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Originally published Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 4:33 PM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

A new twist in dam removal on the Snake River

As a federal judge in Portland prepares to respond to the latest operating plan for the Columbia River Basin, community leaders in Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., asked for end to continued long-term uncertainty. If dams stay or go, their communities will need substantial help adjusting.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Dam removal on the Lower Snake River always lurks in the ruminations of U.S. District Judge James Redden on salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin.

Whether viewed as a threat or remediation, I could not imagine dams being breached. Until now.

Twenty-one community leaders from Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., sent a July 8 letter to their senators and representatives asking to be included in any future assessments of the dams' status. Any decision directly affects the welfare of residents.

The towns sit at the end of the line, behind Lower Granite Dam, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. Accumulating sediment and rising reservoir levels mean protective levees will have to be raised if the dams stay. Higher levees further isolate the communities from the water, but also would require relocating municipal infrastructure built to the current flood risk.

Breach dams, and these distant ports will need help with highways and rail service to replace barge traffic.

Lewiston City Councilor Jim Kluss points out the letter does not argue for a particular outcome, only that the towns want an informed resolution and recognition they will need significant help adjusting to either choice. The worst option is continued long-term uncertainty.

Kluss and others who signed the letter are merchants and business owners. Kluss, who has an appliance store, is part of a family farm dating back to the 1800s. Dam removal requires adjustments, he said, but the promise of an economic boom used to promote the dams never came about.

Redden has been wrestling with the managers of the Federal Columbia River Power System for most of the decade. He wants a reliable plan for salmon and steelhead recovery in a river environment with 14 dams. In particular through the Bush years, he bounced back biological opinions with obtuse and timid intentions.

This February, the federal judge pointedly laid out his expectations about what he wanted to hear in March when all parties met to discuss a revised 2008 biological opinion. In particular, he wanted detailed options if government plans for habitat and hatchery improvements did not work.

In March, Redden told the feds to have a plan for dam removal in their list of recommendations. In April and May, he expressed his pleasure at the fresh attitude the Obama administration brought to tough issues. In May, he granted an extension of time for more review and preparation.

But in a May 18 letter, Redden repeated his call for specifics: plans for dam removal; drawdown of water behind dams, such as the John Day; sending more water through the dams; and tributary and estuary habitat improvements.

In March, Redden acknowledged, "I don't know that breaching dams is the solution. I hope it is never done, but that's the last fallback."

The fight over dam removal has pitted two organized, well-financed factions against one another: environmental interests and river users, for whom the system is a superhighway.

Lately, the role of the hydroelectric dams as a reliable ally against global warming — a clean, regional energy source to back up wind- and solar-power generation — has gained more attention.

The letter from Lewiston and Clarkston community leaders adds an important, new dimension. As the legal debate goes on, and sediment is piling up, the mounting uncertainty has consequences. They bring their futures to the table, not an ideological prescription. The conversation changed.

Correction: A name in a document title was misspelled in my July 10 column: Ridley Cambridge Covenant Draft Text.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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