Dams, Yogurt, and Saving Native Fish

Earlier this month, while driving on back roads along rolling wheat fields near the small town of Colfax on the Washington and Idaho border, a huge “Save the Dams” banner posted on the side of a farmer’s red barn caught my eye. The “Save the Dams” in question are the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington (Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor). I was familiar with those dams after watching a documentary last winter called “DamNation,” which promoted the idea opposite to the barn banner. The film highlights efforts to remove the lower Snake River dams and other dams in the western United States. The trailer for the movie is below.

In this new era of dam breaching in the western United States there is a renewed push to build a new dam in Idaho on the free flowing Weiser River just a few miles from where I live. The Idaho Department of Water Resources has been studying damming this section of river between Weiser and Midvale for years. If built, the 300-foot high Galloway Dam would cost over $500 million dollars to construct, create a 15-mile reservoir, flood 4600 acres of private land and 2000 acres of public land and wildlife territory, and 15 miles of the 84-mile long Rails-to-Trails Weiser River National Recreation Trail.

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Three months ago, I had a chance to float the 22-mile secluded river canyon section of the river they want to dam with a group of experienced boaters who had donated their time and their rafts and kayaks for the day. Our flotilla of at least thirty consisted of members from the Idaho Conservation League, Friends of the Weiser River Trail, Idaho Rivers United, and a few other curious individuals like me wanting to see this section of water from the river’s perspective.

It was a beautiful day for floating. We launched in the cool morning near the small village of Midvale, and it wasn’t long before the spring river flows took us to the canyon section. Upon entering the canyon we saw a couple of bald eagles protecting their nest and river otters peeking their heads out of the water before disappearing again. Our volunteer boat guide, who had never floated the Weiser before, navigated us through some fun splashy rapid sections and noted what a treat it was to discover the Weiser for spring trips when other rivers have too much water to safely float.

 

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One of the current arguments for building the Galloway Dam on the Weiser River relates to a statute saying that Idaho has to release 427,000 acre feet of water annually to augment lower Snake River flows for anadromous fish such as sockeye salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Releasing that much water for the fish wasn’t a problem until recently when the State of Idaho over-appropriated water rights in the Upper Snake River and Idaho aquifer to support the rapidly growing dairy industry near Twin Falls, Idaho.

One of these new private industries, Chobani, is now the world’s largest yogurt manufacturing plant. To make yogurt you need milk. According to Chobani, the average Idaho cow produces 65 pounds of milk a day, and they need 30,000 cows per day to produce the amount of milk needed each day at the Chobani Twin Falls plant. That’s a lot of milk and a lot of cows that need to be fed. Because of the huge milk demand, the alfalfa feed industry is also expanding in the dry Arco desert, and watering all that alfalfa is drawing huge amounts of water from the already dwindling Idaho aquifer.

Those downstream suffer from the agricultural industry and human population growth in the Twin Falls area. For example, on the lower Snake River down in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, the water quality from agricultural runoff and upstream water treatment discharges sometimes gets so bad in the hot summer that you don’t dare eat the fish, swim in, or let our dog drink the scummy pea green water. The water is also hazardous to both wildlife and livestock. Just this week the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued a health advisory about harmful and potentially toxic algal blooms on the Snake River 10 miles north of Oxbow Dam.

In the future, will the Greek yogurt fad eventually fade and become a thing of the past and then we’re stuck with this huge new Galloway Dam if built? I now have mixed feelings about buying Chobani yogurt. Am I supporting a New York corporation or supporting the Idaho workers who work at the yogurt plant and the Idaho dairy farmers two hundred miles from where I live?

I’m no expert on whether the Galloway Dam should be built or not. Decide for yourself. Below are photos of the Weiser River and two of many railroad trestles along the Weiser River Trail that would be inundated by water.  In my opinion, it would be a shame to flood all that beautiful remote country and flood part of the Weiser River Trail.

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The whole dam thing anywhere is hard to grasp.  Most of the good-paying jobs in my small town and in this area are with Idaho Power, working on the three dams down on the Snake River in Hells Canyon (Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon). How can I be against dams when most of my good neighbors work at those dams? The dams are vital to our town’s economy and power from those dams provides electricity to our homes. Would building the Galloway Dam boost our economy by bringing new jobs and families to the area, if only temporarily?

The statute to help the native fish ends on December 31, 2034. Will it be renewed? In the end, whatever happens, I just hope the wild sockeye salmon and steelhead that try to migrate back to Idaho don’t suffer even more and eventually become, permanently, a thing of the past.

 

 

 

 

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