Just a week after the General Accounting Office gave a lukewarm review of the federal government's long-running efforts to preserve the salmon population in the region, environmentalists touted the RAND study as proof that the dams could be knocked down with virtually no harm to the region's power supply or economy.
"We are going to ask Congress and the administration to look very carefully at this report and think about the investment that the region needs to make in removing the Lower Snake dams to recover the salmon (population)," said Steve Moyer, vice president for conservation programs at Trout Unlimited.
The RAND report found that the approximately1,250 megawatts of generating capacity that would be lost if the dams were removed could be seamlessly replaced with a combination of natural gas generation, wind power and new energy efficiency technology.
Natural gas, RAND said, is more reliable in terms of price and supply than hydropower because it does not depend on sometimes-erratic rain and snowfall levels. In addition, the Pacific Northwest is handy to the gas basins of Wyoming and western Canada, and just one large-scale gas-powered generating plant can churn out 1,200 MW of electricity on its own.
"The electricity portfolio could be diversified through efficiency and renewable (energy) without much impact on the economy, either positive or negative," RAND's report said. "Diversification could therefore provide an opportunity to hedge against future volatility in natural-gas prices, and supply as well as in hydroelectric production, while also providing other benefits to the region, including environmental benefits."
Among the other benefits to the region would be a net gain of 15,000 permanent jobs in the Northwest over 20 years depending on the types of new power generation that took the place of the current hydroelectric facilities.
Environmentalists told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that the report proved the dams could be removed with no negative impacts on the human population and a 200 percent to 400 percent boom in the current salmon population over a 50-year period.
"This study lays out opportunities for getting off the roller-coaster that we have been on for investments in energy efficiency, and certainly the salmon protection roller-coaster that we've been on for the last 20 years while trying to stabilize their populations at healthy levels," suggested Nancy Hirsh of the Northwest Energy Coalition.
The number of salmon in the Snake River has been on the decline since the dams were built, and their removal has been an ambitious and high profile goal of environmental and Native American groups that see returning the river to its natural, free-flowing state as the best way to revive the salmon population and its fellow game fish, the steelhead trout.
The idea, however, has clashed with economic interests in the area, which depends on the electricity produced by the dams. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have refused to take the controversial plunge and begin razing the dams in favor of projects to help the fish get past the dams as they make their way downstream to the Columbia River and then back in the fall to spawn.
But after nearly a dozen federal agencies spent around $1.5 billion between the 1997 and 2001 fiscal years, the results were mixed.
"Federal agencies have undertaken many types of recovery actions and, although these actions are generally viewed as resulting in higher numbers of returning adult salmon and steelhead, there is little conclusive evidence to quantify the extent of their effects on returning fish populations," the GAO said in its 94-page report sent to Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
The various agencies cited in the GAO report countered that the survey was an oversimplification of a complex issue, and the GAO stated that the dams were by no means the only factor in the salmon decline. Climate, disease, erosion and over-fishing have also battered the salmon population of the Snake River.
In addition, the RAND report did not get into the political aspect of the debate, particularly the agricultural and recreational interests who may not want the current water situation upset.
But the environmentalist panel contended Wednesday that the potential complications will be offset if the Pacific Northwest comes out a net winner in terms of employment, energy and hardy salmon populations, and if the federal government pulls the plug on costly schemes that basically preserve four dams that are no longer needed.
"What will stop the momentum toward removing the Lower Snake River dams -- and the only thing that will stop it -- is restoration of salmon without the removal of the dams," vowed Pat Ford of Save Our Wild Salmon. "The people of the Northwest will demand the restoration of salmon, especially knowing it will not harm the economy."