entrenched energy companies, would translate into an increase of only a few dollars per month on electric bills which are already the lowest in the nation.

And despite claims of equivocal science, there is a growing archive of evidence from around the country establishing a precedent for the dramatic success of dam removal in restoring healthy salmon populations and the ecosystems which support them.

On Oct. 6, a coalition of power companies, conservation organizations, and representatives from relevant state and federal agencies announced that two more dams in Maine would be removed in order to save struggling Atlantic salmon populations.

Conservative estimates predict that salmon runs on the Penobscot River will increase by a factor of 10 to 12 times current numbers. Since the historic removal of the Edwards Dam on Maine´s Kennebec River in 1999, and the immediate comebacks witnessed in several fish species, almost 100 dams have come down across the country.

The elected leaders of the Pacific Northwest need to realize that, in removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River, there is an opportunity to not only save an icon of the region, but do so with action that is consistent with the direction of our evolving economy.

James Norton lives in Salmon.
Removal of Snake River Dams makes Ecological and Economic Sense
The Idaho Statesman, November 8, 2003

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