Slide background

Restoring the Lower Snake River

LMT.barge.photoBy Rocky Barker

March 5, 2015

Jim Waddell is walking the path blazed by McCall biologist Don Chapman.

Waddell, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers economist, now says the agency's 1999 calculations - released in final form in 2002 - on the cost and benefits of the four lower Snake River dams in Washington were wrong. Breaching the dams, he says, was the most economically sound route for the Pacific Northwest, not gold-plating the dams with fish-passage devices, new electric-generating turbines, new locks and repeated, regular dredging.

Chapman is a former University of Idaho fisheries professor who went from beloved mentor for a generation of fisheries biologists to become the hydroelectric industry's most respected defender in the 1990s. He said until 2005 that the fish-bypass systems were adequate, until it became clear that the rising temperature of the Columbia River and its tributaries and the effects of global warming on ocean conditions made breaching those dams the best hope for Idaho's wild salmon to survive or flourish.

It's a decade later and little has changed. Cyclical Pacific Ocean conditions - cold currents that increase the availability of food and keep predator numbers low - have allowed salmon and steelhead numbers to balloon since 2000, when the decision was made to forgo breaching despite the scientific consensus of the time. Fish-passage devices at the dams and increased spill of water over the dams ordered by a federal judge to aid migration have helped boost salmon populations, as have a host of other costly actions throughout the watershed.

But the overall scientific argument has changed very little. The science continues to show that breaching the four dams is the most effective way to restore salmon in what is the best, healthiest habitat left in the Pacific Northwest: Central Idaho.

Some biologists do believe recovery of the endangered stocks of salmon can happen simply with more water spilled over the dams instead of run through the turbines. But they remain a minority. An even smaller group thinks the status quo is enough, and they are backed, largely, by the dams' barging, hydroelectric, irrigation and industrial interests.

The truth is, neither the science nor the Corps' economic numbers in 2000 were significant to the debate. Instead, politics ruled the day.

The Clinton administration decided it could concentrate on forcing ranchers and farmers to restore water to salmon spawning tributaries throughout the region and defer breaching. Because both Washington and Oregon were battleground states in the presidential race between then-Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, a no-breaching decision peeled off independent agriculture votes from Republicans. Gore lost anyway.

Now it's 15 years later and the Port of Lewiston and other lower Snake River ports have dramatically lost business. Trains are taking cargo overland to the Puget Sound instead of barges down the Columbia to Portland. The nation has spent billions on the dams that could have been spent otherwise.

Science and economics have never been the driving force in this debate. Our cultural ties to the federal dams and to the power, barging, irrigation and even recreation they bring overrode the region's fiscal conservatism and anti-government sentiment.

This will continue until conditions in the Pacific Ocean cycle again and salmon numbers plunge again. Then maybe we will listen to what Chapman and Waddell are trying to tell us.

Read the companion story to Rocky’s column here.

Share This