PORTLAND, Ore. – Congress is tiring of shelling out millions to save Snake River salmon, and the four dams there should be breached to help the runs and free the money for alternative energy and to protect river users, two former governors said Friday.
“What is at stake here goes far beyond the issue of salmon and dams and the regional economy,” former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber told the Portland City Club.
Government agencies, meanwhile, defended the dams and said efforts to save salmon are getting results.
“The simple question is not whether we breach these four Snake River dams,” Kitzhaber said, but whether there is a regional desire to restore the health of the Columbia River ecosystem.
“A highly degraded ecosystem, which is where we are headed today, represents at best an implicit decision to mortgage the legacy with which we have been blessed, for our own short-term economic benefits,” he said.
“I want to leave you with a sense of urgency of this issue. We’ve been grappling with it for 15 years now,” said Bruce Babbitt, the Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton and a former governor of Arizona.
He said that, after billions of dollars, “The game is just about up.”
“In the time that we’ve been spending this money, the Snake River coho salmon have become extinct. The sockeye salmon has become functionally extinct. There is no way to justify such spending for those results,” Babbitt said.
“There is an alternative but we don’t have much time,” he added.
He said the $600 million to $700 million a year spent to help the salmon runs could be used to help farmers get their grain to market by improving the rail system and guaranteeing fair shipping rates.
Babbitt said the dams generate only 5 percent of the power of the Bonneville Power Administration grid and about 2 percent of the power used in the Pacific Northwest.
“Do we really want to conserve that margin of power and sacrifice the wild salmon?” he asked.
River Partners, a business and farm conglomerate that opposes dam removal, said the four dams generate enough power to take care of a city the size of Seattle and reduce reliance on imported oil and natural gas.
Kitzhaber said dam construction in the Columbia Basin made sense at the time but that nobody considered the potential downside to the economic benefits.
Dam removal is not the only option but it is a responsible one that should not be dismissed out of hand, Kitzhaber said.
“There is no doubt that we can move ahead with salmon recovery without breaching the dams,” he said. But he warned that it will not be cheaper or easier.
Kitzhaber said degraded habitat, poor hatchery practices and agricultural problems add to the problem.
But he said removal of the four dams is, for the salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, “the single most beneficial action we can take.”
He said competing economic interests have blocked solutions but that everything must be considered.
NOAA Fisheries, the Army Corps of Engineers and BPA defended the dams.
They said in a joint statement Friday that a seven-year study evaluated four alternatives to help Snake River fall chinook get through the dams.