Governor John A Kitzhaber of Oregon, US, is in favour of breaching the four federal dams on the Snake river in an effort to restore endangered salmon populations.

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has become the first major political figure to endorse the controversial dam removal proposal favoured by many environmental groups, American Indians and commercial fisherman. But the proposal is being opposed by farmers and others in the northwest US who rely on the Snake river for barge shipping, irrigation and electricity. Governors of the states of Idaho, Montana, and Washington are still opposed to dam removal.

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has scheduled 15 public hearings throughout the northwest region to receive public input on the Federally proposed 4H plan, which looks at hydro, habitat, hatcheries and harvest. If the recently held meeting in Seattle, attended by more than 800 people, is a sign of things to come, the dam debate and the hearings promise to be long and raucous. At the meeting speaker after speaker concentrated on the hydro aspect of the 4H plan, either blasting the dams as salmon killers or praising them as the lifeblood of eastern Washington.

USACE’s Colonel Eric Mogren made it clear to all who attended the meeting in Seattle, that final authority to breach a federal dam must come from Congress. Several members of Congress representing the northwest at the meeting emphasised their opposition to removing the dams.

Farmers, municipal officials and business owners from all parts of Washington told the USACE hearing that removing the dams would start a ‘death spiral’ for small eastern Washington towns, due to the loss of barging, irrigation water and power. Puget Sound Utility District officials called breaching ‘a radical proposal which merely serves as a convenient distraction from practical solutions that will help salmon’. The Columbia River Alliance (CRA), which represents river users, urged its members to boycott future hearings, criticising the ‘circus-like atmosphere’ at the sessions. The CRA said that the environmental impact statement process ‘has evolved into a divisive referendum on dam breaching instead of a consensus building effort to determine the needs of salmon’.

The Snake river’s coho salmon have already been declared extinct, and every other species of salmon and steelhead in the Snake river is now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Biologists estimate that in the early 1800s, nearly 2M salmon made the trip up the river to their spawning grounds. Returning salmon counts for last year have put this figure at 3276 Snake river adult spring and summer chinook, down from 8426 in 1998. Fall chinook returns were estimated to be about 400, slightly up from 306 in 1998.

Under the dam breaching proposal being considered by the USACE, earthen portions around the dams would be removed, rendering the dams inoperative and restoring 140 miles of the Snake river in eastern Washington to a free flowing condition. If the breaching option is successful the four dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite — would be the biggest dams ever slated for removal. However, there is serious doubt that dam removal would bring back the salmon, while it would take out of service dams that provide about 4% of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity and facilitate barging of agricultural produce from inland Idaho.

The deadline for public comments on USACE’s draft EIS has now been extended by one month to 30 April 2000.