The Snake River Blues: Dammed if you don’t, dammed if you do, Part I

In two previous posts, here and here, we pretty much gave’s coveted endorsement to the current nationwide trend of removing damaged and/or useless dams to restore and revitalize the rivers they block. Our entire staff was captivated by the short video documentary embedded below that documents the positive—almost magical—effects of dam removal in three different communities.

The problem is that many existing dams are not useless, such as the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state. They not only provide cheap and clean power, but they have tamed the lower Snake River, making it possible for local wheat farmers to ship their crops relatively inexpensively by barge to Portland, to be then shipped to Asia.

The dams may benefit farmers and nearby rural communities, but they are also driving Idaho sockeye salmon to extinction. Read this article from Save Our Wild Salmon to learn the appalling truth. The Idaho sockeye’s demise is a variation of the same tragic story throughout the northwest: Dams don’t just pen up water—they stop salmon, sturgeon, and striped bass from reaching their freshwater spawning areas. The typical methods to deal with this are either inadequate, expensive, and otherwise problematic—fish ladders—or all that plus absurd, i.e., trapping the fish and transporting them to their spawning grounds.

This statement from environmentalist blog, Wild Northwest, is as good an encapsulation as any of the vision of those who advocate ridding the U.S.’s waterways of dams and returning them to their natural splendor:

Try this mind game at home*: Close your eyes and imagine the Snake River flowing free through four breached dams. Now imagine the seasonal water fluctuations, and the commensurate growth of willows, cottonwoods, and other riparian vegetation. Imagine the animals that repopulate this riverside habitat, the salmon and steelhead that push upstream through restored riffles and runs. Envision new trails and recreational areas, the increase in white water enthusiasts, hunters, and anglers. Think about what they bring to local economies. I’ll gladly pay the extra few dollars in my utility bill.

(*The team isn’t sure why you have to do this at home. You could do it anywhere—even in the car, as long as you don’t do the close your eyes part.) Here’s another suggestion to give you some idea of why breaching the Snake River’s dams is problematic: Keep your eyes open and watch the following trailer from the documentary River Ways, that shows another side of the Snake River issue. (River Ways website has a great summary of the controversies involved.) The problem is that the end of the dams means the end of cheap electricity enjoyed by the surrounding rural communities, as well as the inevitable demise of local wheat farms that would no longer be able to ship wheat on the now navigable dam-impounded water. It’s a complicated situation, and as the documentary’s makers note:

. . .the debate pits environmentalists, Native Americans, and fishermen against family farmers and industry advocates before a backdrop of multi-disciplinary science and massive government bureaucracy.

Just to be clear, the editorial staff doesn’t believe that the truth always lies in the middle; that is a sentiment that we absolutely despise. When it comes to water disputes, there is usually one side that promotes uncompromising and rampant development, clamors for privatization of water delivery, and proudly flaunts a willfully ignorant disregard for the need to honor and defend natural systems, and it is just friggin’ wrong. However, there is no doubt that if the Snake River dams are destroyed or breached, which at the end of the day is the right thing to do and may soon be the case, the farmers and others who have grown dependent on a dammed and domesticated Snake River are going to lose big time.


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