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From Fishermen's News, August, 1999

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Why Some Dams Must Go

Glen Spain and Zeke Grader

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations

On July 1st, Edwards Dam in Maine was finally blown up. A large section of the Kennebec River was instantly restored to its natural flow, after more than a century of abuse. This dam, destroyed specifically to save dwindling fish runs, was neither the first -- nor will it be the last -- of the ageing big dams that dot the landscape everywhere that must be modified or demolished to protect fish. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt has announced, "The era of dam building is over." And we say, "Its about time!"

Commercial salmon fishermen have been fighting a rear guard action against dam building since at least the 1930's. Throughout the west, many proposed dams were either never built, or were substantially modified, to protect irreplaceable fish runs as a direct result of the outcry of fishermen. There would be no fish hatcheries at all, for instance, had it not been for salmon fishermen demanding them as compensation for lost habitat.

Unfortunately, hatcheries cannot eliminate the problem of widespread habitat loss. As a result, many salmon runs are now or may soon be listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. These days, fishermen are fighting to decommission dams that kill fish and to restore as much of historic habitat as possible.

Decommissioning dams is timely and do-able. It is also inevitable, in light of some obvious but often ignored facts. These facts bear repeating as we engage in this debate.


What is often forgotten is that no dam is designed to last forever. All dam projects are engineered for a certain lifetime of service and no more. There are many factors that limit the operational lifetime of dams, including:

Thus dam decommissioning is nothing radical or new -- in fact dams were DESIGNED to be decommissioned at the end of their useful lives. This is one reason why most dams are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) or its state equivalent, usually on a 40 year cycle. At the end of that license cycle they have to be reevaluated and can then be retired. There are also emergency procedures for de-licensing dams in the event of safety concerns (such as earthquake damage, etc.).


Putting in dams radically changes (and often destroys) important riparian habitat as well as natural hydrological functions. In the past, these 'environmental costs' were artificially equated to ZERO and dismissed as 'mere externalities.' (i.e., ignored) in order to make dam projects look better. Now we are paying the price. These negative impacts do not in fact disappear, and often cost society as a whole real dollars and lost downriver jobs.

For example, we now know that dams and other flood control projects can actually exacerbate the severity of flooding. For instance, the vast system of Mississippi and Missouri River flood control levies, with resulting loss of wetlands, can channelize water which would otherwise have slowed down by spreading into those wetlands. The result has been far higher peak flows resulting in fewer but far more destructive floods overall. The same is true in the Central Valley of California, with its vast system of flood prone levies.

Another example of serious economic damage done by dams is the loss of what was once a booming Columbia River fishing economy. The four mainstem federal hydropower dams sitting smack in the middle of the lower Snake River have blocked 70% of the remaining accessible spawning and rearing habitat for chinook and steelhead, extinguished at least $150 million/year in salmon and steelhead fishery economic benefits, and turned fishing ports in the lower Columbia nearly into a ghost towns. Thanks to these dams, every remaining run of salmon and steelhead spawning above these dams is now listed as either threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Columbia River salmon declines have also caused economic havoc throughout the west coast salmon fishery. As far south as central California, and well into SE Alaska, 'weak stock management' to protect these Columbia runs has resulted in greater and greater harvest restrictions on what would otherwise be abundant (and unrelated) hatchery stocks.

No, when a dam is built these 'environmental costs' do not disappear -- they are just shifted onto the backs of others. In the case of the lower Snake River dams, these costs were shifted onto the bowed shoulders of lower Columbia and coastal salmon fishing communities now suffering from nearly total fisheries collapse.

Estimates of the total social costs of the salmon fishery collapse in the Columbia, brought about by its extensive system of dams, run to about $500 million/year in lost economic productivity, or roughly the loss of 25,000 family wage jobs. The net social value of the Columbia River fishery that is being systematically squandered by overbuilding dams is (conservatively) at least $13 billion. These 'environmental costs' are ultimately borne by fishermen, and by the taxpayer not just in the Northwest but throughout the US.


Dams are supposed to serve one or more social functions and provide certain economic benefits. Those benefits are: (1) flood control; (2) irrigation and water supply; (3) cheap hydropower; (4) river navigation.

However, not every dam project was well thought out, and some provide very little if any of these public benefits. Projects that provide little or no public benefits are clearly suspect. Whether or not a project provides these benefits, and to what degree, can also change over time. Also, these benefits are like gross income -- they only reflect half the balance sheet. The other half of the balance sheet includes the net environmental and operations costs (and mitigation costs), which also have to be taken into account as a cost of doing business. When these costs of doing business exceed the benefits, if it were like any other business the project would be declared bankrupt.


Another often ignored truth is that dams are not free. They need to be financed, constructed, and constantly operated and maintained -- sometimes at great cost to society. In some instances (such as in the Columbia) there are also costly long-term mitigation efforts, such as hatcheries and smolt transportation programs, that must be taken to protect the very species destroyed by the dams. These mitigation costs tend to grow over time.

Also, there are going to be costs of eventual decommissioning -none of which are being amortized into today's rate structure. No major corporation would operate without setting aside 'sinking funds' for anticipated future maintenance or replacement, but dams do. Dam operators' hope is that future taxpayers will pay for today's mistakes.


Not all dams are created equal. Some, in fact, provide minimal social benefits at a huge social cost, and therefore are simply not worth it. The real test of whether a dam is worth it or not to society is not its gross benefits, however large, but the 'net social benefit' of a project, defined as the sum of its gross social benefits minus its other environmental and social costs, ongoing operations and maintenance costs and environmental mitigation costs, including eventual costs of decommissioning after its term of service is over.

Often that equation shifts over time -- a project that once made economic sense in the past is not guaranteed to make sense in the future, especially as operational costs (maintenance, potential retrofitting, etc.) skyrocket when dam infrastructure decays, and as environmental damage mitigation costs continue to grow.

No business would long survive if its income were consistently exceeded by its costs. Nor should dams. In a world of limited resources, we can no longer afford boondoggle pork barrel projects that do more harm than good. Each dam must now be judged on its net social benefit -- and if its costs (including environmental damages) outweigh its benefits, there is no justification whatsoever for keeping such a boondoggle project alive. As Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt has said, in today's world of limited resources, each dam must now be judged on its own merits. (Link to Secretary Babbitt's recent speech on removing dams)


There are four federal power dams in the lower Snake River, which is the major salmon producing tributary to the Columbia River, all within Washington State. These dams are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. How do they measure up in each of the four criteria above?

-- Flood Control: These four dams are what are called 'run of the river' dams, which means they are not capable of storing water to prevent floods. Every gallon that comes to the dams must go quickly through these dams, and they thus provide no flood control at all.

-- Irrigation: Only one of these dams even provides irrigation (Ice Harbor Dam), and then for only a mere 37,000 acres (1/2 of 1% of Snake River irrigated lands) for some 13 corporately owned farms, all together covering an area considerably less than that of any medium sized city. Also, their water system is heavily subsidized. In fact, those farms earn a net of about $1.9 million/year but receive taxpayer and electric ratepayer subsidies of about $11.2 million/year. Without those taxpayer subsidies, those farms would actually run at a huge economic loss!

To say that the withdrawal of these lands from irrigation would 'destroy regional agriculture,' as some have claimed, is absurd. When all the pork barrel subsidies to these farms are totaled up, taxpayers and ratepayers would be far better off simply buying these farms out entirely (which is the recommendation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) than allowing them to continue.

-- Hydropower: There are 27 major federal power dams (and one nuclear plant), plus at least another 30 nonfederal power dams in the Northwest's electrical grid. In the Snake River we are talking about only four of these dams, that collectively provide only about 5% of the power for the whole grid. Also, (being 'run of the river' dams) they provide most of that power at the time of peak power generation systemwide (i.e., during high spring water flows) when the power is least valuable and easiest to replace.

In fact, if you amortize in the true social costs of these operations (including all maintenance and mitigation costs these dams make necessary), that power is actually produced at costs far ABOVE market rates, and therefore is no bargain! Ratepayers could actually save more money by buying replacement power on the 'spot market' than by generating more expensive power at those four dams.

Finally, according to the Northwest Power Planning Council, the total power generated by those four dams combined is still less than the total power savings available from mere conservation alone. There is still a lot of waste in the system. Reasonable conservation efforts would allow us to forego those dams entirely and run more efficiently.

-- River Navigation: Now we get to the real nitty-gritty! The real purpose of these dams is to make Lewiston, ID (600 miles inland) a 'seaport' for shipping grain. However, decommissioning and the partial removal of these four Snake River dams would only change river transportation from Kennewick, WA to Lewiston, ID, not below it. River transport below the lowest of these dams could take place as before.

One barge company now monopolizes this grain trade, reaping huge benefits from bloated taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies at the expense of the entire downriver economy. This company in fact pays none of the costs of this system, nor any of the mounting costs of salmon mitigation. Without having to pay any of the bills for the system it uses, the barge company is allowed to ship grain at slightly below the costs of rail shipment per ton of grain. But only slightly. According to a recent economic analysis by economist Phillip Lansing, if you include the costs of dam operations and ESA-required mitigation measures, the true social costs of the two competing systems (barge vs. rail) is really as follows:

In other words, according to this analysis, the only reason barge transport of grain works at all in the Columbia is that all the huge taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies that support the system are paid for by others. It is you and I who pay for this system, not its users. This is particularly ironic, because that means it is you and I who are financing the destruction of the very salmon resource upon which so much of our industry depends. In other words, we are being forced to finance our own extinction!

In summary, several economic reports have come to the conclusion that even as dams (aside from any costs of salmon fishery destruction) the four lower Snake River dams do not even carry their own economic weight. Add to this the loss of at least $150 million/year in fisheries benefits up and down the west coast, and keeping these dams alive just makes no economic sense.

Artificial smolt transportation programs in the Columbia are the functional equivalent of airlifting Canadian geese south for the winter in a Boeing 747. They have never proven effective, are expensive, and have been used as a politically expedient way to avoid dealing with the real issue of the dams themselves. The four lower Snake River dams kill salmon wholesale, and a band-aid approach will never work. This is why PCFFA long ago endorsed the decommissioning of the lower Snake River dams as a necessary measure to restore west coast salmon runs for our people and our communities.


Almost every major river stretch in America is now dammed. Many of these dams are failing, many are obsolete and many do more harm than good. This is why the dam decommissioning idea is gaining momentum all across the country.

The stakes for the fishing industry are huge. For instance, in response to utility deregulation in that state, the two largest public utilities in California (Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison) have proposed selling off more than 200 of their aging small hydropower dams to a private entity they would control. However, this would effectively end public control of these dams by the California Public Utilities Commission (CalPUC).

As an alternative, PCFFA is spearheading a coalition of many different California fisheries, environmental and ratepayers organizations asking the CalPUC to first subject each of those dams to an environmental review to determine which are real fish-killers. For those dams which seriously damage fisheries, we are proposing they be purchased instead by the State of California and permanently decommissioned to improve fisheries. About 60 of those dams are on California Central Valley streams and rivers which are key to salmon restoration.

PCFFA and its coalition members now have a proposal in the California Legislature (not yet in bill form) that would set this decommissioning process into motion by creating an independent "Consumer's Energy and Environmental Security Corporation" as a Legislatively appointed and funded public corporation to take over interim control of these dams. This corporation's mission would be to purchase and retire some of the worst fish-killing dams in the California river system, specifically to help bring back spring-run chinook, winter-run chinook and several other threatened or endangered salmon runs.

PCFFA is also actively working to remove Oregon's Elk Creek Dam (never completed and totally unneeded), Oregon's Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River (responsible for killing a $5 million/year fishery), the Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula, several dams around Butte Creek in the California Central Valley (to double available spring-run chinook habitat), and many more. At least two Butte Creek area dams are now coming down specifically because of PCFFA efforts.

By the year 2015 an estimated 70% of all the hydropower projects in this country will have to be relicensed. FERC licenses are granted for terms of 40-50 years. This opportunity to thoroughly review, modify, and if necessary to decommission and remove many of the worst fish-killing dams in the nation will not come again within our lifetimes.


In the Columbia River and elsewhere, there are also some very heavily vested political interests which feed off of federal dam subsidies and who are fighting to keep many boondoggle dam projects alive. We have written about these efforts before (See Fishermen's News, "Saving Dams by Killing Fish: Congressmen Battling to Save Killer Dams" (May, 1998). Among the tactics they use now is to blame others for salmon declines to divert attention from the dams. In the past they blamed commercial and recreational fishermen as the main causes of salmon declines. When we started fighting back, their targets became adverse ocean conditions, sea lions and terns. They claim either that all can be made right by sacrificing the entire west coast fishing industry, or that dam removal will never work because its 'those damn sea lions' or 'adverse ocean conditions' that are really causing the problem.

Salmon evolved to avoid sea lions and seabirds. Salmon evolved to face occasionally hostile oceans. It is concrete dams they were not evolved for and which kill them wholesale. Plenty of mechanisms already exist to control overfishing, and most salmon fisheries in the Northwest affecting wild salmon are already either severely curtailed or entirely closed, yet fisherman continue to be blamed. Fishermen justifiably wonder, "What part of 'closed' don't people understand?"

The scientists tell us that not much more benefit can be squeezed out of those other systems. The reality is that in the Columbia, for instance, 80% - 90% of all human-induced mortality is caused by the dams and associated reservoirs, with the lower Snake River dams the final straw on the back of a strained ecosystem. Given that fact, there is just no way to do much good for salmon unless the issue of dams and their impact on salmon is on the table.

Another favorite Congressional trick for blocking progress is to block funding. Thus we have seen Senator Slade Gorton and Senator Larry Craig repeatedly slap 'riders' on appropriations bills to forbid modifications of dams in the Columbia (105th Congress) and currently one by Senator Gorton prohibiting BPA from saving any money towards that effort (106th Congress). There are already several 'riders' and 'resolutions' in the works to block further scientific study of dam decommissioning in the Columbia entirely -- a stance that is fundamentally anti-science and that tries to institutionalize ignorance as public policy.

PCFFA and other fisheries groups need to be vigilant in their efforts to halt these pro-dam and often anti-science riders. PCFFA has repeatedly asked members of Congress to insist on getting all the facts, and to have an honest debate, based on the best available science, on both the benefits and deficits of dams. If this is done, it often becomes clear that decommissioning fish-killing dams makes the most economic sense.


PCFFA has started a whole new program for restoring salmon production in west coast river systems by decommissioning dams. That effort deserves support. PCFFA has also joined with many other commercial and recreational fishing groups as well as taxpayer watchdog groups, businesses, scientists and others in a campaign to remove the lower Snake River dams in the Columbia. That Columbia River Campaign can be reached on the Web at: <http://www.removedams.org>. Sign up your local fishermen's association to support this broad-based, multi-group effort.

Also, help us support fishermen's efforts in the California Legislature and elsewhere to require environmental review and decommissioning of the worst salmon-killing dams. Information on PCFFA's coalition efforts to decommission salmon-killing dams can be obtained from our dams project Web site at: <http://www.pond.net/~pcffa/dams.htm>.

There are many things that can be done to modify or remove fish-killing dams all across the landscape to restore salmon fisheries. PCFFA is mobilizing to accomplish that task and deserves your support. The only thing NOT to do is to do nothing -- that way lies extinction for both salmon and west coast salmon fishermen, as well as the fishing communities we live in and support.

For related articles and additional information see:

"Saving Dams by Killing Fish: Congressment Battling to Save Killer Dams" (Fishermen's News -- May, 1998).

"The Battle Over the Columbia" (Fishermen's News -- October, 1997).

PCFFA Web page on Dams and Decommissioning.

PCFFA is the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishermen. PCFFA's Southwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 29910, San Francisco, CA 94129-0910 and by phone (415)561-5080. PCFFA's Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370 and by phone (541)689-2000. PCFFA's web site is at <http://www.pond.net/~pcffa> or PCFFA can be reached by email at <fish1ifr@aol.com>.

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