Pros and Cons of Dam Removal

The most obvious problems with dam removal are not biological, but economic. Biologists generally agree that a river without dams is likely to improve the survival of salmon as they migrate upstream and downstream. They have no hard evidence of this, but they have a seemingly powerful intuitive argument on their side: these are the conditions under which the salmon evolved, so it certainly seems reasonable that the salmon would prosper by restoring those conditions. As noted above, however, only those in grips of Darwin's "deeply-seated error" give primacy to habitat in assessing the reasons for species abundance.

Natural rivers are not necessarily better for salmon, for two important reasons. First, as we have seen, the salmon that evolved to strive upstream through Cascade Rapids and over Celilo Falls no longer exist. Salmon now mature faster, and are much smaller. For all we know, today's salmon would be disadvantaged by removing reservoirs that are probably easier for them to navigate than the pre-dam obstacles to upstream passage.

More generally, just because a species evolved under one set of conditions does not mean that those conditions are optimal for the species. Cockroaches evolved in the jungle, but parts of New York City probably have a higher density of cockroaches per square foot than many jungles. Shad did not evolve in the Pacific Northwest at all, yet they thrive in the Columbia River. And fall chinook may do better in reservoirs.

Most biologists, even the members of the ISG, will admit to policymakers that there are no guarantees that removing dams will bring back the salmon. The Chair of the Snake River Salmon Recovery Team, Dr. Don Bevan, has said that the Recovery “Team doesn’t really see it as a good recovery method, but we’re willing to try a drawdown experiment if we can see a design that will provide some useful information. As yet, we haven’t seen an experimental design.”110 Since the death of Dr. Bevan, the Region continues to march toward drawdown with no idea how to measure whether it works or not.

Nor have any of the fishery agencies now trying to remove the dams attempted to assess what was achieved through the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan. The nine hatcheries included as part of that Plan have provided salmon, steelhead and other fish to mitigate for, and probably overmitigate for, the effects of dam construction. It seems doubtful whether removing the dams would generate as many fish as the hatcheries. But presumably the fishery agencies wish to have their cake and eat it too, by taking out the dams and running the hatcheries.

Removing the dams would impose large costs on the Pacific Northwest, with benefits that are utterly speculative. The entire upriver shipping industry, carrying billions of dollars of freight from as far up river as Lewiston, Idaho, would die at once. One-quarter of America’s feed grain and 35% of its wheat move down the river now.111 Indeed, 80% of the shipping is wheat, with each barge the equivalent of 33 rail cars or 144 tractor-trailer rigs.112 Forest products come in second.113 Most of the shipping is for export, contributing to the reduction of America’s trade deficit. As China and other developing countries import more and more grain, the Northwest is expected to become a major supplier through the Port of Portland.

Before the dams were put in, shipping rates were abominably high. As one historian explained:

“By the early 1930s products went by barge for 50 cents a ton from Duluth, Minnesota to Buffalo, New York, a distance of about a thousand miles. Boats towed freight from Kansas City to Chicago—approximately 550 miles—for $1.94 per ton. At the same time, farmers in the interior Northwest paid railroads $4.80 a ton to ship wheat to Portland or Seattle, a distance of less than four hundred miles.”114

It is no wonder that inland leaders fought for decades to get barge transportation up the Snake River.

And just as hydropower is one of the most environmentally-benign forms of energy generation, so too is barging one of the most environmentally-benign forms of shipping, using less energy per ton of freight moved than any other method. In addition to the barges, the reservoirs are used by a large fleet of recreational boaters. Recreational losses from drawing down the lower Snake reservoirs are estimated at $59 million a year.115

Although navigation interests have appeared before the Northwest Power Planning Council to explain that any drawdown would destroy their industry, the Council does not seem to be listening. Joyce Cohen, representing the State of Oregon, told them: “I would urge you all to continue this dialog, go back to your religion and figure out how much you can tithe without losing your fifteen percent margin . . .”.116 It was a perfect metaphor, because salmon worship has become a sort of state religion in the Northwest; drawdown is, like transubstantiation, to be accepted on faith. Promoters of the Great Salmon Hoax like Ms. Cohen can see nothing wrong in declaring that “a whole lot of folks are going to have to go back to the church and figure out what they can give”.117 Presumably, they would be horrified at aggressive state promotion of more conventional religions.

Many human communities depend upon the dams for their water supplies. Lower Snake Reservoirs irrigate 35,000 acres of land, and supply 16 facilities with municipal or industrial water supplies.118 The land along the Snake River is unique. “Geologists call this wind-deposited silt ‘loess’, and it forms an icing over the lava, a sensuous curving landscape of incredible fertility, topsoil over two hundred feet deep in places, some of the richest on earth.”119 Irrigation has turned the loess into highly productive farmland. Northwest citizens whose lives are largely invisible to the urban majorities in Seattle, Olympia, Portland, and Salem live and work on farms that will be destroyed if drawdown plans pass. And John Day Reservoir is “our last line of defense for flood control” downstream.120

As this book is being written, the fisheries bureaucrats are solidly behind the march towards drawdown. In its proposed Snake River Salmon Recovery Plan, the National Marine Fisheries Services declares that it "supports the 'normative river' concept", and regards "'technological solutions'" for salmon recovery as only an "interim" approach.121

The Governors of Oregon and Washington have their troops in legal battles promoting drawdown. Prodded by Oregon’s appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council, the Council has just “upped the ante” by calling for a study of drawing down the reservoir behind McNary Dam, which until March 1997 had never been formally proposed in any state or federal salmon recovery plan.122 At a meeting with federal and tribal officials on June 20, 1997, Oregon Governor Kitzhaber's chief salmon advisor, Roy Hemmingway, declared: "The key question here is how much of the hydroelectric system do we need to dismantle to restore fish and wildlife."123 Governor Kitzhaber shares his views, stating later in 1997 that "money would be better spent dealing with the economic dislocation caused by drawdown . . . That's where we've got to get."124

Oregon Senator Gordon Smith and Washington Senator Slade Gorton are perhaps the only political leaders willing to take a strong stand against drawing down reservoirs as the one true path to salmon recovery. Senator Smith stands behind his Eastern Oregon constituents and is one of the few Northwest public officials to publicly state his opposition to dam removal.125 Senator Gorton warns that "[l]egislation may well be needed in this area to assure that the multiple purposes of the Federal power system are protected together with the public benefits they bring".126

Montana politicians have pursued a strategy aimed at putting Montana reservoirs off-limits for flow augmentation, and appear willing to let Oregon and Washington take the lead on what happens to the reservoirs in their states.

Idaho’s Governor Phil Batt, under heavy pressure from Southern Idaho interests eager to make the drawdown deal, says “everything is on the table”,127 but tells his Northern Idaho supporters that Lewiston, Idaho ought to remain a port. Under Governor Batt’s stewardship, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game remains perhaps the single most aggressive promoter of dam removal efforts. Reporters constantly quote Idaho Fish and Game officials for the proposition that dam removal is “biologically, a no-brainer”.128

The Committee of Nine, formed in 1919 to settle water disputes among Idaho irrigators, is one of the most potent groups influencing Idaho policy.129 Unfortunately, the Committee seems to persist in the foolish belief that by sacrificing dams downriver, environmentalists in Idaho can be held at bay. Idaho Power Company, another major influence in Idaho policy, has managed to arrange things so that downriver ratepayers pay its Endangered Species Act compliance costs. Idaho Power Company has no quarrel with the drawdown strategy, which has successfully deflected attention from its Hell’s Canyon Complex.

In March 1997, the environmentalists served notice of their intention to bring suit under the Endangered Species Act to challenge operations of the Hell’s Canyon Complex and irrigation reservoirs in the upper Snake River, which may finally cause Idaho to recognize that its anti-science, anti-technology approach to salmon recovery could be counterproductive.

Promoters of the Great Salmon Hoax have begun to mount appeals outside the Pacific Northwest for dam removal, echoed in the Eastern media, asserting that “[t]he Northwest is paralyzed by big money . . . It would be nice if the rest of the country would save us from ourselves.”130 After the Idaho Statesman ran a series of editorials in support of breaching the four Lower Snake dams,131 the Washington Post proclaimed that the editorials "left some very large footprints and may have fundamentally altered the Pacific Northwest's ongoing debate over salmon".132 One newspaper closer to the dams had a different view: "Bad science. Bad economics. Bad timing. Bad politics. Bad neighbors. Bad stewardship. Bad biology."133

If the Northwest Establishment lines up behind dam removal, Congress will probably go along with it. It will be another $10 billion mistake, and it won’t bring salmon back. But people taken in by the Great Salmon Hoax will think progress is being made. And given the media’s bias, most people would never even remember that it didn’t work.

In most areas of the country, people might rely on the courts to stop irrational government conduct. When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Interior Department ordered the owners of a small hydroelectric dam in Maine to install fishways despite the absence of credible evidence that they would have much impact on fish populations. Judge Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia wrote:

There is little chance, however, that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the most-reversed court among the federal courts of appeals, will do anything to stop the Northwest policymakers from pursuing their Field of Dreams: the normative river.

110 Interview, Fisheries Forum Vol. 3(2), at 6 (May 1995).

111 B. Harden, A River Lost 25.

112 L. Mapes, “Dams key to area shipping”, The Spokesman-Review, Dec. 23, 1996; cf. T. Palmer, The Snake River 218 (110 rail cars)

113 Id.

114 K. Petersen, River of Life, Channel of Death 79.

115 Id.

116 Quoted in B. Rudolph, “Drawdowns Will Sink Barge Business, Council Hears”, Clearing Up, April 7, 1997, at 7.

117 Id.

118 L. Mapes, “Dams key to area shipping”, The Spokesman-Review, Dec. 23, 1996.

119 K. Petersen, River of Life, Channel of Death 33.

120 J. Noland, “Exceptional Water Year Could Mean Trouble, Corps Warns”, Clearing Up, Mar. 10, 1997, at 9.

121 NMFS, Draft Snake River Salmon Recovery Plan, at 66 (copy obtained October 1997).

122 USACE fisheries planning manager Witt Anderson, quoted in J. Brinckman, “Dam reservoir study proposed”, Mar. 14, 1997.

123 Quoted in "'Sovereigns' lobby for official role on Columbia-Snake", PNWA Nor'Wester, August 1997, at 3.

124 Quoted in J. Brinckman, "Salmon failure forces a hard look at dams", July 28, 1997.

125 See J. Mapes, “Smith tells City Club he’ll fight to keep Columbia dams”, The Oregonian, Dec. 14, 1996.

126 105 Cong. Rec. S12439 (Nov. 10, 1997) (daily ed.).

127 Quoted in L. Mapes, “Plan leaves 4 dams high and dry”, The Spokesman-Review, Dec. 22, 1996.

128 Ed Bowles is the most frequent source for this quote. See, e.g., L. Mapes, “Plan leaves 4 dams high and dry”, The Spokesman-Review, Dec. 22, 1996. Other IDFG dam removal advocates include Dave Cannamela. See L. Mapes, The Spokesman-Review, Sunday, July 28, 1996, at H10.

129 See T. Palmer, The Snake River 22.

130 Reed Burkholder, quoted in “New Plan for Rescuing the Salmon”, The New York Times, April 27, 1997.

131 See, e.g., "Lower Snake dams killing salmon, Idaho's economy", Idaho Statesman, July 20, 1997.

132 T. Kenworthy, "Salmon's New Ally Is Quite a Catch", Washington Post, Oct. 14, 1997, at A6.

133 The Tri-City Herald (Pasco, WA), quoted in id.

134 Bangor Hydroelectric Co. v. FERC, 78 F.3d 659, 664 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

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