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One More Time For Salmon

Guest commentary for March 14

By JAY LETTO

On March 13, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) once again comes to the Gorge, this time to conduct likely its last hearing on the fate of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River.

Despite the stream of disinformation from a handful of local dam-removal opponents, this issue is a no-brainer: If you support restoring salmon to the White Salmon River, dam removal is undoubtedly the best option.

However, recent letters to the editor might give the casual reader pause. Among the ridiculous claims are that: 1) Dam owner PacifiCorp is part of a vast conspiracy of environmental groups that worked behind closed doors to broker this deal; 2) Dam removal will be a disaster to the environment and local ecosystem; 3) Dam removal could lead to local blackouts or higher energy rates; 4) PacifiCorp will just take out the dam and run, leaving our community with the mess and cleanup bill; and 5) A "vast majority" of our local community opposes removal, which is being foisted upon us by big, bad government agencies.

Let's take these one at a time: 1) The conspiracy accusation is laughable. The current process began in 1993 when FERC held a public hearing in White Salmon to gather comments for its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Condit Dam relicensing. This was nearly 10 years ago and it made a huge splash in the media because of the outpouring of local support for dam removal. Since then there have been numerous public hearings. In addition, the intervenor process, which included PacifiCorp and any interested parties meeting together for several years to craft a Settlement Agreement, was a totally open public process that locals were invited to from the beginning.

2) To hear our County Commissioners and other dyed-in-the-wool property rights advocates speak against dam removal while arguing for protection of our environment and endangered species is a real head-slapper. Our County Commissioners are openly disdainful of the Endangered Species Act. Indeed, Klickitat County is being sued by the state of Washington for failing to adopt a Critical Areas Ordinance that adequately protects endangered species. All relevant state and federal agencies, the tribes, and numerous environmental groups have spent years examining the environmental tradeoffs of removing Condit and are unequivocal: Dam removal is clearly the best environmental option. In addition, the property, including the land leased to cabin owners around Northwestern Lake, is owned by PacifiCorp. What happened to the argument that property owners should be able to do what they want with their land?

3) Condit Dam is only a 14.7-megawatt facility. For comparison, PacifiCorp alone owns 8,000 megawatts, meaning that Condit produces a miniscule 0.18 percent of PacifiCorps' power capability.

4) Referring to the proposed dam removal settlement as the "blow and go" alternative is a misnomer intended to infuriate the uninformed. The Settlement Agreement actually locks PacifiCorp into footing the bill for dredging and restoration following dam removal -- including $2 million for mitigation and permitting, $1 million for the Yakama Nation's Fishery Enhancement Fund, and $0.5 million for enhancement and maintenance of the Underwood in-lieu site. In addition, significant funds will come to the watershed from the state Salmon Funding Recovery Board once dam removal is approved by FERC. But, most importantly, PacifiCorp has been working in good faith for years on this project. It could simply abandon the project and leave taxpayers with the removal bill. Instead, the precedent-setting Settlement Agreement allows PacifiCorp to operate the facility for several years in order to pay the estimated $17 million bill for removal.

5) While removal opponents have been very vocal of late, all evidence is that our community actually favors removal. At the last major hearing held by FERC (at the White Salmon Park Center in February 1996), dam removal supporters vastly outnumbered opponents. Of the nearly 50 people who spoke, only about a half-dozen spoke in favor of retaining the dam. Most were cabin owners on Northwestern Lake.

One has to feel for the couple of dozen cabin owners who stand to lose their lake. However, they entered their leases understanding that PacifiCorp owns the lake and the land surrounding it. Besides, how terrible will it be to live on salmon-bearing riverfront property?

Finally, the rest of the country is lining up to support the removal effort. Even the National Hydropower Association, the pro-dam lobbying group, said that removing Condit Dam is a "win-win" solution.

White Salmon residents who want to see salmon restored to the White Salmon River must continue to speak up.

Jay Letto lives in Snowden.

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