Destruction or construction? Dams from the Pacific NW to SE Asia
Last Wednesday, Pacific Power blew up the nearly 100-year-old Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in south central Washington, opening up miles of unencumbered salmon habitat. On the other side of the globe, nations in SE Asia are planning massive new hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong River. Weighing the uncertain costs of the dams, speakers at the October 26 Solutions Seminar, hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, discussed the contrasting histories and futures of these two rivers.
The Lower Mekong River meanders through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Plans to build dams on the Lower Mekong date back to the 1950s, but were quickly sidelined by the onset of the Vietnam War. Now, these outdated plans have been resurrected and are nearing implementation.
Resources in the basin are managed by the Mekong River Commission, an advisory body comprising members from the four involved countries. Ida Kubiszewski, Research Assistant Professor at the Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions, spoke about a report she co-authored for the commission this past July on the potential profits and losses of the eleven proposed hydropower dams. Considering potential profits from power generation, the report also figures in negative costs, such as the loss of fish as a primary food source for 60 million people, reduced wetland flood protection, and disruptions to many other ecological systems that provide valuable natural services. Ultimately, the report suggests that the total estimated cost to the region, $274 billion, far exceeds the estimated gain of $33 billion. The Commission has postponed its decision about whether or not to allow construction of the first dam until next year.
On the White Salmon, a move to restore the ecosystem to its natural state was also spurred by cost analysis. With the century-old contract up for renegotiation, the EPA was able to stipulate that the power company install fish ladders to protect native species. Figuring that the fish ladders would cost Pacific Power three times more than removing the dam, they opted to pull the plug.
Perhaps the most provocative question of the evening seminar came from a forth grader named Emillee in regard to the relocation of salmon before the breaching of the Conduit Dam. Stepping up to a microphone twice her height, she asked “Did any of the salmon die when they were being transported?” The seemingly simple question prompted a lengthy discussion about the ultimate uncertainty of both building and removing dams. We can make educated predictions, but really only time will tell how our actions, whether destructive or constructive, affect natural ecosystems.