COLUMNIST: Breaching dams will change farmland

California’s lush Napa Valley is packed with thriving vineyards and wineries. In contrast, the surrounding hills are parched and dry – a reminder of what the valley was like before irrigation.

California’s lush Napa Valley is packed with thriving vineyards and wineries. In contrast, the surrounding hills are parched and dry – a reminder of what the valley was like before irrigation.

Adjacent to Napa, California’s Central Valley is nourished by the world’s largest irrigation system with more than 6 million acres of irrigated farmland. At its heart is Shasta Dam, which pumps life-giving water to crops that feed millions of people and produces electricity for millions of homes and businesses.

It is hard to imagine Napa or the Central Valley without water.

The same is true for the lower Snake River Valley in Washington. The fertile farm belt is home to hundreds of vineyards, apple orchards and crop lands. Without water, however, the area would revert to barren sagebrush, suitable only for jackrabbits and rattlesnakes.

That is why it is hard to figure out why politicians like Congressman Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, continue to push for removing the four lower Snake River Dams — dams that provide critical irrigation water to the Snake River Valley.

Without the dams, thousands of jobs would evaporate and an important food producing region would dry up, along with state and local government revenues. Power bills would jump again with the loss of additional hydropower facilities, which supply 70 percent of our state’s electricity.

Thankfully, Gov. Chris Gregoire opposes McDermott’s effort to remove the dams. She realizes that without the Snake River reservoirs, the region would become an arid wasteland.

Breaching the Snake River dams just doesn’t make sense, especially when environment-conscious California is doing just the opposite. Elected officials there are considering raising the 602-foot Shasta Dam to provide more water, food and power for the state’s 36 million people.

Raising Shasta Dam would also help salmon runs. Before the Central Valley dams were built, the lack of freshwater hampered Sacramento River salmon runs. As the Bay Area grew, the cities drew water from the rivers, leaving less fresh water to flow into San Francisco Bay. The resulting saline creep clobbered salmon runs and wiped out delta farmlands.

But today, the reservoirs hold water to flush young salmon to sea, allow adults to return to spawn and create cold water pools for them to congregate. The result: Salmon runs are returning to the Sacramento River.

Salmon runs are returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers as well. Despite some heated debate over the years, people have figured out how to work together and wisely use the rivers, reservoirs and water for all.

That cooperation spawned a historic agreement in which state and federal agencies, biologists, most tribes and other river users agreed on a plan for the rivers without breaching the dams. The agreement is known as the Biological Opinion, or BiOp.

Unfortunately, the BiOp was tossed out by James Redden, a federal district judge in Portland. Ignoring the consensus, Judge Redden single-mindedly continues to insist that any BiOp that crosses his desk must include breaching the dams.

So, despite a hard-won agreement that protects fish and people, this issue is headed back to the courtroom. That makes absolutely no sense. While the lawyers get rich, the people depending upon the water are left in limbo.

California’s irrigation network proves that it is possible to provide enough water for people, fish and crops. There is no need to return Washington’s Snake River Valley to desert.

Breaching the dams is wrong in any case, but the effort seems particularly cruel now as people struggle to survive in our crippled economy.

How does McDermott justify an effort that would kill jobs, devastate our agricultural economy, displace hundreds of thousands of people and destroy a hydropower system that provides clean, affordable, renewable energy?

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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