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Opinion: Save the planet -- save the hydro dams

Today is Earth Day. Do you remember the first one? It was April 22, 1970. Acid rain was killing New England's lakes. Lake Erie was so polluted it actually caught fire. Did you get a whiff of the air along Hilltop during Kool April Nights? That nostalgic smell of vintage car exhaust buried L.A. in an eye-burning ozone haze. Thanks to that first Earth Day, Congress passed the U.S. Clean Water and Clean Air acts and President Nixon formed the EPA.

In 37 years, we have accomplished much. New cars now emit only 1 percent of the pollution of that old Dodge Barracuda. Despite doubling our state population, California's air is the cleanest it has been in 50 years. Wild salmon and steelhead, both clean-water junkies, now happily swim up the Sacramento River right past local sewage treatment plants. Endangered species now can stop logging or construction operations cold. But now the U.N. scientists say we may have been ignoring the most-dangerous pollutants -- carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.

I've seen "An Inconvenient Truth." I've read portions of the just-released U.N. global warming report. I don't know what to think. The U.N. climatologists lay out powerful and scary scenarios. Much of the world and many of our state and national leaders are buying in on those scenarios. From their talk, they plan to take action. But what forms will their actions take? They may not realize just how much they will have to rewrite current environmental policy.

Let me put it this way: Assume the U.N.'s worst-case scenario is correct. We Americans have three options: Save the polar bears, save the salmon, or maintain our current standard of living. Pick any two.

Case in point: In 2002, salmon runs coming up the Klamath River suffered a serious die-off. Fish experts primarily blamed it on infections caused by a variety of factors, including low water flows from a dry rain year combined with increased agricultural diversions. Four PacificCorp hydroelectric plants and dams in northeastern Siskiyou County were also cited by some because they hinder salmon migration upstream.

These hydro plants' 50-year federal hydroelectric licenses are up for renewal. Using old-school environmental logic, the California Energy Commission has recommended rejecting the renewal application, even if PacificCorp spends up to $300 million to put in new fish ladders. Instead, the CEC recommended that PacificCorp a) demolish the dams to help the salmon reach now-lost spawning beds upstream, and b) buy replacement power from gas-fired power plants near Klamath Falls. The commission suggested the power generated through the Klamath hydro project was "insignificant."

Insignificant? PacificCorp's hydro turbines produce 359 gigawatt-hours of carbon-free electricity each year. Yeah, that's insignificant -- it's only three-fourths of Siskiyou County's total yearly electrical consumption. From a global-warming perspective, that replacement power from the gas-fired power plants will produce 220,000 tons per year of new carbon dioxide emissions. Insignificant? Those new emissions equal all automotive-related carbon emissions by everyone in Siskiyou and Del Norte counties combined.

But can't solar replace hydropower better and cheaper, without environmental harm? Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited global warming as a primary reason for his $3 billion "Million Roof" solar initiative. The initiative plans to put 3,000 megawatts of solar electric systems on California's roofs in the next 10 years, with taxpayers/utility ratepayers subsidizing $3 billion of the $15 billion cost. For this $15 billion investment, California will get 4,900 gigawatt-hours/year of carbon-free power. Compare this to the $300 million investment for 359 gigawatt-hours/year. With this hydropower plant rehab, you can get almost four times the carbon reduction for your dollar compared to solar.

These global warming factors are irrelevant in today's established environmental review process. But if you had limited money and just 10 years to cut your carbon emissions in half before the planet starts irreversibly cooking, which investment would make more sense to you?

Earth Day. Thanks to that one day 37 years ago, certain environmental priorities have become institutionalized in our standard practices, with fish, birds and shrimp trumping everything else. But if the U.N. climatologists are right about their global-warming worst-case scenario, we need a new environmental paradigm. One where carbon/greenhouse gas reduction trumps all else, maybe even fish, birds and shrimp. If we don't, in 20 years we may all be sweating under the shade of our solar panel arrays, out of work, looking over the scorched forests and dried rivers in the distance. Pitying our fate, we will take solace by rationalizing, "At least we tried -- we did go all-solar."

Polar bears, salmon or our standard of living. Pick any two. Go for all three, and we may lose it all.

Record Searchlight contributing columnist Keith Ritter can be reached at keithritter_rs@yahoo.com.

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