Idaho Falls Weighs In on Saving Salmon
by Jennifer Langston
Like most farmers, Jerry Scheid grew up in an era when people thought dams could do no wrong.
They provided new sources of power and cheap electricity, gave farmers reliable irrigation water and created reservoirs where people could boat and fish.
But the local farmer - breaking ranks with most of his counterparts - told government officials Tuesday night he wants them to remove four dams on the Snake River in Washington state.
He was one of 440 people who turned out to hear about the federal government's options for restoring the Northwest's decimated salmon and steelhead runs.
In the first hour and a half of public testimony, those in favor of dismantling the dams - Shoshone-Bannock tribal members, outfitters, environmental activists, fishermen and regular citizens - outnumbered those who defended them 3 to 1.
With 90 people wanting to speak, the meeting was expected to run past midnight.
Scheid, 63, who grows wheat and potatoes west of Idaho Falls, said the Endangered Species Act and tribal treaties make it clear real efforts must be made to save the fish.
He thinks that's important, since he's got fond memories of hauling his bedroll, fishing gear and groceries on horseback to the Middle Fork of the Salmon to try to catch one.
He also thinks that if the dams aren't sacrificed, the government will require eastern Idaho farmers to give up more of their irrigation water to help move young salmon downstream faster.
"I think we've studied the question long enough," he said. "If we don't breach the dams, we'll see increased demands for more and more water to increase streamflows ... and I think that could be an immense threat."
Federal officials stressed that finding ways to save the fish won't be easy, and they urged everyone who lives in the region to look for common ground.
The debate so far has largely focused on what should happen to four lower Snake River dams in Washington State. The Corps of Engineers is studying ways to make the dams less lethal to fish traveling downstream to the ocean.
The options include barging more fish around the dams, making improvements to dams to boost fish survival, or removing parts of the dams and restoring the river to more natural flows.
A coalition of federal agencies is also taking a broader view, asking for input on strategies to restore habitat, reduce harvests or change hatchery production.
"The problem is not just the Snake River dams," said Lt. Col. Bill Bulen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that operates the dams. "It's much bigger than that ... and there is no single silver bullet solution to solve these problems."
Eastern Idahoans were particularly concerned about pressure from constituents in other states to use Idaho's irrigation water to flush fish downstream.
The agencies haven't made a decision on whether that's necessary or how much water might be required. Last year the Bureau of Reclamation studied using an additional million acre feet and found that could dry up farms and put up to 1,200 eastern Idahoans out of work.
Del Raybould, who farms in Madison and Fremont counties, said Idaho has already been sending water downriver, and it's done nothing to help the fish.
Raybould and other local irrigators also opposed something as drastic as breaching the dams. The government needs to consider the impacts of climate change and ocean conditions, predators and harvesting, they said. They said it would be foolish to take down the dams without proof it will work.
Taking more eastern Idaho water would create "intolerable" economic losses and could destroy the region's rural culture, Raybould said. He said his family dug canals and cleared sagebrush to carve farms out of eastern Idaho.
"Don't tinker with such a fragile segment of our economy," he said. "It's my heritage as well as others that has a stake with the decisions you might make."
Jerry Myers, who lives in Salmon and guides on the river, said there are 30 to 40 businesses in that small mountain town - from air charter services to grocery stories to outfitters - that depend upon remaining steelhead runs.
He said while people talk about losses to the farming and shipping industries if the dams are breached, nobody seems to care about the 2,700 jobs in Idaho that will be lost if the steelhead go extinct.
"Idaho salmon and steelhead fishermen have shouldered the devastation that these dams have given us," he said. "We don't see these dams as valuable ... but as mistakes."
Vern Johnson, who caught his first salmon on a gaff hook in 1944, brought the last big fish he caught to demonstrate what's been lost since the dams were built in the 1960s and '70s.
Before the dams were built and the runs declined, the fish were so thick they'd slap into your knees and knock you down in the riffles, said the 69-year-old Shelley resident.
His 45-pound stuffed monster is starting to decay around the gills after sitting on the wall for two decades. He pulled it out of the Elbow Hole on the Middle Fork in 1978, the last year salmon runs could support a widespread fishing season in Idaho.
Johnson said if the region's politicians won't do what's necessary to bring the fish back, he hoped to erect a bronze memorial on the Salmon River with their names, to remind future generations who was responsible.
"They can either take a stand now and be a giant, or leave the dams in place ... and the world is going to know who the people are that allowed these fish to go away."
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