An edited excerpt from Chris Carlson’s new book, Medimont Reflections, about the idea of breaching Snake River dams – and the effect on Lewiston.
Ed Chaney has been correct all along. So has my Columbia classmate, Pat Ford. From their first appearances before the Northwest Power Planning Council in 1981, through all the intervening years in interviews, articles, lawsuits, and speeches, each has consistently said that the best science says and will always say that the only real solution to restoring native salmon and steelhead runs to their former state, as required by the Northwest Power Planning Act, is to breach the four lower Snake River dams.
Supporters of the status quo and of leaving the dams in place like to point out that in terms of sheer numbers of the various runs of returning salmon and steelhead, the count is up and still rising. This is of course due to the large amount of supplementing the runs with hatchery-raised fingerlings and smolts.
Chaney points out that one should only examine the numbers of wild fish, which continue to steadily decline.
Chaney and Ford believe the law as reflected by and through the Northwest Power Planning Act and the Endangered Species law requires the restoration of the wild runs of salmon and steelhead. They insist these runs represent a distinct and separate gene pool that is declining.
On the face of it, their contention the dams continue to damage and facilitate decline appears incontestable. Courts appear also to agree with them as they have successfully petitioned to have most of the so-called “Bi-ops” developed by the Corps, the Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration invalidated.
Breaching the dams is therefore the only measure not tried yet to restore and enhance the runs. What seals the deal, however, are the economic arguments for breaching the dams.
There are 31 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers which produce 60 percent of the region’s hydroelectricity. The power produced by the four lower Snake dams is about 1 percent of the overall production. BPA of course sells and distributes this power.
Due to the several laws guiding BPA’s management of this “federal base system,” the agency also funds and manages a fishery enhancement program whose goal is, as the law requires, protecting, mitigating and enhancing the runs.
In March, I asked the agency’s public communications office to provide me with an estimate of how much money they have expended to meet the law’s requirement for the 11-year period of 2002 through 2012.
The total number is a staggering $7.35 billion, or an average of $677 million a year, with little, if any, progress being made in enhancing and protecting the wild runs.
Subtract the breaching costs from that figure and cease funding all of the fruitless efforts underway and the region’s ratepayers would be billions ahead shortly.
The next unsound economical entity is the Port of Lewiston itself. Sold by its boosters that it was going to be the catalyst of an economic rebirth for Lewiston, it has been nothing of the sort. Boosters of the port sold Nez Perce County voters a bill of goods, saying that a local option sales tax would be short-lived and retired.
Fifty years later the tax is still on the books. Face it — the Port of Lewiston is a heavily subsidized operation that will never pay for itself. The citizens of Lewiston and Nez Perce County would be far better off shutting it down and supporting dam breaching as their preferred path back to real prosperity.
Another reason that should galvanize support for dam breaching is the likelihood of a 10-year flood event inundating Lewiston’s downtown core. In large part due to the rapid buildup of silt in and around the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers, water is already well above the street level in the downtown.
The levees constructed by the Army Corps were designed (there’s that engineering word again) to have a 7- to 8-foot margin above the anticipated highest level of the water. Today it is much closer to a 2- to 3-foot margin.
Meteorologists and other government agency forecasters, when pressed, will admit that a 10-year flood event, such as heavy snow in the mountains followed by a surge in temperature with a commensurate heavy rain that could bring most of the mountain moisture cascading down the Clearwater could easily inundate the city.
Lewiston City officials will also concede their ability to remove that amount of water is virtually nonexistent. For all practical purposes, the water would be trapped on the inside and it might take weeks to remove it by various siphoning methods. The damages would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and insurance would not begin to cover the rebuilding cost.
This is not a case of if; it is rather a matter of when.
The Corps response is to propose a massive dredging program for the next 50 years. By law the Corps is required to maintain a channel behind Lower Granite dam, just downstream from the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, that is 14 feet deep and 250 feet wide to facilitate barge access to the Port of Lewiston.
It’s not happening, folks.
Needless to say, the rapid accumulation of river-borne sediment will significantly add to the cost and the subsidies necessary to keep the port open and to operate the dams.
Kooskia resident and environmental activist Linwood Laughy estimates the 10-year cost of the taxpayer subsidy necessary to keep the port of Lewiston open would be $39 million — and the sedimentation accumulation would still continue.
He believes each fully loaded barge leaving the infrequently used Port of Lewiston leaves with a taxpayer subsidy of $19,000 reflecting the dredging and sediment management activities.
Virtually the only option left to comply with the Northwest Power Planning Act and the Endangered Species Act appears to be breaching and it is just a matter of time — unless of course those who want to save the dams can muster the political support to amend the Power Act and the ESA law. Such a prospect is highly unlikely.
So as a region let’s face up to the inevitable and get on with breaching the four dams.
A pure guess is that the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams would be somewhere between $500 million and $1.5 billion. This is a huge chunk of change, but still represents less than 20 percent of the costs incurred by BPA over the first decade of this century trying to enhance the native salmon and steelhead runs.
In this period of diminishing federal resources as the nation tries to get a handle on its deficit spending challenge, however, the cost benefits derived from adopting the last, best chance for real fishery enhancement are overwhelmingly compelling.
Add to that the cost avoidance of the flooding out of Lewiston and the elimination of shipping subsidies and breaching is a no-brainer.Share on Facebook