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Snake River dams: Bad for fish, good for planet

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 20, 2009 at 7:45 pm |
August 20, 2009 7:45 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.


Given the specter of climate change, 1,000 megawatts of carbon-neutral power – enough to power all of Seattle – are a precious commodity.


Somehow, that fact seems lost on the people who remain bent on breaching the four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River.


Once again, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D- Seattle, has offered Congress a bill designed to expedite the effective dismantling of those dams, which do in fact routinely generate 1,000 megawatts and can more than triple that to meet spikes in demand. McDermott wants to empower the Army secretary to remove the earthen portions of the dam to give salmon easier passage up and down the river.


Congress already has the power to breach the dams or tear them out entirely; this bill is a ploy to yank that decision from the democratic process.



To their credit, neither of Washington’s U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, supports the measure. Neither does Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, the state’s 800-pound gorilla in the House of Representatives.


Dicks, Murray and Cantwell are supposedly bucking their environmentalist supporters. Are environmentalists really monolithic on this issue?


Anyone concerned about global warming ought to feel at least some qualms about the loss of such an abundant source of renewable, carbon-free electricity.


Many opponents of the dams brush off the carbon problem. They talk as if wind power and conservation will readily replace the dams’ nearly 3,500 megawatts of combined capacity.


We’d much rather see the conservation and wind first replace the dirty coal power that accounts for 20 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity. When they finish replacing the coal, they should start replacing the natural gas turbines that – though far cleaner than coal – still emit carbon dioxide.

From a climate-change perspective, it would be madness to shut down 1,000 megawatts of clean hydro while leaving fossil-fuel plants merrily spewing carbon into the atmosphere.


This isn’t just a question of climate, of course. The dams do hamper the passage of fish, including several endangered salmon runs.


But those species have been kept alive – though close to the edge – for many years now with fish-friendlier river management. In any case, there’s no guarantee that breaching the dams would save the runs, which are heavily impacted by ocean conditions, especially temperature.


Temperature – as in what goes up when there’s more carbon dioxide in the air.


It’s understandable that certain groups – including Idaho tourism and sport-fishing lobbies – are fixated on the salmon side of the equation. But there’s a real disconnect when someone who professes deep concern about global warming is willing to kiss off dams that produce so much power and so little carbon dioxide.

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