Washington View: Dam removal not prudent in all cases

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

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Some activists believe there is no such thing as a good dam, that we should destroy all dams to restore fish runs, no questions asked.

A more balanced approach would be identifying dams we can live with, and dams we can live without.

When the Elwha Dam was completed in 1913, people cared more about electrifying the Olympic Peninsula than protecting migrating salmon. After all, salmon were plentiful and electricity was the force driving economic growth.

But the dam denied salmon and steelhead access to their traditional spawning grounds about 50 miles upriver.

Last year, all that began to change. Both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were demolished with the hope that the fish will return.

A similar story unfolded last year when the Condit Dam was breached, opening miles of old spawning streams on the upper White Salmon River in the Columbia River Gorge.

While dam busting has its place, it is only one option.

For example, the Condit Dam was owned by PacifiCorp, as are the Merwin, Yale and Swift dams on the north fork of the Lewis River. Even though they are owned and operated by the same company, their situations are very different.

The Lewis River dams were constructed between 1931 and 1958 with no fish passages. As part of the new 50 year operating license, PacifiCorp agreed to spend $120 million to return fish runs above the Swift, the upper most of the trio.

This is how it works: Adult salmon and steelhead heading up the river to spawn are collected below Merwin, the first dam, and trucked to Swift Reservoir, where they are released to continue their spawning swim.

The downstream migration is a little trickier. Juveniles, which are more elusive, are collected at the head of Swift Dam and trucked downriver to the release point below Merwin.

On the Columbia and the Lower Snake rivers, adult salmon and steelhead use fish ladders to bypass the concrete barriers. But for fish heading out to sea, one of the best options has been to collect and barge the fish around the dams.

Even though barging young fish has been around since 1955, some feel it is unnatural. Others say fish released from a barge or truck lose their homing instinct and are confused when they return from the ocean to spawn.

Over the years, transporting fish has improved greatly. Each year, more than 20 million fish travel by barge, dodging predators and deadly turbines. Barging appears to work best for steelhead and spring chinook, which spend a year in the fresh waters before heading out to sea. That makes sense since they grow bigger and stronger before making the trek.

The point is, 100 years makes a tremendous difference. If the dams on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers were constructed today, they would have included fish passage systems. Because they did not, they came down.

But not all dams have to come down. When fish passages are an option, it is worth the investment to enhance fish habitat while providing low-cost electricity for our growing economy.

In 1910, there were just over 1.1 million people in our state, and our economy was just developing. Today, we have 6.7 million who depend upon low-cost electricity for our homes, businesses, hospitals, schools and factories. We also have much better science that enables us to make more precise site and species-specific decisions.

So removing all of the dams -- dams that provide electricity, irrigation, flood control and commercial water transportation -- is not an option. But restoring habitat and giving ocean-going fish a short ride to safety is.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.