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Salmon campaign by chefs skirts facts

Guest comment By Patricia Barclay, Capital Press 6/15/07

The ultimate elitist campaign, an effort by chefs to lobby for tearing out the Lower Snake River dams, has hit. Somehow, they think this will let them continue to serve wild Alaska salmon, mostly in San Francisco and Seattle.

I hope these chefs know how to cook better than they know geography or the facts about the fish they want to serve.

Wild Alaska salmon are not endangered and they don't pass Snake River dams. They return to upriver spawning grounds in Alaska. The fishery is strictly regulated, from where they can be caught to the number of fishing licenses granted.

Only four stocks of salmon pass the four dams in question on their way to Idaho spawning grounds and they are threatened and endangered.

While this publicity stunt got good press, it didn't contribute to solutions. Perhaps these chefs should have been given some facts to go along with their recipes.

By 1883, there were more than 50 canneries operating on the Columbia River and 42 million pounds of salmon were harvested. By the beginning of the 20th century, we were harvesting 80-88 percent of the fish runs. At estimated 12 to 15 million salmon in 1850 became just 348,000 counted at Bonneville Dam in 1938. Overfishing had killed off the "mother herd."

It may be easy to blame the four dams as the sole culprits for the endangered status of the fish but it isn't accurate. Of the 26 endangered or threatened runs of salmon and steelhead in the Northwest, only 4 pass the four dams. Tearing out these dams would not help the other 22.

The fourth dam was finished in 1977. If those dams were the only, or even the biggest problem, we would not have any wild or hatchery fish left on the Snake after 30 years of the dams blocking the runs. Instead, with a change in ocean conditions starting in 1999, we have had some record runs of salmon in Idaho since 2000.

The dam-bashers are using this stunt to promote a bill to study removing the dams. That study has already been done. The Corps of Engineers spent seven years studying the issue and producing an environmental impact statement in 2002. It concluded that tearing out the dams would not recover the listed stocks of salmon and steelhead. At the time, it cost more than $20 million for that effort. Today, it would cost over $27 million. That's money that could be put to use on effective fish restoration on the ground.

The chefs should also consider:

It would take more than 10 years and $1.1 billion to breach these dams, with a net annual cost of $267 million. You'd have to sell a huge number of wild Alaska salmon dinners to pay that bill.

We would need to replace the power from those dams immediately. Those dams are an integral part of the federal system and are vital for use as peaking power. The most likely alternative would be thermal generation which would contribute to global warming. Want to replace hydro with wind? Hydropower is crucial to shaping the erratic megawatts produced by wind turbines.

We would lose an efficient transportation system and have to replace it with trucks or trains, contributing more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The cost to rebuild the transportation infrastructure in the state of Washington alone would take $947 million to $1.6 billion today, according to a study by Lund Consulting and HDR Engineering that was reported to Congress in 1999.

More than 150 million cubic yards of silt impounded by those dams would be washed downstream. An additional 3 to 4 million cubic yards annually would be washed into the Columbia. That would be deadly to the 4 runs of salmon that the chefs say they want to save . in addition to killing off a variety of resident fish species.

Some 200 chefs from around the country might not be interested in the economic and environmental costs of their proposal. The rest of us in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere should be. We will be paying the bill in higher power rates, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and higher taxes to restructure our transportation.

Wild Alaska salmon may bring premium prices to these big city restaurants but they are not endangered. While this may be a cute way to get attention on behalf of the anti-dam activists, it is a silly campaign that seriously skirts the facts. Next they will probably lobby for the right to serve bald eagles for Thanksgiving dinner.

Patricia Barclay is the executive director of the Idaho Council on Industry & Environment.


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