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Washington View: Breaching Snake dams will hurt economy

Tuesday, May 30, 2006
DON BRUNELL for The Columbian

It must be nice to be a judge. If you don't like the law, you can make new public policy and hand down rulings with no consideration of the consequences.

At least that's how it seems in the wake of U.S. District Judge James Redden's most recent decision. It should come as no surprise because Redden's rulings have consistently attempted to set public policy rather than interpret it.

On May 23, Judge Redden rejected a carefully crafted multi-agency plan to operate 22 federal dams on Idaho's Upper Snake River in a way that protects salmon. Redden sent federal officials back to the drawing board with a not-too-subtle hint to come back with a plan that includes removing four dams on the lower Snake River.

In 2004, Redden ruled that the government's plan for making hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake and Columbia safe for salmon violated the Endangered Species Act because it didn't consider removing the dams. It ignores the fact that barging young salmon around dams is a proven way to enhance salmon and steelhead runs. Thankfully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency charged with protecting marine mammals like salmon-devouring sea lions, is appealing Redden's ruling.

Referring to that earlier ruling, the judge wrote in his latest opinion that NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration "have failed to demonstrate a willingness to put the needs of salmon first."

While environmental activists hailed the decision, all four members of the Idaho delegation issued a joint statement saying Redden's ruling showed "blatant disregard for the critical needs of the Northwest" and accused Redden of "clearly advocating for one side while ignoring the necessary balance between people and the environment." While the judge may not be concerned about the consequences of removing the four lower Snake River dams, others are.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that breaching the dams would increase electricity bills for Northwest ratepayers by $300 million, add $40 million to transportation costs, eliminate 37,000 acres of prime irrigated farmland, wipe out 2,300 jobs, and cut personal income by $278 million a year.

The Corps says the lion's share of the impact would fall on Eastern Washington and the Columbia Basin. Entire farming communities dependent on irrigated cropland could disappear.

There's more. Because the Snake River dams include a lock system that allows barge freight from Lewiston to the Pacific Ocean, goods that are shipped by barge would have to be shipped by truck or rail. The Port of Clarkston points out that one barge carries the equivalent grain of 37.5 railroad hoppers and 150 semi-trucks with 25 ton capacities. That means the state would have to invest billions for new roads and rail lines if the dams are breached.

Sea lions, terns imminent threats

While Judge Redden seems fixated on breaching the dams to save the salmon, he is apparently unconcerned about the impact that federally protected terns and sea lions have on salmon runs. Thousands of terns nesting on manmade islands in the Columbia River feast on millions of salmon smolts each year, while sea lions gorge on thousands of adult salmon as far upriver as Bonneville Dam. And that doesn't count the millions of salmon smolts devoured each year by Northern Pike, walleye, shad and small-mouthed and large-mouthed bass.

Redden also ignores the one factor that impacts salmon survival more than any other -- ocean conditions. Natural shifts in ocean temperatures that appear on predictable 30-year cycles affect salmon survival by as much as 50 percent. When ocean temperatures are cool along the lower West Coast, salmon thrive here while Alaskan salmon runs dwindle. When temperatures shift, Alaskan salmon runs thrive, while ours diminish. That is a phenomenon of nature, not of humans.

Judge Redden should broaden his perspective and not look at just one part of the problem. He also needs to consider the consequences of his decisions on people as well.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit www.awb.org.



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