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Wind strong enough to doom dams?

Bolstered by new statistics and new leadership in the U.S. Congress, an alliance of environmental groups is preparing for another offensive against four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River.

The aim will be the removal of all, or at least some, of the dams so the Snake will flow more freely and help the entire Pacific Northwest salmon population recover to the bountiful levels of decades ago.

“At one time, 50 percent of the entire Columbia Basin salmon production came out of the Snake River Basin,” said Trey Carskadan of the Northwest Sportfishing Association. “And we certainly know we are not seeing that production now.”

Proponents of dam removal say it’s a clear choice between the dams and the fish, and a new study released by the salmon crowd contends that advances in the development of energy efficiency and wind generation, plus the potential of a revved-up fishing industry stretching from the mountains of Idaho to the Pacific Coast, means no one will particularly miss those dams.

And with an impending changeover in Washington to a Democratic-led Congress and the possibility of a Democrat in the White House in two years, the lobbying campaign is set to begin.

“The first thing that has to be made clear is that there is not going to be an economic disaster for Idaho if these dams come out and, in fact, it could be a benefit for Idaho,” said Sara Patton, executive director of the Northwest Energy Coalition.

Patton’s remark came in response to a reporter’s question about the prevailing stance among Pacific Northwest lawmakers against knocking down the dams. The notion of losing a combined generating capacity of more than 3,000 megawatts is a tough sell to politicians in an area where the economy has come to depend on low-cost hydropower.

But the new study, titled “Revenue Streams,” contends that power could be largely replaced through a growing wind-power industry based in the region’s mountains.

“There is excellent potential and we’re seeing it being developed very quickly,” Patton said. “Much more quickly than a lot of us expected.”

Coming up with the ability to provide reliable electricity at an economical price is a huge priority in the campaign to eliminate the Snake dams. In Idaho, for example, 80.1 percent of the state’s megawatt hours came from hydroelectric dams in 2004 compared to 2.6 percent for renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Department of Energy’s data arm. Washington State sourced 70.1 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric and 2.3 percent from renewables.

Projections call for continuing growth in renewables nationwide, and it would seem likely that the Snake River basin might see accelerated development of wind and biomass generation by private power producers if it looks like the generating capacity of the four dams will indeed be eliminated.

“It is possible they will be developed anyway if there is a market for the power in California,” Patton said.

That rise in alternative energy will, under the scenario painted in Revenue Streams,” make it possible to save taxpayers about $5 billion in operational costs of the “aging” dams. At the same time, the growth of tourism in the Snake Basin will result in a net benefit to both the federal government and the entire region.

While not everyone in Idaho will work within the fishing industry, the money should come easier for those who choose to when anglers from around the country flock to the free-flowing Snake for fishing seasons that could run several months per year.

At the same time, the federal government will be able to solve a long-running headache caused by legal requirements that the salmon of the Snake Basin – not to mention the Columbia Basin downstream – be saved from extinction.

“Even with Hells Canyon Dam (in the Upper Snake) still in place, you would still have about 5,500 miles to tributary habitat that makes up, according to Idaho Fish and Game, about 70 percent of the recoverable habitat in the whole basin,” said Michael Garrity, the associate director of Columbia Basin Programs at American Rivers.

The idea of breaching the Snake River dams and not just saving the salmon, but turning them into an economic asset for the region, has been around for about 10 years and the promise of new jobs will no doubt require more study; however the environmental community is more convinced than ever that their proposal will get a serious hearing in Washington.

David Jenkins, government affairs director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, saw the report as providing a political basis for discussion and eventual movement on the issue.

“This can be a catalyst to more in-depth studies on the job creation and other things that any member of Congress – Republican and Democrat, regardless of their past positions on this issue – can use to take a fresh look at this,” Jenkins said. “I mean the best thing you can do for your district and the region is to look at the facts and then be willing to adjust your position and do what is in the best interest of your region and the country.”

By Hil Anderson
UPI Energy Correspondent