Sara Patton is director of the NW Energy Coalition based in Seattle, Wash.

Sunday, 6 Jun 1999


I am home from several days in Portland, Ore., attempting to type through the ministrations of my small white cat who apparently missed me while I was gone. On Friday I was on a panel in a seminar titled “Hydroelectricity in Today’s Competitive Western Marketplace.” It was a continuing legal education seminar, but the attendance was heavily weighted toward electric utility folks, power marketers, the Bonneville Power Administration, trade press, and other hydroelectricity enthusiasts.

My panel was entitled “To Breach or Not to Breach.” The subject was the four lower Snake River dams. The NW Energy Coalition has endorsed partial removal of these four dams and replacement of the energy produced by them with energy conservation and clean renewables. The Coalition is not alone in this radical position for the Northwest: hundreds of environmental, sports fishing, commercial fishing, consumer protection, and other groups have already endorsed taking out the dams. In March the Emerald People’s Utility District became the first electric utility to endorse removal. 206 scientists have taken the remarkable step of writing a joint letter to President Clinton to say that barging baby salmon around the dams will not stop extinction and taking the dams out will. The Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign is organizing the regional and national effort.

It was clear that I was on the breach side of the panel. Rob Lothrop, a well-respected advocate from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was my ally. We faced Jack Robertson, deputy administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, and John Saven, director of NW Irrigating Utilities.

I knew the audience was not at all likely to be persuaded even by the formidable facts, inexorable analysis, and penetrating political insight which Rob and I had to offer. The idea that four large federally built and operated dams — which provide 1136 megawatts of electricity (the city of Seattle uses about 1100 a year) and make Lewiston, Idaho, into a seaport in the Rocky Mountains — will be rendered impotent simply to save salmon is inconceivable to most hydroelectric utility folks. It is much worse than that to irrigation interests, aluminum smelters, and bargers: it is an assault on their way of life and on their cushy spot at the federal subsidy trough. That’s not what I said to them, though, at least not in so many words.

I led off the panel with the usual invocation of the breadth and diversity of the nearly 90 organizational members of the Energy Coalition (environmental, consumer, civic, and low-income groups; energy efficiency businesses; renewables developers; and progressive electric and gas utilities). Then I explained that, as a woman, I fit the stereotype which prefers more neutral terms like “bypass” and “removal” to the term “breach” because of the negative connotation of breach birth.

But, I noted, my background also includes a bachelor’s degree in English lit from a Portland institution, Reed College. So my uneasiness with “breach” was overcome by the literary allusion to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on suicide. I was inspired to reimagine the soliloquy from the salmon’s point of view and to come to a more positive conclusion than the melancholy Dane (who after all did opine that there was something fishy in Denmark). Then I read them the following with apologies to William Shakespeare:

To breach or not to breach, that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the gill to suffer
The turbines and spillways of outrageous hydro,
Or to take fins against a river of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to spawn
No more, and behind these dams to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That fish is heir to? Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be squished!

Let conscience make brave stewards of us all
And let the native hue of resolution
Be wed to the E.I.S. of thought
And breach these dams with great pith and moment!
Allow the stream its current to recover
And save the chinook and the steelhead of the Snake.

There was chuckling during the soliloquy, which I expected, but imagine my surprise when they broke into applause at the conclusion! I do not flatter myself that the Anti-Salmoncide Soliloquy changed many minds in that audience. I hope it opened them up to the synopsis of science, economics, cultural impact, clean energy potential, and politics which Rob and I presented for the breach side of the proposition. The salmon need all the help we can get for them.