Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has said he wants to blow up a dam. Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council aims higher: He wants 18 dams destroyed across Oregon, Idaho and Washington - a drastic measure intended to save salmon runs now teetering on the edge of extinction.
believe dams are engineering wonders that provide cheap
electricity, irrigation and drinking water and flood control," says
the council's 24-page study, titled Damnable Dams. "We are taught
from an early age that dams are awesome examples of people's
ability to control nature. The truth is, dams are all of those
things - and unfortunately, a lot more."
Experts often cite overfishing, agricultural abuses and the
destruction of spawning beds by logging as reasons for the decline
of the mighty salmon, a species once so bountiful in the Northwest
that it was treated as a trash fish. But the same experts almost
always place the primary blame on dams - the engineering marvels
that have provided the Northwest with abundant, cheap and clean
energy. And since 1992, when certain runs of chinook and sockeye
salmon were placed on the endangered species list, pressure to do
something about the dams has escalated.
however, has gone so far as Kerr - to propose that 18 dams be torn
down or never built. Nor has anyone gone the next step either, as
Kerr has, by suggesting a way the region could accommodate the loss
of the dams' electricity.
Kerr, a 38-year-old
ONRC political operative whose rounding belly and graying beard and
hair make him resemble a spotted owl, says we should simply close
the aluminum industry's 10 giant smelters located in Oregon,
Washington and Montana.
Kerr's proposal would
create an energy surplus since the region's aluminum smelters
consume more than twice the power produced by the dams that Kerr
has put on his hit list. (The dams on his list do not include such
Columbia River behemoths as the Bonneville and The Dalles
Forty-three percent of the aluminum made
in this country is manufactured in the Northwest; in turn, the
aluminum industry is the single largest user of electricity in the
region. It consumes more than one-fifth of the region's power - but
pays reduced electricity rates.
Tacoma economist Jim Lazar, the average household in the Northwest
pays $3.75 a month to subsidize the aluminum industry's electricity
rates. Eliminating the dams and smelters, Kerr says, makes
environmental and economic sense.
companies have not always enjoyed a subsidized rate for their
power. The rate is pegged to the world price of aluminum; when the
price goes down, the rate goes
"This is a radical
proposal," Kerr acknowledges. "But just because it is radical does
not mean it is not reasonable. The aluminum industry is killing
salmon. We ought to let the dinosaur die."
think Kerr's proposal has a chance. But that is not because the
plan is based on bad science. Most experts agree that, on
scientific grounds, the proposal has great merit. The trouble with
Kerr's plan is it violates the political and economic status quo of
Kerr's struggle to save the salmon
has striking similarities to his earlier fight to save the northern
spotted owl. To Kerr, both cases involve the declining stock of a
species that has been ravaged by an industry that receives enormous
Everything so far has failed
It's not that there
haven't been efforts to save the salmon. In the past 12 years, for
example, the Northwest Power Planning Council, an interstate
planning agency that is supposed to oversee the Bonneville Power
Administration, has supervised the spending of more than $1.3
billion in taxpayer and ratepayer money on three salmon recovery
By any measure, the first two failed,
and few give the third - a plan that would barge fish around dams
and marginally increase river velocities - much of a chance. This
third plan, enacted in December 1991, has yet to be fully
A federal team is preparing a
fourth plan, and it too will emphasize barging. Idaho Gov. Cecil
Andrus doesn't think it will
"It's bull! Look at the
numbers. They've been barging fish for 17 years, and the salmon are
Instead, Andrus wants to
drawdown the reservoirs during salmon migration season. That would
turn the reservoirs temporarily into quasi rivers, carrying the
fish more swiftly downstream.
But the cost of
rebuilding the dams would be immense - $1 billion to $5 billion -
and the Army Corps of Engineers says drawdowns still might not help
Kerr and the ONRC believe that
Andrus is on the right track, but hasn't gone far enough.
Kerr says a number of dams need to be fully
drained, turning their reservoirs back into rivers. The latest
computer models at the Northwest Power Planning Council and the
Bonneville Power Administration suggest he may be right. The
computers say allowing the Snake River to flow naturally is the
most reliable and least risky way to revive its threatened salmon
But last October the team that is
preparing the fourth recovery plan rejected the natural river
option without serious analysis.
"There is no way to return to
the natural river without major cultural changes in the region,"
the team's report says.
Kerr claims that the
only act necessary to return the river to a partially natural state
would be to end subsidies to the aluminum industry - and watch it
go belly up.
"We can still
produce a hell of a lot of power and still save the fish," he
Ever since the beginning of World War II
and the birth of the nation's airplane and shipbuilding industry,
the aluminum industry has been a force to be reckoned with in the
Northwest. Though now less a factor than in its prime, the
Northwest aluminum industry today employs about 8,000 workers at
middle-class wages and generates about $2.5 billion a year in
It is owned by such household names
as Reynolds and Alcoa, companies whose campaign contributions help
U.S. senators such as Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Slade Gorton of
Washington and Larry Craig of Idaho.
biggest booster may be House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane, Wash.,
who has several smelters in his district.
industry's clout has gained it subsidized power prices. Over the
next two years, for example, BPA expects to sell more than $1.4
billion worth of juice to the smelters but get paid barely $1
billion for it. As a result of this and other factors, BPA itself
is in a financial straitjacket. Over the last two years, the power
agency lost $750 million, and its annual revenue shortfalls could
reach $800 million within a few years.
Industry needs welfare
BPA is now promising welfare reform for
the aluminum industry. Current contracts with the smelters run
through 2001, but the agency may not be able to carry the industry
that long. BPA spokeswoman Dulcy Mahar says the agency is reviewing
all its rates. The cheap rates paid by the aluminum companies, she
says, "are on the table" and could increase in late
Despite the current rate discount, the
industry is struggling. Rising aluminum exports from the former
Soviet bloc are flooding the world market, forcing prices into a
Six years ago, the price of aluminum
shot above $1.10 a pound. At that time, the Soviet Union exported
200,000 metric tons of aluminum annually. Today the price hovers
around 50 cents a pound, while exports from the former Soviet Union
exceed 1.6 million
"Anyone you ask in the
industry will tell you the next year or two will be key to our
survival," says Jim Dwyer, a spokesman for the Intalco smelter near
Bellingham, Wash., the Northwest's single largest user of
For one plant near Portland,
however, economics have already spelled the end of business. Since
1991, the Troutdale Reynolds Metals Co. - which at its peak in 1980
employed almost 1,000 workers - has been closed.
Other smelters are moving quickly to cut their
losses. In January, Reynolds (owner of the Longview smelter) cut
production nationwide by 10 percent, laying off 800 workers. It
declared losses of about $200 million for the fourth quarter of
1993. Alcoa (which has a plant in Wenatchee) took a $70 million
loss last quarter and laid off 1,600. Recycling has also compounded
the industry's troubles. Every year, the United States recycles 60
billion aluminum cans, or about 70 percent of the
Confronted with a subsidized,
electricity-guzzling industry that contributes to the destruction
of an entire species, Kerr says the solution is clear: pull the
dams, remove the subsidies and watch the aluminum industry collapse
under its own weight. To his supporters, Kerr is an environmental
Dr. Kevorkian, helping to put an ailing industry out of its misery
and conserve a valuable
"Where are you going
to replace the aluminum smelters and the high-paying jobs?"
Intalco's Dwyer asks. "Another factory discount mall?"
Others, including economist Lazar, doubt the
idea will ever win public support. "Don't waste my time talking
about removing dams," Lazar says. "You're not going to tear down
those dams. Because the public doesn't value the fish that much.
That's why not."
The idea could spark a
congressional backlash against the Endangered Species Act. Last
summer, House Speaker Foley said the high cost of saving salmon is
a good reason to weaken the act when it comes up for
reauthorization this year or next. "I think the act needs to have
some element of review so that other values in addition to
protection of species can be considered," Foley
Even Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Eugene
Democrat who headed a task force that recently examined the salmon
issue, would be skeptical, an aide says. "Our operating assumption
at this point is that neither the region nor the federal government
or anyone else is going to choose to remove dams from the Columbia
But some environmentalists agree with
Kerr, including Bill Bakke, conservation director of Oregon Trout.
"These dams were built without regard for fish," he says. "If you
are going to restore the ecosystem, it may well be the logical
conclusion is to remove some of these dams. But I would caution
Kerr not to quit there. If we don't control other causes of
mortality we aren't going to get anything of value back."
Kerr is undeterred and points out that the
obstacles he faces are similar to the ones he faced in the timber
industry - a changing economy, a threatened species and an
unwillingness of people to come to grips with
"My job is to speak
for the fish, because they can't speak for themselves," Kerr says.
"The question is: What is necessary to save the fish, and do we
want to pay the price? If society doesn't want to do that, they can
make that choice. But I'm not going to sugar-coat it."
Koberstein is a free-lance reporter in Portland, Oregon. A version
of this article appeared in Willamette