For the week of November 25 thru December 1, 1998  

Snake River dams should be added to the list of environmental follies

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Although more than 2,000 miles apart, dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers share a common, dark genealogy with the levees built 50 years ago in South Florida’s spectacular Everglades wetlands wilderness.

First, both the Florida levees and Idaho dams to divert or control water were promoted as grandiose schemes to seed economic development, but instead have created more problems than benefits.

Second, the Everglades levee system finally has been declared an environmental disaster-- and the Snake River dams have every sign of being added to the list of environmental follies.

The bill is now due in Florida for reckless man-made tinkering with the Everglades, as surely the bill will come due in Idaho for its dams.

An enormous project to restore the Everglades water system has been approved, at a cost of up to $4 billion – repeat BILLION dollars – half to be borne by generations of hapless Florida taxpayers who arrived long after the bungling decisions of the 1930s and 1940s.

The evidence of man-made destruction is horrifying: levees that drained parts of the Everglades to enrich real estate developers and corporate farms have destroyed half the shrimp production that relies on Everglades water in Florida Bay; salt water has seeped into the aquifer and turned drinking water brackish and unusable to South Florida’s booming population; Everglades wildlife has been dying off.

Now the levees must be breached, hundreds of homes must be condemned and destroyed and decades of destructive engineering must be reversed.

So what of the Idaho dams?

Not only have they not yielded the huge benefits predicted by their boosters, but they’ve exposed the area’s salmon population to extinction, and risked huge lawsuits by northwest Native American tribes for failing to protect treaty obligations.

Opposition to the dams, and support for breaching them, is swelling to a crescendo. Whatever paltry defenses the dams’ boosters can muster are being overwhelmed by a litany of statistics and realities that logic suggests ultimately will doom the dams.

Flamboyant predictions of Lewiston becoming a major port have not materialized. And the mere cost of using alternative solutions to problems created by the dams has run as high, according to one estimate produced by Idaho Rivers United, as $435 million a year.

Just as Florida’s political and business leadership for decades resisted overwhelming economic and environmental evidence that the Everglades levees were a reaping havoc, Idaho’s political and business leaders seem blind to the mounting evidence of the hardships and damage created by the dams.

The Everglades lesson should be a model for action in Idaho.

The longer the decision about the dams is delayed, the more painful the cost for taxpayers, and the greater the potential losses to the environment and the region’s once-flourishing salmon industry.

Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio announcer.


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