Klamath Dam-Removal Pact
by John H. Weis
The Klamath River in northern California has been ground zero for one of the most contentious environmental battles in decades.
Four dams on this river have provided irrigation water and electrical power, but have also been responsible for devastating salmon reproduction in the river, once the third-richest salmon-producing fishery in the country. This battle for water was brought to a head in 2002 when Vice President Dick Cheney personally supervised an order mandating reduced water flow into the river at a critical time for salmon reproduction, resulting in the killing of more than 70,000 salmon.
While the administration may have felt it was protecting the economic interests of the region, the move backfired, as all commercial salmon fishing off the coasts of California and Oregon was closed down this summer due to lack of fish, resulting in a devastating loss of revenue.
This November a significant agreement to remove the four dams was reached among PacifiCorp, the owner of the dams; the Bush administration; and Native American tribal representatives and angling interests. If such an agreement can be reached with the current administration, then, when President-elect Barack Obama takes the helm, it will be time to take a similar approach for the removal of the four salmon-killing dams on the lower Snake River.
Redfish Lake at Stanley, Idaho, is so named because it once teemed with red sockeye salmon. These salmon, born in Idaho, swim down the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers into the ocean to mature, and migrate back to the lake for spawning.
This migration, the most arduous of any salmon run, requires a round trip of 1,800 miles with an elevation gain of over 7,000 feet. Although tens of thousands of sockeye salmon made this migration in the past, the dams between Redfish Lake and the ocean have decimated their numbers such that in past years fewer than 10 fish have made this journey.
Salmon swimming from Redfish Lake to the ocean encounter eight dams. The four dams on the main stem of the Columbia negatively impact salmon returns, but it is the four built on the lower Snake River in the early 1960s that have had the most detrimental effect.
These four dams together create a near-continuous slack water of 140 miles that kills the salmon smolts by elevating water temperatures, reducing oxygen content, enhancing predation and reducing the river flow that is required for these immature fish to swim downstream.
The four lower Snake River dams do provide electricity and irrigation water and facilitate barge traffic. Shipping of commodities by barge, however, is only economically competitive with rail shipping thanks to government subsidies.
A recent study indicated the federal government could save $1.6 billion to $4.6 billion over the next 20 years by removing the dams. So the basic question is are these dams worth saving for their modest electricity generation compared to their devastating impacts upon anadromous fish populations?
Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Bill Sali of Idaho, who were replaced in the last election, have consistently blocked any meaningful dialogue over this issue. In their absence, and with the guidance of a new administration, the future of these dams and Snake River salmon can be rationally discussed.
Virtually every government and non-governmental study has come to the conclusion that these dams must come down to prevent the extinction of wild salmon and steelhead that spawn in Idaho waters. Hopefully, in a new political environment, the recommendations of these studies will be heeded.
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