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US Northwest Torn Over Proposal To Remove Dams To Save Salmon - 2001-08-25

Bonneville Dam is on the Columbia River in the northwestern state of Oregon. It is one of 14 hydroelectric projects on the river that generate power, irrigate crops, and provide for barge traffic.

For six-decades, these dams have been the engine driving the growing economy of the Pacific Northwest.

But the dams are also fish killers. They block salmon from reaching their traditional spawning grounds and make it difficult for juvenile salmon to migrate downstream to the ocean.

A controversy is brewing in Oregon and the nearby state of Washington over whether to breach hydroelectric dams as part of an effort to save dwindling stocks of wild salmon. The divisive issue crystallizes the hard economic choices facing federal and state officials working to save populations of wild salmon threatened with extinction.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is one of the few public officials in the northwest willing to consider breaching some of the dams as part of an effort to save wild salmon. "Because if the salmon runs are not healthy, the fact is that our watersheds are not healthy," he said. "And if our watersheds are not healthy, then we have put our ecosystem at risk. And if that is true, then surely we have squandered our heritage and mortgaged our future."

Native American Indian tribes along the Columbia that have relied on the salmon runs for centuries also support dam breaching. Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, says the main targets are four dams on the Snake River, the main tributary that flows into the Columbia. "To restore fish, to restore salmon to harvestable levels, healthy levels in the Snake [River] Basin, you have to breach the lower Snake River Dams," he said.

But the hum of power lines near Bonneville Dam is a reminder of how controversial the dam breaching idea is.

Larry Cassidy is chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council. Like most public officials in the northwest, he sees little benefit from breaching or removing dams. "First of all, you have got the loss of power, which in this particular year is very important," he said. "Second of all, you have got communities dependent upon sending, by barge, their products down the Columbia-Snake [River] system for export to foreign markets."

Dam supporters say any attempt to remove the Snake River dams will erode public support for salmon restoration. "If people start understanding the cost associated with removing those dams on their daily livelihood, and so forth, I think you will quickly see public opinion about removing those dams go in the tank [drop sharply] because I do not think people want to take that step yet," said Tim Wigley, head of a group that represents the interests of Oregon's timber industry.

Federal officials in charge of the salmon restoration plan recognize how politically explosive the dam breaching issue is.

"They have basically told us, 'no way in hell that that is going to happen'. And we have been trying to determine what can we do, given that, what is the best thing that we can do for fish," noted Chris Toole, fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the lead agency in the salmon recovery effort.

The current federal salmon restoration plan keeps the four Snake River dams in place. But removing the dams remains an option if the wild salmon populations do not meet recovery projections during the next few years.

Oregon Governor Kitzhaber acknowledges there will be an economic cost to breaching dams to save the salmon. But he believes many in the northwest would accept the idea if it becomes necessary to save a symbol of the area's historic natural bounty.

"But this is not about sacrificing economic benefits for environmental health," he said. "It is about figuring out a way to work as a region to have both. That is the heart, the soul of the Oregon Plan for salmon and watershed restorations. To quote [writer] Wallace Stegner, it is about "outliving our origins" and "creating a society to match our scenery."

Just as the wild salmon are seen as a symbol of the northwest's natural heritage, the region's hydroelectric dams are a continuing reminder of the economic growth the area has experienced during the past 50 years. Finding a way for both to co-exist is likely to remain a major challenge for government, private industry and the public at large for years to come.