Kitzhaber and Babbitt: Tear Down Those Dams

Former Secretary of the Interior (and Governor of Arizona) Bruce Babbitt joined former Governor of Oregon John Kitzhaber to sound a clarion call: The four dams on the Snake River must come down, or the native Northwest salmon will disappear.

They said two options remain as the Northwest's signature fish fade toward extinction: Stand back and watch the fish disappear, or rip out the four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River that block their recovery and do it soon. ...

[They said] that the federal government's restoration plans for salmon have proved useless and that the $8 billion dedicated to propping up salmon since 1978 has done little good. Besides, the money is going to dry up as the nation tires of paying for recovery efforts that do not work, they said.

"We're going to lose the money, we're going to lose the salmon, and we're going to lose the resources to construct an alternative," said Babbitt, a friend of Kitzhaber's who now serves as a land-use consultant and director of the World Wildlife Fund.

But how would we handle the economic dislocations that would inevitably occur? The answer, from Kitzhaber and Babbitt, is to divert failing salmon recovery money to economic recovery.

Instead of putting the funds toward salmon recovery work that fails, the region could use the money to prepare for life without the dams that block migrating salmon, Babbitt said.

Barges now move crops down the river, thanks to the dams. Money instead could go to pay for better railroads to transport the crops and to protect farmers from increased costs, Babbitt said.

The money also could pay for conservation and renewable energy sources to make up for electricity generated by the dams, he said.

Read the rest. Discuss.

Update: Here's an MP3 recording of the discussion, from the Portland City Club.

  • activist kaza (unverified)

    I think this was a hugely important joint appearance. The Governors are right, of course...the dams MUST go (and not just on the about the Klamath too?) lest the salmon runs of yesteryear forever become a distant memory.

  • Andy from Beaverton (unverified)

    What is the plan for the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of silt behind every dam? Won't it cover and destroy a majority of upstream spawning beds? Any worries of flood control?

  • Righty (unverified)

    While breaching of the dams would help salmon, any sugar coating of the devastating effect it would have on Oregon is absurd.

    The money currently spent on Salmon would not be spent on economic development (most of it is federal money that would be used to help other threatened and endangered animals). Even if this money were spent trying to help out the farmers it would be a drop in the bucket. The cost to widening the roads and building new RR's would be huge.

    Oh wait, Ted's idea of economic development is having the Indian tribes build more casino's in the Gorge and other environmentally sensitive areas.

    I think it is too late for Kulongowski to paint himself as strong on the environment.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)

    Tearing down electricity generating dams just to (maybe) help a few fish swim upstream is dumb. Maybe we should all revert back to living in thatched huts and using sharpened rocks for our untensils.

  • (Show?)

    Does Phil even live in Oregon? I presumed every Oregonian understood how crucial salmon are to the state's commercial fishery and tourism industries, not to mention its history and native American importance.

  • Righty (unverified)

    Well, I don't know how important Salmon is to Oregon anymore, other than as a symbol. Especially when you compare it to losing hydroelectric energy, wind surfing, and the Columbia river as a transport system. That is quite a large cost. I know that Salmon are still around in large numbers in Alaska. While I don't like the idea of losing Oregon Salmon, is there a difference between Oregon Salmon and Alaska Salmon?

    I don't think that utilitarianism will get you to save the salmon. Still, there is a moral argument to be made for protecting the big fish.

  • Jesse Jenkins (unverified)

    Righty wrote: "I think it is too late for Kulongowski to paint himself as strong on the environment."

    Righty, I think you got your K's mixed up. This post was about former governor John Kitzhaber, not current Governor Ted Kulongoski. I'm not sure what Kulongoski's position is on the removal of the lower Snake River dams, but I don't think he's taken the same stance as Kitzhaber, at least not publicly.

  • Rhett (unverified)

    First off, Babbitt and Kitz were only talking about removing the four high-cost, low-value dams on the lower Snake River. Depending on the utility and the time of year, those dams only provide 3-5% of the region's electricity, which can easily be replaced with conservation and renewables. No one is talking about taking out the dams on the lower Columbia, so there will be no impact on windsurfing and barges would still be able to get as far up as the Tri-Cities. The science is clear that these dams are decimating salmon and, as Babbitt and Kitzhaber made clear, the economic justifications just don't add up either.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    If you're interested in knowing how the speakers evaluated some of these issues (including silt problems, importance of salmon to the region, etc.), it's well worth taking an hour to listen the City Club program. You can download it at (Scroll down to the MP3 link for the October 6th program).

  • Clack (unverified)

    Always funny to watch the knee-jerk reaction any discussion of removing dams brings up. At least read the transcript before your post (or at the very least, actually know who the speakers in question were -- come one, Kitzhaber and Kulongoski are not that hard to tell apart.)

    Dams have a finite lifespan, whether it is because we wise up and modify or remove them for environmental reasons, or because their reservoir pools fill up with silt and they no longer function for hydropower.

    Salmon are not important to Oregon's economy? Gee, how many dollars does the tourism and recreation related to sportfishing pump into our economy? And what role does the presense of wild salmon and steelhead, and healthy rivers, play in the quality of life that makes Oregon attractive to high-quality employees? Why is it that conservatives seem hell-bent on turning Oregon into Los Angeles?

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Trust our fellow (clueless?) Dems to come up with a nice controvercial "wedge issue" a few weeks before an election. Try to find ONE significant business in eastern Oregon, Washington or in Idaho that supports removal of the lower Snake dams. The only exception might be the railroads who would have a very profitable monopoly if barging is removed as an option for hauling agricultural commodities between Lewiston and Portland.

    I am a very avid fisherman and it is both difficult and sad to face the inevitable reality that "wild" salmon runs on the upper Columbia / Snake and their tributaries are dying out. There is nothing that anyone can do about it absent some giant upheaval that elimiates most of the human population centers in the upper Columbia and Snake watersheds. Salmon are an indicator species for rivers that are healty, free flowing and cold. Dams, sewage treatment outflows, massive irrigation withdrawals, and all the other effects of high density human population are turning the Columbia into an over managed, silty and warm drainage ditch.

    But back to my main point. Let's not make speaches which give people in eastern Oregon one more reason to vote against the Dems! One or two more dam removal proposals and there will be fewer Democrats in eastern Oregon than there are wild snake river coho, and there are darn few of them!

  • (Show?)

    Thanks, Jonathan. I just posted a link to the MP3 recording.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    Clack and BlueNote:

    Listen to the debate before you conclude this is an East/West debate. What Kitzhaber and Babbitt proposed was taking the $700M/year from the federal government (which Babbitt says is going to dry up), and instead of spending it on salmon recovery programs which have shown zero beneficial effect, spend it on subsidies to farmers (for increased costs), spend it on capital infrastructure improvements to railroads, spend it on alternative energy to replace the 5% (yes, the earthen dams apparently produce only 5% of the hydro power coming out of the Snake River and Columbia watershed).

    Kitzhaber's point was also to lay out the costs. Get farmers, fishing interests, railroad interests, EVERYONE to the table, to lay out the financial and societal impacts of removal of these four earthen dams, so that no one is ignored in this debate. They really do present a pretty compelling case.

    On top of all that, Babbitt said that there have been something like 200 dam removals around the country, which have led to fish recovery, and which have taught the dam removers how to avoid huge releases of silt.

    In short, their City Club speeches are not very susceptible to sound-bite or AP/Oregonian understanding -- listen to it, and see for yourself (and thanks, Kari, for posting the link).

  • David Bean (unverified)

    Amusing how no one on the forum spoke of the relation of forest fires and salmon. The commercial and sport fisheries, while they used to return a billion a year, now are dwarfed by forest fire costs that are OUTFlows not, not Inflows of Billions. What do fish have to do with forest fires? For millenia they have been a fertilizer distribution in what was called the Great Northwest. For six ice ages this dependency created famously big trees.

    Now that salmon deaths are concentrated at the concrete troughs that we call hatcheries, some "ceative" scientists are dropping their bodies upon the forest for nourshment. (see August Scientific American, 2006) . Sick forests burn. The fertilizer has been turned off. It means much more to the region than a proud snapshot, or the marginal pound for the commercial fisherman. Yet a boy catching a salmon can be a life changing event.

    There are studies that say 137 species depend on the salmon in the northwest. They, the bears, eagles, racoons and more have distributed the long molecules the salmon return from the ocean where the topsoil has been washed to in the spring. Salmon oil is good too for, your heart... and mine. Good food.

    Salmon are not (merely) a symbol. They are not an indicator species like a canary in a mineshaft, If the forest were a car the salmon would be the oil pressure. For six ice ages the salmon have spawend in the fist sized cobbles of the Snake/Columbia system making very large fish. In the Ocean, the big ones eat the little ones.

    Is this news? Big fish come from Big Rivers.

    So if you want to have salmon in the northwest it is good to have a health salmon culture.... in the ocean where they spend the majority of thier life. You need plancton eaters (pinks, chums and sockeye) and some big ones coho and chinook in the family of salmon. For six ice ages the salmon have spawned in the Columbia/Snake when the Alaskan rivers were frozen solid and salmon were spawning in Baja California. We wipe out the genetic mother-lode, the taproot of the mother of all salmon runs... and our salmon will run out. The consequence of which is a loss of the fertility of the northwest forest ecology... and more forest fires.

    Maybe this is why the Native American's here made salmon the center of their cultures.

    Messrs Kitzaber and Babbett are well informed and long studied. I believe they are motivated by moral concerns. Their call merits quick action.

    Imagine the salmon coming back! Imagine big salmon. It can happen. But not if there is 350 miles of slack water that impedes their smolting transit to the sea. The salmon runs did not crash with four dams on the Columbia..... they were dammed with eight.

  • pfish (unverified)

    Although both Kitzhaber and Babbitt each said that they personally supported removal of the Snake River dams, the major point they articulated was that dam removal has to be part of the discussion, which it is not at this time. We humans will certainly survive as a species if there are no salmon in our rivers (look at the rest of the world where salmon were once plentiful), but the Kitz-Babb point was: this is it - the decision rests with us, right now: salmon or no salmon. We determine the future for this issue.

    One of the realities of the salmon situation is that science has little or nothing to do with decisions - politics rules. A good example is the sockeye run to Redfish Lake, Idaho, which Bruce Babbitt mentioned. The NW Power Planning Council (or whatever they're named now) recently decided to double the funding requested for the captive sockeye broodstock program, despite their own scientific panel's strong recommendation to end the program because it has had no beneficial effect on sockeye runs (see my blog post)

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