In a rousing speech before the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society in February, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber became the first major political figure in the Pacific Northwest to back the breaching of four federal dams to recover dwindling salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River basin (HCN, 12/20/99: Unleashing the Snake).
Kitzhaber called breaching the four dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington a "responsible and cost-effective option."
"Some will say that we have not done enough science," he said. "I say that we can always play that card as an excuse for inaction and as a justification for avoiding tough choices. But exactly what additional scientific experiment is necessary to demonstrate that it is easier for salmon to migrate in a free-flowing river than to negotiate a several-hundred-foot-high concrete barrier?"
Kitzhaber's speech drew loud applause from fish advocates.
"This region's needed a leader on this issue," Liz Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association told the Oregonian. "Apparently, it's going to get one."
Other governors in the region criticized Kitzhaber, saying he has hurt the chances of a unified approach.
"It's unfortunate that Gov. Kitzhaber felt at this time he had to come forward and say that breaching is his option," said Mark Snyder, an aide to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "Gov. Kempthorne still wants to step forward and offer a regional plan that does not involve breaching."
Kitzhaber said he is open to a no-breach plan, but he warned that it would require aggressive and costly actions, including habitat restoration on private lands, radical limits on salmon harvest, and the acquisition of water rights to increase flows for migrating fish.
"We have to stop deluding ourselves ... that our choices will be easier and cheaper if we just leave the dams alone."