Two high-ranking former government officials spoke at Friday’s City Club of Portland, urging citizens and politicians to act now to save wild salmon.
Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called for the dismantling of four dams on the Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia River, allowing endangered salmon to return to their native breeding grounds.
”Fifteen years after these fish were listed as endangered on the Snake River, we have neither a legal biologic opinion nor a recovery plan for these embattled fish,” Kitzhaber said.
Before the dams were built, 16 million salmon in the area were able to complete their journey home each year. Now that number is down to one million.
Both speakers pointed to the billions of dollars already spent on saving salmon without significant results to show for it, then suggested ways that future funds could be better spent to help those affected by the change.
”We’ve spent billions of dollars trying to rationalize our way around dismantling these dams: reconfiguring them, tinkering with spillways, trucking the fish- and the fact is that it isn’t working,” said Babbitt. “The dams are the problem.”
Babbitt suggested that this money instead be used to help those hurt if the dams are brought down.
The railroad system would need strengthening to bring agricultural products to market instead of relying on river ways.
Eliminating the hydroelectric power coming from the dams could cause a small increase in power rates, Babbitt said, but investing in alternative energy could help bring those costs down. The dams generate about 2 percent of the power used in the northwest, Babbitt said.
”We have always been in agreement with dam breaching,” said Olney Patt, Jr., executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “We have always recognized that the Snake Basin has been the major link in the salmon population in much of the Columbia basin.”
”Our assumption right now is that the federal government is pursuing an aggressive non-breach strategy to restore salmon to the Columbia basin, meaning that if the current measures don’t succeed then we have an open path to breaching as the next step,” Patt added.
Both speakers said that the worst thing to do for salmon in these areas would be for the government to continue to delay. Environmental interest groups applauded a recent court’s ruling slamming the existing practices to protect fish.
A federal court order of remand was issued in Portland on Sept. 26 by Judge James A. Redden, which stated that groups involved in the salmon preservation have repeatedly and collectively failed to demonstrate a willingness to do what is necessary to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction in the Columbia and Snake River basins, whatever the cost.
”We are a federal agency working hard with states and tribes and we have made substantial progress in the past 10 years,” said NOAA Fisheries services spokesman, Brian Gorman. “We can measure this progress. Chinook returns in the past 10 years have been above normal, for example.”
Removing the dams, Gorman said, only addresses one element of the problem.
“There is no silver bullet here when looking at this problem. Focusing on only one aspect of the salmon issue, dam breaching, is really being short-sided,” said Gorman.
”This issue raises the question of whether we have the courage and the will to reconcile the growing world we want to leave our children and the world we’re actually building from the decisions we make every day,” said Kitzhaber.