Northwest is asked to give up 18 dams

  • Andy Kerr

    Elizabeth Feryl
  • Aluminum smelter above the Jon Day Dam on the Columbia River

    Ross Hamilton

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.

"Many people 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.

No one, 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 dams.)

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.

According to 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.

(The aluminum 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 down.)

"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."

Few 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 the region.

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 federal subsidies.

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 plans.

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 implemented.

A federal team is preparing a fourth plan, and it too will emphasize barging. Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus doesn't think it will work.

"It's bull! Look at the numbers. They've been barging fish for 17 years, and the salmon are nearly extinct."

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 the salmon.

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 runs.

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 says.

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 revenues.

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.

Aluminum's biggest booster may be House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane, Wash., who has several smelters in his district.

The 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 reform

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 1995.

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 tailspin.

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 tons.

"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 electricity.

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 total.

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 resource.

"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 says.

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 system."

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 reality.

"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."

Paul Koberstein is a free-lance reporter in Portland, Oregon. A version of this article appeared in Willamette Week.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Recycling cans changes an industry

- Damnable dams

- Some dams self-destruct

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