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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The scientific consensus on dam breaching is broad and deep, like it or not

UPDATED: Tue., May 10, 2022

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

If it’s springtime, the swallows must be returning to San Juan Capistrano and Todd Myers must be telling whoppers about salmon recovery.

Myers is paid by the Washington Policy Center to provide fact-like statements for conservative politicians to cut and paste into news releases. They call this “research.” He refers to himself as an expert in “free-market environmental policy” and to actual experts in salmon science as “activists” and “radicals.”

He has written posts about our recent record snowpack in terms of climate-change policy – because, in the realm of free-market environmental policy, the continued existence of snow is considered a zingy rejoinder to the irrefutable evidence of a warming planet.

For two years running, he’s peddled a completely invented statistic about pandemic restrictions, claiming that for every two people who died in Washington from COVID-19, one died from pandemic restrictions. It’s an egregiously baseless claim, even by Myers’ standards, and it left state and local epidemiologists baffled and frustrated when I, on two separate occasions, asked them to review his assertion to try and figure out whether there was any legitimate basis for it.

And his ongoing line on the effects of the four lower Snake River dams on salmon recovery – basically that salmon runs are doing well and that those who tell you otherwise are liars – is so unreliable that the people who gather the data he cherry-picks have issued public disavowals of his work.

Still, onward he swims, flapping upriver against the flow of science, headlining WPC events, repurposing his cherries, and taking up space in newspapers – including this one. At every step, he acts as if the massive scientific consensus about dam breaching didn’t exist, and insists that it’s only activists selling you a hysterical narrative about dam removal because, as he bizarrely wrote in his most recent piece, it’s “sexy.”

Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working for a political organization, or being an activist, or a politician, or having an opinion on the dams that is different from the one that nearly all of the scientists in the field have. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opposing dam breaching.

My point today is to encourage you, fact-minded reader – whether you love the dams or hate the dams, whether you adore salmon or loathe them, whether you are left or right, liberal or conservative – to understand the depth of the consensus among scientists on the question.

Here’s a short, far from complete list illustrating that point:

• In 1998, a federal study drawing on the input of 30 scientists, called the Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses, concluded that dam breaching was the surest way to recover declining salmon species. As four fisheries scientists wrote in an op-ed in the Idaho State Journal in 2020, “This option has the highest certainty of success and the lowest risk of failure. PATH reported their findings in 1998, and for the past 20-plus years independent scientists and scientific review panels have consistently re-affirmed PATH conclusions.”

• In 1999, 200 fisheries scientists sent a letter to President Bill Clinton, urging dam removal as necessary to save the salmon runs, which they agreed “cannot be recovered under current river conditions.”

• In 2000, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association survey concluded that breaching offered “more certainty” of recovery than other methods.

• In 2017, the Fish Passage Center, a nonprofit, government-funded group studying salmon in the Columbia Basin, produced a study estimating that dam removal would increase salmon stocks two- to threefold.

• In 2018, 32 salmon scientists in the Pacific Northwest and six scientists who study orcas wrote an open letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, calling for the decommissioning of the dams to help restore salmon runs.

• In 2019, ECONorthwest, a economic consulting firm, produced a cost-benefit analysis that concluded the “benefits of removal exceed the costs, and thus society would likely be better off without the dams.” This study examined a wide range of issues, not just salmon recovery, including transportation, irrigation, recreation, barging and others.

(On the question of salmon recovery, the ECONorthwest report notes that there are differences of opinion about the degree to which dam removal would help restore salmon runs, but it emphasizes that many, many expensive efforts have been undertaken to offset the effects of the dams, without success. It concluded, controversially, that the benefits of removing the dams – in economic terms – would “dwarf the costs the public would incur by removing the dams.”)

Just last year, 68 fisheries scientists from the Northwest issued a public call for removing the dams, in a detailed report that compiled a wide range of scientific arguments, including specifying how far below a sustainable replacement rate for returning salmon we really are on the Snake.

“When all of the existing credible scientific evidence is taken into account, it is clear that removing the four lower Snake River dams, with adequate spill at the remaining lower Columbia River dams, is necessary to restore Snake River salmon populations,” they wrote.

There is no similar listing of scientists arguing on the other side.

Perhaps all those scientists are wrong, and the guy paid to sneer at environmentalists is right. Maybe Myers is the Galileo of salmon science, and all the salmon scientists are the inquisition.

But let’s not hold our breath.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or at shawnv@spokesman.com.

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