Lower Snake dams block fish, progress
By Dustin W. Aherin
May 18, 2008
I live in Lewiston, upstream from the four lower Snake River dams. Over the decades since these dams went in, we've watched salmon and steelhead runs plummet. We've watched the federal government submit plan after plan to save salmon and keep the dams, to no avail.
A federal judge in Portland has thrown three out of the last four plans out. The federal agencies released a fifth plan this month, and this one, like the others, is not based on sound law or sound science. It, too, is likely to be thrown out.
Lost in the focus on salmon runs are the other problems created by the four lower Snake River dams: flood risk and economic uncertainty for Clarkston and Lewiston.
For more than 20 years I've watched the water level rise in the reservoir behind Lower Granite dam. Sediment flowing down from thousands of miles of river is accumulating in the reservoir flanking Clarkston and Lewiston. The river level is rising, the flood risk growing, and the levees built 30 years ago to protect downtown are now inadequate.
Decades ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers as a "future problem area" for sediment buildup. The future is here. The water level behind the levees is now higher than downtown Lewiston and nearing the top of the levees. With an enormous spring snowpack sitting up in the mountains, the safety concerns are abundantly clear.
The Army Corps has tried to focus public attention on preventing sediment from entering the reservoir and dredging. It is impossible to stop natural sediment coming off 32,000 square miles of land and economically unfeasible to dredge out the massive amount of material now deposited. The only two viable options are to raise the levees along the waterfront or remove the four lower Snake River dams.
Residents don't want higher levees. It could require raising bridges and highways, will disrupt popular walking paths and further isolate the town from its river. The second option – dam removal – requires us to face up to unfulfilled promises made to an earlier generation.
Lewiston has an ambivalent relationship with the lower Snake dams. My grandfather's generation believed these dams would be economic salvation for the town. But while other towns got highways, freeways and rail hubs, Lewiston got a seaport that greatly benefited some but has proven of limited use to most.
The dams keep Lewiston stuck in the mud. Town leaders want to develop the waterfront. But with a steadily rising river level, the prospect of raising levees and the growing pressure to remove the dams to restore salmon, Lewiston can't develop its waterfront with any certainty.
My father's generation worked hard to make the Corps' promise of an economic boon come true. But reality gave us a stagnating economy and an uncertain future. Barges are great for shipping wheat to Portland, but not ideal for getting many other goods to market. The seaport does not attract new businesses that could provide jobs and opportunity for Lewiston's residents. In a booming state, Lewiston's economy is stuck in low gear.
My generation is left to pick up the pieces. Many of us want to make a go of it in our hometown. It sits in a beautiful, temperate valley surrounded by great country. We should be able to attract new businesses and educated workers and keep talented young people from fleeing to larger cities. And an increasing number of us believe we can forge a prosperous path if we remove the lower Snake River dams.
With the Bush administration proposing to spend nearly $7 billion over 10 years on a recovery plan sure to fail, we could make a deal. Why not take a fraction of those billions and trade four outdated dams for improved railroads, highways and a revitalized waterfront? A modern transportation system in the region would benefit us all, including Spokane. Lewiston's future could be a restored river, a modern Western economy and a downtown centered on two of the most beautiful rivers in the West.
It's time for the Clarkston-Lewiston Valley to make a plan for its economy, its rivers and its future. But our future is stuck behind those dams. We need Senators Murray, Cantwell and Crapo to step up and lead an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of keeping four outdated dams versus restoring our river and our economy.
For more information, check out the Working Snake River Project.