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Environmental group leader debates dams

Seattle News-Tribune
December 6, 2009

KENNEWICK -- Getting rid of the Snake River dams could ignite regional interest in diversifying energy development and support for spending billions of dollars to upgrade highways and railroad systems for more efficient transportation of wheat overseas, the conservation director of American Rivers argued Friday.

Michael Garrity of the environmental group's Seattle office told members of the Columbia Basin Badger Club at its Kennewick luncheon that economic distress created by breaching the dams to benefit endangered salmon and steelhead has potential offsets, including rekindling support for nuclear power.

"Advantages of removing the dams, if done carefully and properly, would outweigh the disadvantages. It's smart for the community and the fish," said Garrity of American Rivers' Pacific Northwest region.

He said taking out dams would improve sport fishing, bring more certainty for commercial fishermen who depend on consistently strong salmon runs and reduce flood risk for Lewiston caused by accumulations of the silt backed up by the dams.

Having no dams also would decrease pressure on south Idaho irrigators to send water south for greater fish-friendly flows.

With no dams, there also would be "an incentive to diversify energy development," including the potential for nuclear, and a reason to invest billions into improving railroads and highways. The transportation improvements would be essential to replace the loss of barging on the Snake River.

"Diversifying the energy, improving transportation and extending irrigation pipes to the river could offset the negatives," Garrity said.

Badger Club members peppered him with questions, asking how to manage the silt accumulated behind the dams, which would pollute spawning areas for years, and whether breaching would open the river to invasive species and salmon predators.

Garrity agreed there are hard questions, but said that's why dam removal needs to be thoroughly studied.

In addition to the loss of barging, which moves wheat from as far away as the Dakotas to Asian markets beyond Portland, taking out the dams would eliminate about 1,000 megawatts of power generation and would lower water intakes for irrigators whose pipes draw from reservoirs behind the dams.

Garrity said the challenge is to determine the best way to manage the lower Snake River.

"We are trying to restore three out of four salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia Basin," he said, noting the key appears to be removing the dams so fish can more easily migrate to pristine habitat on the Snake River in Idaho.

Garrity said there would have to be a "show of good faith ahead of time" on the transportation improvements.

And if growers face financial losses from increased transportation costs because barging goes away, Garrity said perhaps fishery improvements money could be used to make up the deficits.

"Would you be willing to actually promote the building of nuclear power to replace the loss of power from the dams?" asked Badger member Lee Scott.

"I personally would be willing to put that on the table," said Garrity, who added that there probably are others in American Rivers who might differ with him.

Debbie Bone-Harris of the Franklin Public Utility District asked why having a campaign to stop fishing can't be considered as a way to help salmon recovery. Garrity said the benefit would be limited because only one of four species listed as endangered is caught by commercial fishermen.

Ernie Boston, a Port of Pasco commissioner, wondered why even discuss dam removal when so many public agencies, a federal judge and tribal groups have agreed to terms of the 2008 Biological Opinion as a way to save endangered fish.

"We need to get to a place where we don't need a bi-op anymore," Garrity said.

Linda Boomer, a Port of Kennewick commissioner, asked whether American Rivers considered the potential carbon dioxide increase that would come with rail and road transportation to replace the loss of barging.

That is a consideration, Garrity said.

* John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

 
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