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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Point of No Return, Part 1 Continued

Air Date: Week of

Sandy Tolan’s journey through the Columbia River system and its dams picks up in Lewiston, Idaho, an inland port for cargo ships that may have to make way for salmon.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The dams that turned the Columbia and Snake Rivers into almost boundless sources of electricity and irrigation also made a seaport out of Lewiston, Idaho, nearly 500 miles inland. That's where Sandy Tolan picks up the story of the transformation of the Columbia River system, as Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest continues.

DOERINGSFELD: This old building right over here, this little blue building, and these containers that are staged right here, that building is full of nothing but bentonite --

TOLAN: David Doeringsfeld, director of the Port of Lewiston, drives us around stacks of containers ready to be loaded onto barges: wheat, wood chips, clay.

DOERINGSFELD: These are containers --

TOLAN: Through the window of his truck we watch a blue crane lifting and swiveling. Fork lifts darting like worker ants. Down the Snake go Western Forests, paperboard for Japanese sake boxes or Australian milk cartons, and wheat from Montana and Idaho to be made into noodles in China. The cargo moves by barge down the engineered river. In a conference room, Mr. Doeringsfeld points to rows of white men in frames on the wall, in business suits and fedoras: architects of the vision to make the river a highway to an inland empire. Ten percent of the wheat grown in the U.S., he says, moves down the lower Snake by barge.

DOERINGSFELD: Out of the Port of Lewiston we move about a million tons of wheat. And if we just talk about tearing out these dams, I guarantee you we will not be moving that kind of wheat through this area.

TOLAN: Without those four dams, river traffic would stop. Dry land farmers on the margins fear they'd be unable to ship by more expensive rail or truck and would go out of business. Shipping or salmon, it's a dividing line.


TOLAN: A crossroads of metal sheds and crisscrossing power lines on bare brown hills above the Columbia. Roosevelt, Washington. There's a post office, a bar, a mini-mart.
(Cash register clinks)

TOLAN: Behind the counter, Bud Stokes says the few jobs here are almost all in garbage, which comes upriver by barge to local landfills. Take out the Snake River dams, he says, and the local economy goes with them.

STOKES: It would be total disaster. Not just around here, the toll booth
companies based out of Portland, they're wiped out. They have to rebuild their roads for increased truck traffic. Increased production of trucks to make them available. Decrease of farmers, because they can't get water for irrigation. It would be total disaster.

TOLAN: Mr. Stokes used to fish for salmon in Alaska. Salmon are beautiful fish, he says, but things come and they go.

STOKES: It wouldn't make any difference at all if the salmon weren't here. How many times a year do you eat salmon? There are no more dinosaurs; do you want them brought back? Times change.

TOLAN: But also changing is the idea that dams are everlasting.


BOSSE: Now when you're talking dams, you're talking about sacred monuments in this part of the country.

TOLAN: A wind powers down a Snake River canyon, whipping across a concrete slab wedged into the river. We're standing on Lower Granite Dam with Scott Bosse, a biologist with Idaho Rivers United. This is one of the four contested dams on the lower Snake. A Federal scientific panel and a group of 200 scientists have both concluded that allowing the river to bypass just these four dams would create the best opportunity for bringing back salmon. Mr. Bosse agrees.

BOSSE: There's really only one way to get our fish back, and we're standing on top of it. And one thing that we're trying to convince people of is that, you know, dams aren't religious monuments. They're industrial tools that are built to serve society's needs. And when they no longer provide benefits that outweigh the costs, then we have to re-evaluate whether they should be there or not.

TOLAN: A huge problem, Mr. Bosse says, is when the young salmon or smelts move downstream toward the oceans. Many die coming through the dams. Among the survivors, their finely-tuned biological clocks may be upset. Born in freshwater, the bodies of salmon change during their downstream journey to allow them to live in the sea. But instead of a week riding a swift, cold current, the trip through slack water now takes some young salmon a month in warmer water they're not adapted to. To speed up that journey, river managers now capture nearly half the young salmon in the lower Snake and haul them downriver in barges and trucks. This has improved their survival rate getting downstream, but it may not do the trick. Only one in 250 transported juvenile salmon comes back to spawn as an adult, at best a fifth of the minimum level needed for healthy runs.

(Lapping water)

BOSSE: We can either continue to pursue that path and know with a great degree of certainty where it's going to end up, in extinction for these fish. Or we can really tackle the real problem and restore this chain of reservoirs back into the river that it once was.

TOLAN: Farmers, barge operators, the aluminum industry all say we don't
know enough yet to take such drastic action. Breaching the dams might not bring back salmon, they say, but it would bring havoc to the economy in the inland Northwest. And all that lost power, they say, will bring up electrical rates. Anglers, commercial fishers, environmentalists respond. Think about the new money and jobs from sports fishing and river running, a revitalized commercial fishery. As for power, they say, those four lower Snake dams generate barely five percent of the Northwest's annual use, and the average monthly electrical bill might only go up a dollar or two. A Federally- sponsored economic analysis confirms there would be winners and losers if the dams were breached, but suggests there would be a net job loss in the region. But some legal experts warn, if we don't breach and these salmon vanish, there will be billions of dollars in lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act and tribal fishing rights. This kind of debate was never supposed to happen.

DEHART: When we looked at the Columbia and the development of the Columbia and the Snake River, there was never any intention to destroy this great natural system.

TOLAN: Michelle DeHart is director of the Fish Passage Center, a Federally- funded effort for Columbia and Snake River salmon mitigation.

DEHART: These fish supported economies, supported cultures. Now what happened was, when we as a society fell into this pattern of delusion that we could have it all, we wanted to keep the salmon, we realized how important they were, and we though that we could have it all by using technology. We set this pattern of delusion and denial, and now we're in a predicament. The predicament is, we've gone too far. We've developed beyond a balance point. So now, what are we going to do?

TOLAN: For the first time, the Federal government is seriously considering removal of the four lower Snake dams. Also on the table is increasing the river flow during the migration of the smelts by drawing down some of the upstream reservoirs. Or, the government may choose simply to increase the barging and try to make the dams safer and hope for the best. Breaching the dams would signal a radical change in the economic culture of the Northwest, but there is no going back to the way things once were.

(Bird song)

AXTELL: A lot of us shed tears over that place. It was such a beautiful place to gather, meet friends, make friends with all different tribes. But the water has covered the whole thing.

TOLAN: At home, under a back yard maple tree, Nez Perce elder and tribal historian Horace Axtell remembers the great Columbia River fishing grounds. Celilo Falls, behind the Dalls Dam. No one is talking about taking that dam down. It generates too much power. Celilo will remain underwater.

AXTELL: To me, it kind of felt like they wanted to take our fishing place away from us, so they built the dam. That's the way I feel about it. And as I get older, it seems like they built that dam just so they could cover that Celilo Falls. I've been kind of bitter about that for a long time.

TOLAN: Celilo Falls was not only a center of native culture and belief, it was what one tribal leader called an Indian Wall Street, a center of economic prosperity. The Columbia River tribes lobbied hard for its preservation and lost. And while they've won landmark Federal Court decisions in affirming their fishing rights, it's unlikely any court decision will bring back the great Celilo Falls. Today young people can hear only of the memory of the centuries at Celilo. Jay Minthorn is the Umatilla Indian leader who watched Celilo disappear.

MINTHORN: I've lived the life of the abundance of fish. I've lived the traditional way of dipping for salmon. I've seen the beautiful June hogs. I've seen the most colorful spring Chinooks. I've seen all the species at the Celilo Falls. And I carry these memories with me, but I've lived these things. I lived the great Celilo Falls.

(Ambient voices echoing)

TOLAN: Before we left the Northwest, we went to visit the man who allocates the hydropower generated by the Columbia dams. For weeks we've been hearing how crucial all this power was for the region. But the hydropower man told us that overall, the dams generate much more power than the region can use, and a lot of it is sent to California and Phoenix and Las Vegas. Then he told us Northwest power users pay a third less than the rest of the country. And we learned later, they use a third more. That night I had dinner with a friend in Portland. "Cheap power?" he asked. "Yeah. I pay nine bucks a month to keep my hot tub at 104 degrees, 24-7. You never know when you might want to jump in."

(Atmosphere inside plane cabin)

TOLAN: The next night I flew home to Boston via Las Vegas. I stared out at black Nevada desert. Suddenly, across some unknown boundary, there appeared a thicket of lights. White, yellow, green, and purple, blinking and beckoning. Lights powered in part from the Columbia River, in part from the excess power of the Dalls Dam. I thought of the Umatilla leader, Jay Minthorn, and glistening salmon falling into dip nets. And I stared down, at the ghost of Celilo Falls.

(Lapping water)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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