The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is blamed for stalling or even blocking recovery of Idaho’s salmon. But a historian says the Corps considers itself a good soldier following society’s mixed orders.
“It’s this kind of West Point approach of absolutely apolitical obedience to the nation,” said Todd Shallat, author of “Structures in the Stream,” a history of the dam- and levee-building powerhouse since 1802. “Politics is messy, but technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”
These days, the Corps is a defendant in virtually every conservationist lawsuit to save the endangered Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon. Runs returning to Idaho have declined sharply in recently years, and many experts put the primary responsibility on Corps-built dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The “Idaho plan” championed by former Gov. Cecil Andrus, the state Department of Fish and Game and environmentalists demands modifications at the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the lower Snake River.
And the Corps annually wrestles with salmon advocates over whether proposed drawdowns of reservoirs behind those dams will do more to save young migrating salmon than barging them past the concrete impoundments has done in the past.
The Corps was born during the early days of the republic amid the fiery debate between those advocating a strong central government for the new nation and those who feared the rise of bureaucracy.
The agency decided early on that it was best to appear nonpartisan and focus on pure engineering, said Shallat, director of Boise State University’s public history program.
“But they never could dodge politics. They were political from day one,” he said.
Meantime, the Corps took on such huge projects as defying the natural shift of the Mississippi River’s course through Louisiana and building the gargantuan dams that harnessed the power of the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The dams were constructed with the public’s approval for navigation, flood control and the ancillary benefits of irrigation and hydropower.
Corps surveyors planning Lucky Peak Dam on the Boise River in 1942 heard a unified voice of support from irrigators and Boise residents concerned about the river overflowing its boundaries after a wet winter.
Northwest dams still generate the nation’s cheapest electricity.
Shallat said the salmon were really an afterthought as the impoundments were built. The Corps and the public believed that any problems created by technology at the dams could be fixed with more sophisticated technology.
But the environmental movement emerged about 25 years ago and Americans focused on saving nature rather than taming it. Shallat said rivers once valued primarily as transportation corridors or water sources for irrigation now are seen by a growing number of people as “doomed ecosystems.”
“Our perception evolves,” Shallat said. “We now want the Everglades as a natural ecosystem so we’re going to turn it back until the culture comes back with another idea of what rivers should be.”Even with salmon runs on the
verge of extinction, the Corps is slow to react to environmentalist demands to alter Snake River dams. But Shallat said the agency is just as intransigent in responding to developers’ demands, and has taken on the mantle of being environmentalist.
“The Corps is waiting for a single word from Congress, and Congress is avoiding the issues,” he said. “You can only follow orders if you have clear orders. The nation has never spoken in one voice, especially with the salmon.”
Still, Shallat does not see the Corps as a mindless construction giant.
“I want the Corps to own up to its ideology, that even though they view themselves as hardheaded technicians, they make some judgment calls. If they deny their role, its frustrating to deal with them.”