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Restoring the Lower Snake River

moscow.pullmanBy Lee Rozen, for the editorial board

May 26, 2017

Debate has been flowing back and forth for decades whether the four dams along the Lower Snake River produce more value in facilitating navigation and producing electricity than they cost in maintenance expenses and dead fish, especially wild salmon.

Fleets of experts on both sides argue their case articulately and passionately.

We - and the courts - have tended to look with greater skepticism at the arguments of dam proponents as barge traffic dwindles on the Snake, other sources of electricity come online and dam maintenance costs rise sharply. And the fish continue to die. skepticism finds some fishy arguments in another case that involves salmon, but no dams.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Washington state - to comply with its treaty obligations on Indian fishing rights - must fix or replace hundreds of big concrete or steel pipes that carry streams under highways, but do so in such a way that they block migrating salmon.

The state says this could cost $2 billion, some of the culverts won't ever see a fish, treaties with Indians don't require this and precedents could be set affecting many other states. As a result, it wants a rehearing before more of the 9th Circuit court.

It seems the arguments against helping the salmon here are much weaker than those over the Snake River dams. Culverts produce nothing. They just get water from one side of a road to another so the road doesn't dam up a stream or wash out in a rainstorm.

If in the process they stop salmon from migrating upstream or down, that seems like a solvable problem.

In 2013, a trial judge gave the state until 2030 to fix the problem - 17 years. If the $2 billion cost estimate isn't inflated, that's $118 million a year. The state Department of Transportation is already spending roughly $215 million a year on highway construction and maintenance. Obviously, there's not $118 million in there just to fix culverts.

The state and tribes would be better off - as would the salmon - if they were trying together to create more financially reasonable solutions one highway, one river system at a time, rather than spending another day in court.

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