Endangered Species: Science, Economics, & Values

The Bend Bulletin has recently published two columns, one from an industry lobbyist and one from two local industry CEOs, arguing in favor of keeping the four lower Snake River dams.  Statements in these columns are worthy of scrutiny and debate.  One thing is certain, however, according to the best available science, many Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead are on the path to extinction in the not too distant future.

The dire situation for these iconic, cold water fish is due to many factors including habitat loss, pollution, warm water from a heating planet, poor ocean conditions, low water levels from municipal and agricultural withdrawals, commercial and recreational fishing, predation, hatcheries, and dams.  There is debate about which of these is most detrimental, but the scientific consensus is that dams are at least near the top of the list, especially for salmon and steelhead in the Snake River watershed.

Over decades, sportsmen, tribes, conservation groups, and others have sued the US government to improve operation of the lower Snake River dams and have repeatedly won in federal court. Politicians and economic interests have successfully blocked meaningful changes, however, and the cycle continues to this day. Recently, the government has yet again stated that dams are not the problem, and in the face of overwhelming evidence, and repeated legal rulings, claimed that minor changes are all that are required for recovery, leading to yet another round of lawsuits.

The economics of hydropower are complicated and are the subject of fierce debate.  Industry representatives claim it is cheap while other analyses suggest it is less so when total costs, including environmental, are factored in.  It is a fact, however, that today solar is a very inexpensive form of power generation and those costs continue to fall.  Clearly, we need utility-scale solutions for storing power generated by solar (and wind), but those are coming

The issue really comes down to values and the future we plan to present to our children and grandchildren.  Salmon are an important food source for us and play a key role in the Pacific NW ecosystem.  In the ocean, they are food for predators such as Orca and sea lions.  Returning adults are food for terrestrial species like bears, their carcasses and eggs feed many other fish, and it has been shown that they are an important source of nutrients for nearby forests. 

We are living at a pivotal time for salmon and thousands of other species who are on the path to extinction.  What sort of world do we want to live in?  What sort of world do we want to leave to our children and future generations?  Do we think that we can continue to be separate from the environment without it impacting our own survival?  The science says otherwise.  We are, in fact, part of the environment and dependent on it.

There is much to be done on many fronts, but without quick action scientists believe that many Columbia Basin salmon populations will soon go extinct.  Removing the four lower Snake River dams is a necessary step to avert this catastrophe.  More must be done, and we need to take those steps as well.

A large majority of Americans and Oregonians believe that we are on the wrong path and steps must be taken to improve our environment.  This will entail disruption in some ways, a burden we must bear on the path to sustainability.  There is growing awareness of the role of income inequality and environmental justice in this discussion.  Lower income Americans suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and are less able to pay higher costs if they occur.  New, environmentally friendly jobs must be created in these communities.  The solution is to acknowledge this and help our fellow citizens while taking action to create a better environment for us today as well as for future generations.