A total of four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington have been targeted. Together they generate five percent of the region's electricity; enough to light up Seattle plus provide water for farmers and navigation channels for barges carrying grain and wood chips down the Columbia River system. The problem is what the dams don't do: They don't make it easy for salmon to get out to sea, and return home again to spawn.
"We face a point now where we can either restore this river to a free-flowing state, or we can keep the dams here and say goodbye to the fish," says Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers United. "Every run of salmon and steelhead in the Snake basin is now either extinct or listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This is a great measure of our nation's commitment to environmental restoration."
Bosse is in favor of breaching, which is removing the earthen sections of each dam to give the salmon a free-flowing river. He is part of a coalition of activists, consisting of Indian tribes with treaty rights and commercial fishermen who favor breaching. On the other side are farmers and major industry.
"We don't know if tearing out dams is really going to save a single fish. But we do know, and it is a certainty, that it's going to cost this region billions of dollars," says Dave Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston in Idaho.
More than $320 million in goods were barged from there last year. If the four dams below Lewiston are breached, river levels would fall so low the port couldn't operate. And Doeringsfeld doubts claims that lost jobs will be made up through the increased sports fishing that would follow the salmon's return.
"You'd have to have fishermen lined up on both sides of the river for 200 miles, shoulder to shoulder, to come up with some of those numbers," says Doeringsfeld.
There was a time when residents of the area snickered at the idea that the dams they depend on for so much might be put out of business to save a fish. Even the most strident environmentalist could not envision that happening. But nobody's laughing now, especially not Roger and Mary Dye of rural Pomeroy, Washington. With their two children, they've become the poster family in the campaign against breaching the dams to save the salmon.
"We want them saved. And we want them saved with good science," says Mary. "And it just seems to me like the science that's out there is completely divided, and we're just wondering who's going to win, the wrong side or the right side. Because if the wrong side wins, there won't be any salmn."
The Dyes say the cost of getting their grain to market will increase dramatically if they have to depend on trucks or trains instead of barges.
"I certainly don't want to see the farmers get caught holding the bag," says Joe Norton, who runs the Twin Rivers Anglers Shop in Lewiston, a hangout for fly fishermen with dreams of catching the big one.
Norton thinks farmers should receive transportation subsidies if the dams are breached, and he hopes they are. Otherwise, he says, he'll be out of business.
"I won't be able to survive without our salmon and steelhead," says Norton. "But it's more than that tooÂ…It's a quality of life issue for a lot of people in this area."
Ironically it was quality of life issues that triggered America's dam building spree in the first place, says Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert: A Study of Western Water Politics.
"Along comes Franklin Roosevelt, who's really the patron saint of dam building in America. And we went on a 50-year binge, the likes of which no country has ever done," says Reisner.
Before it was over, 75,000 dams had been built, taming rivers like the mighty Columbia.
"Dams have been, despite their benefits, have been terrifically destructive of nature. I mean, they have decimated salmon populations as nothing else has," says Reisner.
So in recent years, a handful of dams from California to Carolina have been removed. Some were abandoned. Others outlived their usefulness. And now, faced with rapidly diminishing stocks of wild salmon, the nation's bigger dams have been targeted.
"The Endangered Species Act is driving everything right now," Reisner explains. "And I believe the salmon issue ultimately is going to blow up into a political tornado about three times as powerful as the one that swirled around the spotted owl."
Approximately $3 billion has been spent in the last 15 years to save the Snake River salmon, including computer chips to track returning fish and barges to take young fish down river safely.
"What we're trying to do in our study is take a look at the biological impacts on the salmon, and looking for the best way to ensure their survival," says Colonel Eric Mogren. "We're also looking at the economic impacts within the region. I do not think it has to be an either/or type situation, and there are options out there."
Col. Mogren says the Army Corps of Engineers, charged with coming up with a recommendation for Congress, is looking at all options, including removing the dams' earthen sections. Such a move would leave the concrete spillways and power plants as high-and-dry monuments to another time.
"The immediate vision is going to be something less than the nice pristine river that a lot of folks envision when they see this," says Mogren. "You'll see some fairly broad mud flats for a period of time. It will take somewhere from eight to ten yeas before you would get the pristine, if you will, river conditions that a lot of folks are looking for."
It will be costly: nearly a billion dollars for dam removal, lost hydro-electric power and related expenses. But no one knows if it will really work.
"The problem is, it's a crapshoot because you don't know, if you take those dams down, whether those fish really will return in the kinds of numbers that some people say they will," Reisner continues.
"We're going to have to do some waiting and we're going to have to be patient to reap the rewards of our activity here," Bosse explains. "And we're not going to get these fish back overnight. This is really for the next generation, and generations to come after that."
In the end, it comes down to saving a way of life. The question is, whose?