By Sara Patton and Karen Garrison
In his March 4 Soapbox column (Lower Snake dams benefit environment”), Brett Blankenship of the Washington Wheat Growers Association delivers a valid but very one-sided assessment of the environmental pluses offered by four Eastern Washington dams. We need clean energy and efficient transportation, and we can have them – even without the dams.
We also need salmon and if we keep the dams, we lose salmon. When salmon fail to bring their gift of nutrients inland from the sea, nature’s complex web of life can unravel with unexpected and sometimes shocking results.
When salmon arrived in British Columbia’s Wanuk River in record low numbers last fall, a local grizzly bear population was forced to turn to a nearby tribal village. Village residents, who in years past welcomed the animals’ annual trek to the river, were confronted this January by starving, aggressive grizzlies rummaging through their homes and properties in search of food. Wildlife officials and tribal members were forced to shoot and kill 14 bears. The depletion of Northwest salmon has also impoverished many other species that once thrived in the Snake River watershed.
It’s true the four lower Snake River dams generate electricity without producing air pollution. But they do it at a terrible price. Independent scientists, the fish and wildlife departments of Washington, Oregon and Idaho and scientists at the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife have pegged the dams as the main culprit in the demise of Snake River salmon. They go further to say removing the earthen portions of the dams is the only way to bring the fish back to healthy levels.
Science tells us that removing the dams is the most certain way to restore endangered salmon. As important is what dam removal would mean for our economy and our environment. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Northwest Energy Coalition recently completed a study that shows the power from the dams can be replaced cleanly and affordably. Together, energy conservation and new renewable resources such as wind power can replace the dams for about the same price as building new power plants or buying electricity on the open market.
Dam removal also means finding an alternative for farmers who ship goods by river barge. Fortunately, an environmentally responsible and affordable alternative exists. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual Transportation Energy Data Book, shipping by train can actually consume less energy per ton of goods than shipping by barge and can do so at a competitive price. Semi-trucks are already used to transport goods from farms throughout the Inland Empire to shipping ports along the Snake river. Dam removal might increase the total number of highway shipping miles required by some farms but would put few if any additional trucks on our roads.
Blankenship correctly asserts that a successful salmon restoration strategy must look past the dams to other causes of salmon declines. The National Marine Fisheries Service looked at alternatives that leave the dams in place. It found the aggressive efforts to reform hatcheries, improve harvest practices and restore habitat would keep wild salmon from going extinct, but would not do enough to build them hack up to thriving levels. Dam removal is not magic, but it costs less than the alternatives and is unavoidable if Snake River salmon are to be anything more than a museum piece.
Most large dams, like the four on the Snake River, were built when smog-belching coal plants were the alternative for meeting our power needs. Today, we can turn to state-of-the-art energy-saving techniques and clean, renewable power plants. Farmers can get their goods to market without barges, as they did before the last of the four dams was completed in 1975. On balance, the dams no longer make sense. We can afford to take them out and make the transition to a free-flowing lower Snake River–salmon can afford nothing less.
March 18, 2000