Reid's Entry in to NW Salmon-Dam Politics
by Rocky Barker
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's demand to federal energy regulators that they require fish passage on the Hells Canyon dams when they get a new license has salmon advocates cheering. But just as they warn Congress against passing a rider that they say would limit the amount of water flushed out of Idaho to aid salmon, they are backing Nevada Democrat Reid for mostly other reasons.
It's just another way to put pressure and pain on Idaho. It's a part of their power play across the Northwest to use the Endangered Species Act to bring the region to its knees so it will make the hard decisions necessary to save wild salmon. Then, as Pat Ford, executive director of the Save our Wild Salmon Coalition, told Trout Unlimited Saturday, they hope to strike a broad deal to ensure that farmers, utilities, shippers and other affected by dam breaching and other recovery efforts are compensated.
Idaho Power's three dams, Oxbow, Brownlee and Hells Canyon have the capacity to produce only half of the electricity the run-of-the river lower Snake dams do. But because of the long Brownlee Reservoir behind them, the power can be used more flexibly year round and not simply in the peak run-off season in the spring.
Dworshak Reservoir on the Clearwater River provides some flexibility for feeding water to the four lower Snake dams, but not nearly as much as Brownlee. And there is far less flood protection than the Hells Canyon complex.
Most of all, the removal of Idaho Power's dams would not have any chance of recovering the Snake River's stocks of salmon by itself. Most of the fisheries scientists in the Northwest believe removing the four lower Snake dams would have a good chance of doing that.
But the real issue has always been that if you come to the conclusion that a dam or dams on the Columbia and Snake must be removed, which dams will give you more bang for your buck Ð more improvement in salmon productivity Ð with lower costs for society?
The Hells Canyon dams aren't even in the ball park. They are important for the survival of endangered fall chinook salmon, since there is a question whether there is enough habitat for the fish. But the other three endangered salmon and steelhead in the Snake system have enough habitat, they just need better passage.
If a dam or dams have to go, the choice is between the lower Snake dams and four downstream dams on the Columbia. Studies suggest taking out one dam, John Day, would have as many biological benefits as taking out all four lower Snake dams.
But John Day produces more electricity and is more critical to the entire federal hydro system than the four Snake dams combined. Economically and socially there is no comparison. The same is true about the other three Columbia dams downstream.
Salmon advocates are happy that Reid is calling for fish passage at Hells Canyon because he is signaling that he wants to be a player in the region's salmon and dam debate. Hardly any one noticed when Reid and four other senators wrote President Clinton in 2000 urging him to keep dam breaching as an option in his plan.
But now as arguably the most power person in Congress, he is a voice to be reckoned with. Was it a coincidence that his letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission came the same day that Larry Craig's guilty plea for lewd behavior was revealed?
With Craig's loss of power, Democrats are going to have more to say about the future of the dams and salmon than ever. Whether salmon advocates' strategy to force pain primarily on Idaho still makes sense, is arguable without Craig in a pivotal role.
But Reid's letter shows that salmon politics are going to get interesting in the next two years. Idaho's control over its precious water and access to cheap hydroelectricity, hang in the balance.
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