Last year a huge battle was waged between Sen. Slade Gorton and environmental groups over breaching dams on the Elwha, Columbia, and Snake rivers to restore salmon runs. The argument for breaching the dams is obvious: salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers are at dangerously low levels–many on the verge of being listed as endangered species. Overfishing and the effects of pollution and radiation in the Columbia River are major contributors, but so are the dams, which raise water temperatures, expose fish to predators, slow their migration to the sea, and slice them up as they go through the turbines. Fish ladders and barging salmon around the dams have done zero to boost survival rates in the fish population. Environmentalists have long argued that dismantling some or all of the dams is necessary, and have formed a coalition with consumer groups, electric utilities, and some energy-efficient businesses to battle Slade Gorton’s stalling tactics in the Senate.
The opponents consist of two main groups. The first and most sympathetic are farmers in Eastern Oregon who are dependent both on water from the reservoirs created by these dams and who utilize barge traffic to transport their crops to market. An estimated 35,000 acres of irrigated farmland would be lost once the dams are breached because of lower water levels. But it’s important to remember that dam construction is the only thing that had made farming possible in the arid regions of eastern Oregon and Washington; in the meantime, thousands of acres of fertile land in western Washington and Oregon is being paved over every year.
The second and more influential group of opponents are a few aluminum companies that rely on the cheap power produced by these dams. According to a recent federal study, these companies could see an estimated $600,000 per month jump in their utility bills once the dams are gone. It sounds bad, but nowhere else in the U.S. would these companies find power that’s as cheap as it is here in Washington and Oregon.
The same federal study estimated that breaching the Snake River dams would have a minimal impact on residential electricity rates. Seattle households would see an increase of less than $1 per month on their electric bills, because local utilities don’t buy much hydroelectric power. In small rural towns that do buy most of their power from hydroelectric sources, the increase will be higher: about 15%, or a boost of about $8 per month for an average utility bill of $55. Of course, Congress could do the decent thing and decide to spread the cost around to all Northwest ratepayers, giving everyone a tiny hike of about $2 per month–well within what most folks are willing to pay to save salmon runs. But that proposal hasn’t even been discussed. Instead, Slade Gorton–working, as usual, on the behalf of his most powerful constituents–has done his best to block the removal of any dams on Pacific Northwest rivers.