Dams in the Ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest

One of the main things missing from the debate over the impacts of dams on salmon is a social accounting of the costs and benefits of dams. Fishery managers have no incentive to measure benefits of dams. Their efforts go into attempts to quantify economic benefit from fisheries. The environmentalists focus on accounting for costs of the dams, and release “studies” like River of Red Ink, purporting to show the dams are a losing proposition. This seems pretty unlikely, since the Bonneville Power Administration sends a check to the Washington, D.C. Treasury of almost a billion dollars a year.

Though few people think about it, one key advantage of the dams is an environmental one. Hydropower is a substitute for thermal power—burning things. By attacking hydropower, salmon advocates have forced a huge fuel-switching exercise, requiring utilities to burn fossil fuels that are asserted to cause global warming. (Attacking hydropower has had the side effect of encouraging a competitive market in electricity, also anathema to environmentalists, by creating huge bulges in supply during the spring.)

Fish advocates have so successfully demonized hydropower that government promotion of "renewable" energy resources does not extend to hydropower. Government consideration of plans to remove Snake River dams that generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to supply 300,000 homes—is now serious front page news in the Pacific Northwest.105 Few people remember that the Northwest Power Planning Council already eliminated 27 percent of potential hydropower production by declaring in 1988 that huge sections of the Columbia River Basin would be “protected areas” where no hydropower dams can be built.106 The Bonneville Power Administration enforces the Council’s decision by refusing to transmit any electric power generated by projects constructed in protected areas.

My personal experience with environmentalists who were utterly blind to the environmental consequences of their attack on dams came in making a speech at the Northwest School of Law at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. In the speech, I explained how warmer temperatures had driven the salmon north to Alaska, and speculated that if global warming theories were correct, they were unlikely to come back at all. Dan Rohlf, a panel member on the faculty of the Law School and frequent litigant in salmon lawsuits, asked me what my clients were doing about the global warming problems. Unable to contain my glee, I told him that we were making an enormous contribution through our struggle to maintain hydropower generation on the Columbia River Basin, much to the amusement of the audience.

Environmentalists often claim that conservation can substitute for power production, but this is a pipe dream. No matter how successful conservation is, the Pacific Northwest is going to require very substantial amounts of electric power. Apart from effects on salmon (but not shad and many other fish), dams offer the cleanest, safest means of generating that power. Decisions to reduce power production at dams are decisions to drill oil and gas wells, dig coal mines, manufacture large quantities of electric generation equipment, and build new power plants.

I can imagine how people might think about taking out dams if such actions would actually bring back salmon in truly historic numbers. But when the best and the brightest fishery scientists frankly acknowledge that the Columbia River hydropower system does not limit the recovery of salmon,107 it is hard to fathom why we are spending millions of dollars considering dam removal. The best and brightest, however, are ignored; the media simply reports, over and over and over again, that the dams are “considered by most scientists to . . . block salmon recovery efforts”.108

105 J. Brinckman, “Army Corps considers removing dams”, The Oregonian, Nov. 9, 1996.

106 T. Palmer, The Snake River 195-96.

107 See, e.g., J. Williams, G. Matthews & J. Myers, “The Columbia River Hydropower System: Does It Limit Recovery of Spring/Summer Chinook Salmon?”, at 20 (Their answer: “Most probably not.”).

108 J. Brinckman, “Panel gets Kitzhaber’s hard stand on salmon”, The Oregonian, Aug. 6, 1997, at A1.

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