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12 Ways the Mid-Columbia
Will Be Different Without Dams

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 1999

The lower four Snake River dams between Pasco and Lewiston serve a variety of interests - navigation, power production, recreation and irrigation, chief among them. But they destroy salmon spawning habitat.

Pushed by the Endangered Species Act, this winter federal agencies may recommend tearing out the dams built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the '60s and '70s.

Here's what Mid-Columbia life might be like without the dams:

  1. Without the dams, Pasco becomes the farthest upriver port from Portland - a position that will increase its importance as a transportation hub even as about 9 percent of Pasco's farm jobs evaporate.

    "In effect," said a Army Corps of Engineers report, "Pasco would receive a high percentage of jobs lost by Lewiston, Clarkston and the other lower Snake River water port operations."

    But it still wouldn't replace the jobs lost.

    Kennewick's expanding retail and service businesses would suffer from dam removal, as farmers spend less money in town. Expect about a 2.5 percent drop in Kennewick's and Pasco's employment, according to a corps report.

    Less than half the jobs in each city would be replaced by growing industries such as trucking or operating yet-unplanned power plants.

    Truck traffic into Pasco from the north would increase between 6 percent and 21 percent, likely forcing Tri-City commuters to find new routes as common ones get more crowded.

    But the biggest impacts in the Tri-Cities would probably be intangible and insidious - fear.

    Fear about the gap between when the old jobs end and new jobs begin. Fear that the John Day pool on the Columbia below the Tri-Cities also will be lowered, a move that could dry up thousands more acres and further isolate the Tri-Cities. And fear that property taxes would drop, limiting chances for getting enough money for economic development projects and maintaining the current level of services.

    But there could be an upside - if the fish rebound. "More fish mean more business," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "The more there are, the more economic opportunity it creates. ... That is one reason why if we can bring these rivers back, it makes economic sense."

    Besides, say environmental groups, very little has been done to figure out how to buffer the economy from the ill effects of dam breaching, something they contend is possible.

  2. Snake River basin counties are preparing for a hit in the wallet as dryland farm profits drop because of increased shipping costs without the channeled waterway.

    There's another reason for all the doom and gloom predictions - the loss of high-value orchards and vineyards in Franklin and Walla Walla counties. In Franklin County, that land is assessed at about $26 million.

    Without river water, it's worth virtually nothing.

    The decrease in land value would mean about $42,000 less a year generated for Franklin County's current expense budget of $3.9 million, said Assessor Steve Marks. "It's not a lot of money over the scope of all the departments," he said. "But $42,000 in a small county is something ... to be looked at as far as what cutbacks would have to be made."

    Frank Brock, Franklin County commissioner, sees "absolutely no" potential benefits in dam breaching. "It is going to hurt business in Franklin County tremendously," he said.

    In March, Pasco schools passed a $26 million construction bond with strong support of Snake River irrigators, said Larry Peters, finance director for the Pasco School District. If those farmers go out of business, the bond debt falls on remaining businesses and residents.

    "That's hurtful," Peters said. All else being equal, "the tax rate goes up for everybody else."

    County budgets would also feel another pinch. With large increases in wheat trucked to Pasco, some rural roads will crumble. Others will be jammed.

    "We will actually be losing tax base ... while at the same time we need a major capital outlay for roads," said Bob Carlton, Columbia County assessor. "We're not talking a patch job here. Were talking main road rebuilds."

    Much of that burden would fall to the state. Highway 26 - a two-lane state road through the Palouse - would be the worst hit, with a traffic increase of 13 percent to 34 percent, one report predicts.

    But cars and trucks bring money - both in increased spending along newly popular routes and increased jobs for road and rail improvements. There also would be thousands of other jobs for dam removal and power plant building, creating an employment bonanza for a few years.

  3. Breach the Snake dams and power would have to be generated other ways, such as two new natural gas plants.

    The Lower Snake River dams provide about 5 percent of the region's power and 11 percent of the region's federally generated power. And they are an important part of BPA's electricity West Coast transmission system.

    Ratepayers likely will be on the hook to pay for dam breaching and new plants as part of their utility bills, unless Congress takes an unexpectedly kind look at the Northwest, which currently has the cheapest power rates in the nation outside the region served by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

    Annual household electrical bills to pay for breaching would jump $12 to $63.

    Power-hungry industries such as irrigated farming and aluminum production would lose part of their price advantage over other regions, though California industries currently pay up to 100 percent more for power.

    Northwest aluminum companies - huge employers in Klickitat and Spokane counties - would pay roughly $500,000 more a month in electricity bills, according to corps reports.

    Total jobs lost because of increased power costs would be about 1,500. But construction of two new power plants would bring a short-term job boom of 3,624 and a long-term gain of 1,100 jobs to operate the power plants, likely in the Hermiston-Umatilla area, the corps predicts.

    Tom Gilleese at the Hermiston Development Corp. doesn't believe jobs in a new power plant will replace what's lost elsewhere in the economy. And he's concerned the delay between dams going down and new plants being up will stifle development for years.

  4. Without barges floating the lowered Snake River, an overcrowded rail system would strain under more wheat than it can carry, as would the region's truck fleet.

    Just what that would mean depends on how transportation moguls find a new balance of supply and demand.

    In any case, without the Snake dams trains would need to move 1.1 million tons of grain a year to meet demand - something farmers doubt the rail companies are prepared to do and corps studies note as a major potential problem.

    And more trucks and trains would mean up to 20 times more exhaust emissions, according to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

    That's if trains can even reach grain fields.

    Nearly 2,000 miles of Washington's 5,340 miles of rail lines were abandoned between 1970 and 1997, according to a research paper by Washington State University. In Columbia County, for instance, all but one rail spur to country grain terminals are long gone because most farmers have shipped by barge for years. Remaining lines are decades old.

    "We're bottlenecked," said Bob Carlton, Columbia County assessor and farmer. Without the river, "we can't get empty."

    One study said it would cost $265 million to $315 million for highway and rail improvements - a high hurdle if Initiative 695 passes this fall and reduces car taxes.

    Jim Baker, a Sierra Club spokesman, said farmers should be happy dam breaching would force road and rail upgrades and reduce their dependence on barges.

    "Surprising as it may seem, Snake Basin salmon recovery can actually work to protect - not destroy - the local agricultural economy," he said.

    No ports above Ice Harbor, however, would benefit Pasco, which is situated to become the hub where most of the Palouse grain drains to Portland.

    "That scenario only works out if the (farm) businesses are still there," said Jim Toomey, executive director of the Port of Pasco. "I am not so convinced that we are just going to be sitting on a gold mine."

    Nevertheless, the Port of Pasco isn't at capacity and wouldn't mind more business to continue its growth.

    Also, beefed-up trucking and rail industries will bring in between 2,500 and 4,300 short-term jobs to the region, shifting employment from rural areas to trade routes such as highways 12 and 26.

    That brings its own problems. For instance, the stretch of highway between Colfax and Highway 395 would suffer almost 9 percent more accidents, the corps report predicted.

    "Transportation infrastructure impacts, overall, are not predicted to be onerous if rail car supply is adequate and rates do not change," the WSU report stated. "However, it is unlikely, in the short term, that the rail companies would be able to absorb all the grain which changes from barge to rail."

  5. Along the Lower Snake River, 75 pumps draw river water to irrigate at least 37,000 acres of farmland. They produce enough potatoes, apples, grapes, corn and other crops to feed 1 billion people, according to the Columbia River Alliance, a group of river users.

    Snake River farms are about 12 percent of the irrigated farmland in Franklin and Walla Walla counties, but just a small part of the state's 1.6 million irrigated acres.

    An estimated 13,000 more acres are irrigated from wells near the Snake River, but these holes could dry up if the river level is lowered.

    Corps reports determined there is no "technically and economically viable" way to modify irrigation pump intakes to make them work without the Lower Snake River dams. A big part of the problem is the huge amounts of sediment that would muddy the river and clog irrigation pipes, probably for years.

    Given that, direct and indirect farm-related job losses from dam breaching would be the most dramatic of anywhere in the region - roughly 2,200 according to the corps.

    Environmentalists call that "affordable" and "manageable" given the 318,000 jobs in the Lower Snake region.

    Dam breaching would cost irrigators between $130 million and $300 million in lost production and land value. If nearby well-irrigated land also was forced out of production, the base-case net loss goes to $180 million, the corps estimates.

    Boise Cascade grows 8,500 acres of cottonwood trees for its Wallula paper mill using Snake River water. Company spokeswoman Karen Caddey said mill work would go on even without those trees, which were first harvested in 1997, but fewer local trees would mean shipping more in and increasing costs.

    Also, unleashing sediment from behind the dams would muddy the Wallula pool that backs up through the Tri-Cities, a potentially serious problem for Columbia River irrigators including Boise Cascade.

    "We think about it and worry about it a lot," said Chuck Wierman, fiber farm manager.

  6. Imagine, asks Liz Hamilton, that the Tri-Cities got fish fever.

    Imagine, she asks, that sportfishers flocked to the fast, low Snake River a decade after the dams were torn out to catch abundant runs of chinook and steelhead.

    "We have a lot of excitement about that vision," said Hamilton, a four-generation angler with the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in Portland. Many in the fishing business share her enthusiasm, especially after a bountiful fishing season near Astoria this fall created a short-lived euphoria until fears about catching too many Snake River fall chinook shut it down.

    "We can see some prosperity going down river," Hamilton said. "There is just so much energy and aliveness when salmon swim through a community."

    But it would take time. The "natural" river would leave roughly 30,000 acres of riverbed exposed - creating two 140-mile-long bands of mud from Pasco to Lewiston. The corps anticipates "restoring" those lands would take the next 20 years.

    With a lower river, 11 of 32 recreation areas would be closed because they no longer provided access to water and 18 others would need changes. All 10 of the marinas could not operate, and other regional parks such as Columbia Park, Crow Butte State Park and Lake Coeur d'Alene could expect increased visits as anglers and boaters looked for new areas.

    Ten years after the dams are breached, however, a surge of white-water rafters and anglers to the free-flowing river could be expected to generate up to nearly 1,600 jobs.

    Recreation on a "natural" river would move toward activities such as jet boating and white-water rafting, expected to bring in another $67 million a year, according to the corps' mid-range estimate. Most of that new money, however, would be from California, and the corps is "uncertain" how many Californians would actually come visit.

    For the Lower Snake River basin, a "natural" river also would mean jobs in the sportfishing business, another 1,500 jobs over 20 years.

    "The question I would ask to defenders of these dams is do they have a better rural economic development program for the Snake River basin in the 21st century?" said Sierra Club spokesman Jim Baker.

  7. If it weren't for the four dams above Pasco, the Snake River would stretch 220 free-flowing miles from Pasco to Hells Canyon - where it's impounded by the massive Idaho Power complex.

    That stretch is four times longer than the free-flowing Hanford Reach above Richland, the best fall chinook spawning ground on the Columbia River. A 1998 study by the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College predicted that without the dams the Lower Snake would become another Reach.

    And even if the Lower Snake didn't turn into a Reach-like spawning ground, it remains a critical link to Idaho's Salmon and Clearwater river basins.

    Just having the salmon alive in a free-flowing river is worth $1 billion to the region's psyche, a corps report contends. That's about how much it would cost for the physical work to tear out the dams.

    The Lower Snake River has been anything but a productive river in recent years. In the 1960s, more than 100,000 wild salmon returned to the Snake River each year, according to Save Our Wild Salmon. Today, fewer than 10,000 return to spawn, and some studies show extinction of Snake stocks by 2017 if nothing changes.

    That threat prompted 200 scientists to send a letter to President Clinton earlier this year citing support for breaching and saying current measures were falling far short for salmon recovery.

    Controversial studies by a science team called Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses concluded the best chance for restoring Snake River spring chinook runs is to breach the four dams - though it noted considerable uncertainty. Computer models showed breaching promised almost two times better chances to restore some runs than barging more fish downstream.

    Tim Stearns at Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle cited studies that indicate the current barging system returns salmon at 15 times less than the rate needed to restore the runs.

    A 1996 study by the Institute for Fisheries Resources said predevelopment Columbia River fish runs would support up to 25,000 family-wage jobs - what it called "the cost of doing nothing" to restore the runs.

    If the dams are torn down, however, fish would have to fight a nearly unfathomable amount of sediment from behind the concrete. In all, the corps predicts up to 150 million cubic yards of sediment would flow downstream. That's enough dirt to cover 150 square miles 1 foot deep, raising critical questions about how salmon would survive a move intended to help them.

  8. Tearing down the earthen portions of the four Snake River dams would take about nine years and $1 billion, with major deconstruction mostly in the later half of the next decade, under the current plan.

    Breaching, while technically feasible, presents several challenges, and the schedule depends on cooperation of the snow melt.

    "High river flows threaten the systematic lowering of the reservoirs and create drawdown conditions that endanger workers and property and can destabilize many highway and railroad embankments that border the reservoirs," a corps report stated.

    Work would be on a tight schedule, done by about 3,500 people. Between August and December, the earthen portions of the dams would be removed. The next three months would be for building new levees to channel the river around the concrete structures.

    Lower Granite and Little Goose would be taken down simultaneously, followed by the other two dams the next year.

    Work at each dam would take about 700 workers, most of whom would come from Mid-Columbia union halls. Short-term employment is expected to jump by 5 or 6 percent along the reservoirs and about 3 percent in the regions above and below, such as the Tri-Cities.

    After deconstruction, jobs in river operations and maintenance would be "significantly reduced," cutting about 1,250 jobs - including several corps positions.

  9. More than 5,000 dryland farms shipped 95 million bushels of grain down the Lower Snake River in 1997-98, mostly bound for export markets.

    Those farms are part of an economic engine that runs on wheat and generates $1 billion annually in Washington.

    "All of this is built around the fact that the transportation system allows the global marketplace to work," said Mike Thorne, executive director of the Port of Portland. "(The river) is a source of wealth."

    But, of course, wheat farmers are battling two years of low prices and even the efficient ones are struggling - which leaves the Palouse at potentially high risk. It's predicted that 30,000 acres of wheat might go out of production without dams because farmers will have to spend more getting their grain to market. The cost: 261 jobs and $6.8 million in income, according to a corps report.

    A typical east Whitman County farm would be expected to lose more than $13,000 in a year when faced by worst-case increases in transportation costs. Whitman County, however, would be one of the worst-hit areas, bearing about 35 percent of the increased transportation costs.

    In Adams County, transportation storage and handling costs would increase an average of 8 cents a bushel, and farmers in Nez Perce County, Idaho, would face 48 cents a bushel increases, reports show.

    "Growers are the ones that would absorb that," said Glen Squires, analyst for the Washington Wheat Commission. "There are growers that will be too much for. For a lot, that's doubling their transportation costs."

    Price pressure would force more rapid consolidation of farms, perhaps setting off a string of events like the Midwest Farm Crisis of the 1970s - a period marked by rural population loss and dwindling support for churches, schools and clubs.

    Said Squires: "You can only add costs on for so long."

  10. Tidewater Barge Lines, the largest inland marine transport company west of the Mississippi River, easily ships the most on Columbia-Snake system, with 73 barges and tankers, half the fleet.

    In all, more than 6 million tons were barged on the Snake River in 1997. More than 80 percent of the tonnage is farm goods, wood products and fuels.

    But without the dam-formed pools on the river, barges wouldn't be able to navigate its shallow depths.

    To replace the wheat tows that float down the Lower Snake would take 192,000 more semi-trucks or 48,000 more rail cars, according to the Port of Portland. And those modes of transportation are likely to be more costly and less efficient for farmers.

    The Port of Portland was so disappointed by corps attempts to detail regional transportation problems without dams that it commissioned its own report, due this winter.

    "They just assume in the end all things will equalize," said Mike Thorne, executive director of the Port of Portland. On a national scale, that may happen, but the Mid-Columbia could take years to catch up, he said.

    Supporters of dam breaching condemn barge operations for benefiting from large-scale subsidies - in the range of $10 million a year.

    That kind of talk doesn't make sense to Thorne.

    "What isn't subsidized when you talk about transportation - bicycle paths, walking paths, parks?" he said. "Don't insult our intelligence by implying that it is the only subsidized transportation system."

    On the other hand, environmentalists also suggest government investment in the roads and rails will help offset the loss of barges - and that it won't cost as much as barge subsidies.

    "The public and private infrastructure upgrades required for a transition plan are affordable," said Edward Dickey, author of a recent report for the environmental group American Rivers.

  11. Potlach Corp., by far the largest employer in Lewiston, used 12.2 billion gallons of Snake River water in 1996 to generate steam power and process logs.

    Modifying its water pumps would cost between $11 million and $54 million, the Corps of Engineers says.

    In addition, roughly 200 private wells line the Snake River corridor, half in Asotin and Franklin counties. The corps estimates about 40 percent of those will need modifications because the water table level is expected to drop in places if the river is lowered. Those modifications are expected to cost about $56 million but would create more than 1,000 short-term jobs, the agency predicts.

    Potlach is about the only large industrial water user on the Lower Snake River, though the Lewiston and Clarkston golf courses both rely on daily sprinklings from the river.

    Potlach spokesman Frank Carroll said a "natural" Snake River would increase power and shipping costs for the company by $8 million to $13 million a year. He would not speculate about the employment impacts of dam breaching.

    But Lewiston and Clarkston won't have to wait to feel the bite of the dams. Rick Davis, Port of Clarkston manager, recently lost two large lumber companies that left the port because of a combination of factors including uncertainty about the dams.

    "It's hard to do economic development ... with this threat hanging over our heads," he said. "The whole valley has been having problems with trying to bring businesses in."

    Also, Davis said he's seeing container companies bypass Lewiston-Clarkston in favor of Pasco.

    "They are starting to go around us because the fear of the dams is there."

  12. Dam breaching alone won't return fish harvests to historic levels, but tribal leaders expect the move to increase tribal harvests by 30 percent.

    Besides, said a report on the tribes, breaching the dams "would represent a major change from past unjust practices, which have damaged tribal peoples."

    As Northwest rivers were harnessed for power, flood control, irrigation and transportation, salmon suffered and with them the native peoples.

    U.S. treaties gave tribes fishing rights for millions of acres. Extinction of salmon would end the harvest, thus calling into question the federal end of the bargain.

    Tribes refuse on principle to put a value on salmon runs, but nontribal estimates of the cost of treaty failure are $6 billion to $12 billion, according to the Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign, which is pushing for dam removal.

    A report done for the corps found tribal harvests above the Lower Snake dams are less than 1 percent of traditional levels, and tribal access to roots, berries and edible plants also has dropped dramatically with the loss of riverside habitat.

    Between 27 percent and 44 percent of Northwest tribal families live in poverty, and members of the five Northwest tribes considered in the report are dying at rates more than 20 percent higher than their nontribal neighbors.

    "If located outside the United States, such conditions might fairly be described as 'Third World,' " the report stated.

    Tribes link those statistics to the decline of the salmon culture - and predict renewed well-being if the salmon return in greater numbers.

    "There's a huge connection between salmon and tribal health," said Chris Walsh, Yakama psycho-social nursing specialist. "Restoring salmon restores a way of life."

    However, "several hundred" known American Indian archeological sites would be exposed by drawdowns, creating another concern for tribes interested in protecting their past.

Mike Lee
12 Ways the Mid-Columbia will be Different Without Dams
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 1999

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