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Commentaries and editorials

Remove the Dams to Restore Idaho's Salmon

by Donovan Bramwell, candidate for U.S. Congress
A Position Paper - October 2000

There is a word that perfectly describes the salmon runs that used to occupy the rivers and streams of central and southern Idaho: Abundant! That abundance has become a scarcity, mostly because of the construction of dams.

Dams on the Snake River in Hells Canyon (between Boise and Lewiston) guarantee that salmon will never again run the middle section of the Snake River (Boise to Twin Falls) or its tributaries. For those dams, the salmon were simply sacrificed; meager mitigation efforts were completely unsuccessful.

The same is true of the upper Columbia River in northern Washington and southern British Columbia. The Grand Coulee Dam was built without fish ladders. Government engineers knew from the outset that the Grand Coulee project would exterminate the salmon, and didnít pretend otherwise.

But it is not true of the Salmon River and its many tributaries. Four dams were built on the lower Columbia in the early-middle 1900s, all equipped with fish ladders, all built by the U.S. government with the explicit promise that the salmon would not be sacrificed. With the completion of those four dams, the salmon runs in Idaho declined, but not severely.

Eager to fulfill its ambition of making Lewiston into an inland seaport, the U.S. government built four more dams on the lower Snake River, between Lewiston and the Snakeís confluence with the Columbia in south-central Washington. These four dams, like the others, were equipped with fish ladders to accommodate the upstream migration of adult salmon. The promise still held: the salmon would not be sacrificed. But the government engineers knew that the long stretches of slackwater would interfere with the downstream migration of the juvenile salmon. So they devised a plan to capture the juveniles and barge them down the river past the dams. It was with the construction of those four dams, particularly the last two, and with the barging of the juveniles, that the salmon runs declined precipitously. Those runs are now nearly extinct. The steelhead runs are following a similar pattern, but with declines not as severe.

As a matter of principle, the U.S. government should remove the four dams on the lower Snake. It was a mistake, a boondoggle, that the U.S. government built them there in the first place. The U.S. government needs to correct its mistake.

The people of eastern Idaho need to consider a few practical matters as they decide their position on the issue. And their position matters, because ultimately, public opinion will weigh heavily on the outcome.

People in eastern Idaho like dams. They think of Palisades and American Falls, where dams provide the obvious benefits of electricity production, flood control, and storage of water for irrigation. The benefits are provided without significant penalty.

This is not true of the four dams on the Lower Snake. With these dams, the penalty is great: the loss of the salmon and steelhead runs. These dams are in Washington, not Idaho. They provide no flood control function at all. Of the four, only one (Ice Harbor) provides irrigation water to only thirteen farms, and these farms would not lose their water if the dams were removed. They would only have to extend their pipelines to the new shoreline and install more horsepower to accommodate the higher lift.

Electricity is not a real issue here. Of the total regional electricity supply, the small fraction of electricity produced by these four dams can easily be replaced.

The main purpose of the four dams is to provide a shipping waterway to Lewiston. If the dams were removed, no doubt the shipping economy in Lewiston would suffer. But those losses would be offset by other gains, and shipping facilities in Lewiston can be relocated to Kennewick, Washington, or Umatilla Oregon, where they belong.

For most of Idaho, the loss of the four dams is no loss at all. The one ostensible benefit to southern and eastern Idaho is that a port in Lewiston makes it cheaper for us to ship our wheat to market. Some of our wheat is trucked to Lewiston, and from there it travels by barge to Portland. But look at the map, folks. Most of Idaho can get a truck to Kennewick or Umatilla as easily as to Lewiston. Goods that must be transported from Lewiston can travel by rail as easily and almost as cheaply as by barge.

It is imperative that we do what must be done to restore the salmon runs to Idaho's Salmon River drainage. History has proven that barging the juvenile salmon down the river does not work. Common sense demonstrates that flushing the juvenile salmon through the slackwater will not work. Itís time for the U.S. government to keep its promise that the salmon will not be sacrifice to the dams. Itís time for political leaders like Governor Kempthorne to insist that the U.S. government keep its promise to Idaho, and give us back our salmon. It is time to remove the four dams, before it is too late.

Related Links:
Donovan Bramwell Campaign Page


Donovan Bramwell, candidate for U.S. Congress
Remove the Dams to Restore Idaho's Salmon
A Position Paper October 2000

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