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Know the West

An Idaho daily breaches the Northwest's silence over tearing down dams


The Idaho Statesman likes to think its editorials are felt far beyond the modestly populated Boise metropolitan area in southwestern Idaho where the paper is headquartered. We were never sure just how far, however, until recently.

That's when the six members of the editorial board, which includes the publisher, top editors and a community representative, called for tearing down four earthen dams downstream from Boise on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

In a three-day series of editorials called "Dollars, sense & salmon," the board concluded that allowing the river to function more like a river again would recover endangered salmon and steelhead, the majority of which now die during migration trying to get past the dams or through the slack-water reservoirs above them. A revived fishery would contribute significantly to the economy of Idaho and the Northwest.

The response was swift.

Some thought we were lunatics; after all, an entire economy has developed in the 22 years since the dams were completed, including a port at Lewiston, Idaho, some 400 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Others called us geniuses. The truth, I'm pretty sure, lies somewhere in between.

In a nutshell, here's what we said:

* Breach the four Lower Snake dams - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite - which currently create continuous slack water for about 140 miles from Lewiston, Idaho, to where the Snake joins the Columbia River near Pasco, Wash. Breaching would involve removing the earthen portions of the dams. The navigation locks and power turbines would remain in place but be unusable for now.

* Put a regional governance board - composed of state, tribal and federal representatives - in charge of river operations.

* Cut spending for salmon recovery efforts - $317 million in 1995 - to offset the costs of breaching (estimated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at $500 million) and lost power revenue from the non-functioning dams (which provide only 7 percent of the region's power-producing capacity). Full recovery of a wild fish population also would allow the closure of at least nine hatcheries, at a savings of $12.7 million a year.

* Invest some of the savings in economic development for the Lewiston-Clarkston area, which will be most hard hit by the loss of the reservoirs.

* Stop the harvest of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River for five years - one salmon life cycle - to allow fish populations to build quickly. Continue water quality and spawning habitat improvements.

Within a week, the Portland Oregonian, the Tri-City Herald in Pasco, Wash., and the Lewiston Morning Tribune in north Idaho all editorialized - predictably - on the other side. "Bad science. Bad economics. Bad timing. Bad politics. Bad neighbors. Bad stewardship. Bad biology," thundered the Tri-City Herald.

Some sympathized with our conclusion but said that political realities make breaching impractical. Since when is political reality the issue? The people of this nation overcame the deeply entrenched political realities of segregation more than 30 years ago to usher in a new era of civil rights because it was right. Surely we Americans can summon the will to do the right thing with four dams in eastern Washington.

Other downriver critics suggested that if we were so gung-ho for breaching, we should also support taking out Lucky Peak Dam, located 10 miles up the Boise River from the capital city.

Then see how you like breaching, they cried.

Our response is simple: Fine, let's take a look. Every dam should be able to withstand close scrutiny. The benefits should outweigh the costs. The environmental trade-offs should be well understood and widely accepted. The editorial board argued, for instance, that the four large hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River - Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary - are too important to the Northwest's growth and prosperity to lose, despite their problems for fish.

Still, critics charged that the Statesman has created a slippery slope that will lead to the removal of every last dam in the West. Wrong. We did a cold-eyed study of just four dams whose costs outweigh their benefits and whose removal offers a good chance to restore fish and jobs.

Breaching is good for Idaho and the region because:

* It will work, with science offering a high probability that economically useful numbers of fish could be restored in no more than 20 years.

* It will put money that now goes toward failed fish recovery and subsidies back into the pockets of taxpayers and electricity ratepayers.

* It will ultimately create a $248 million fishing-related economy, much of it in ailing rural communities hit hard by losses in timber and mining.

* It will lead to the removal of the fish from the Endangered Species Act list, which lightens the heavy hand of the federal government on loggers, miners, outfitters and ranchers.

* It will allow Idaho to keep more of its water for agricultural and other useful benefits instead of sending it downstream to flush fish through reservoirs; and

* It will restore balance to our environment and culture.

We believe we have put the dam issue where it belongs - squarely on the table of public debate. The editorials will have done their job if they move readers - everyday citizens - to pressure their political leaders for smart, bold action that is right for Idaho, the Northwest and the nation.

Susan Whaley of Boise has been an editorial writer at the Idaho Statesman for 10 years.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears with a sidebar, "Comment on the Idaho Statesman's editorial series."