Breach of Faith?

A landmark report on the Snake River dams is expected to advise doing...a whole lotta nuthin'

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine


Ever since we first reported on the campaign to breach some of the nation's oldest dams as the best means of restoring dwindling fish populations ("Blow-Up," February 1999), we've been monitoring the accelerating rate of federally ordained dam decommissionings. The most significant of these occurred last July when a backhoe pulled a bucket of earth from the Edwards Dam in Maine, making the Kennebec River free for the first time in 162 years. During the next six months, another 13 dams were demolished, including Rains Mill Dam in North Carolina and Idaho's Colburn Mill Pond Dam. This month, however, hopes surrounding the first large Western dam-breaching may by dealt a severe blow.

At the end of April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates four massive dams on Idaho's Snake River, is expected to recommend keeping all of them in place—an announcement that may scuttle the dream of freeing one of America's most storied stretches of flowing water. That recommendation, which will cap a five-year, $20 million study of the Snake by the federal government, could establish an unsettling precedent in the volatile politics of dam removal. If, as environmentalists anticipate, the Corps of Engineers decides against breaching, its conclusion won't be resting purely on scientific evidence.

Last year, studies commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both declared that dismantling the dams would be the best way to save the Snake River salmon from extinction. "The bottom-line biological conclusion is really a no-brainer," says Ann Badgley, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "For native fish and wildlife, a free-flowing river is better than a dammed river."

As these studies garnered attention, business leaders and politicians began howling in protest. Corps economists estimated that breaching would cost the region $246 million per year in increased shipping, irrigation, construction, and hydropower costs (equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the Northwest's economic output). Last autumn, perhaps after reading the political writing on the wall, the marine-science folks backed away from their recommendations and started pushing alternatives to tearing down dams. "From a purely salmon perspective, the maximum protection option [which includes breaching the four dams] would be best," admits William Stelle, the NMFS regional administrator. "But that's nonimplementable, because we just don't have the authority."

And there's the rub: Because the four lower Snake dams are federally owned, Congress and the president would have to approve their destruction. Chances of such a plan passing a GOP-controlled Senate are next to nil, while a Republican in the White House would almost certainly kill the idea. "If Governor Bush is elected president," says Washington's Republican Senator Slade Gorton, the region's powerful dam defender, "breaching will be off the table in 60 days." The candidate himself is slightly more circumspect: "We can save the fish," Bush said during a recent fund-raising swing through Oregon, "but we don't have to tear down dams to do so." Alas, the governor failed to elaborate on how he would ach.ieve this Solomonic compromise.

Democrats are equally wary of embracing the idea—most notable among them Vice-President Al Gore. Last fall, Gore angered some longtime backers in the environmental movement by staying conspicuously silent on the Snake River; a coalition of environmental groups and outdoor companies (including the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Save Our Wild Salmon, and Patagonia Inc.) even took out full-page ads in the New York Times chastising him for skirting the divisive issue. Gore later met privately with Northwest environmentalists and insisted he wasn't playing duck and cover. "He's not ruling dams in or out," says Tim Stearns, former director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "But he assured us that salmon and dams are going to get more attention." Unfortunately for the Snake's salmon, the gap between action and attention could spell the difference between survival and extinction.