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Economic and dam related articles

We’re Better Off Without Barricades

by Charles Hudson
Portland Tribune - August 13, 2004

Opinions differ on the efficacy of four Snake River dams

Lower Granite Dam, about 50 miles northeast of Walla Walla, Wash., is among the lower Snake River dams that is spawning debate: Is breaching a good or bad idea environmentally and economically? The other dams are Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Ice Harbor. Toward the end of the Northwest’s orgy era of dam building and just before the arrival of modern public policy standards (e.g., the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, value engineering criteria), several dubious projects were constructed. The series of four lower Snake River dams, completed in 1975, is an example of these mistakes.

For 30 years, the lower Snake River dams have failed to deliver the broader social benefits that many other dams have. Combined, they produce only a sliver of the total output of the Federal Columbia River Power System — approximately 4 percent — when the region needs it least. They don’t provide flood control. A mere 13 farms draw water from their reservoirs for irrigation. Finally, their impoundments support a tenuous and heavily subsidized barging system for small grain producers in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

What the Snake River dams have done most efficiently is kill fish.

There is scientific consensus that breaching the four lower Snake River dams offers the surest means to restore Snake River salmon and steelhead to self-sustaining, harvestable levels. Nevertheless, the Bush administration inherited a Clinton-era “aggressive nonbreach” salmon strategy, and while that plan has stumbled out of the gate, the president chose to stand atop Ice Harbor Dam and defend it.

Presidential optimism aside, the federal courts haven’t agreed, declaring the plan illegal and ordering a rewrite.

Thus, dam breaching remains a biological option, and rightly so. But what about the economics of the Snake River dams?

U.S. taxpayers and Northwest electric ratepayers pay a heavy price to keep the Snake dams in place. More than $36 million is spent annually to operate and maintain the dams (bluefish gets BPA numbers: $23.3 Million for Operations & Maintenance and $32.9 Million in Debt Service for 4 Lower Snake River dams). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will spend $390 million through 2010 to meet its Endangered Species Act obligations.

Yet the future of the Snake River might be less in the hands of entrenched agencies but rather with the river’s corporate customers themselves. Recently, the Lewiston, Idaho-based Potlatch Corp. announced that it would begin shipping the majority of its products by rail to Seattle, forgoing the river barge journey to Portland. And the railroads are the key. Through one-time investments in short-line rail improvements, new rail cars, rail elevator capacity upgrades and lower Columbia River barge elevator capacity upgrades, the lucrative grain link between the grain producers and the Port of Portland will remain secure.

A midrange cost estimate for these improvements is $120 million, less than one-third of the amount the Corps of Engineers plans to spend over a 10-year period simply operating and maintaining the dams.

Recently Washington state’s Legislature passed a transportation package that provides $33.5 million for the public purchase and rehabilitation of the Eastern Washington short-line rail system, a critical component in replacing the barge system.

Will there be social and economic impacts if the Snake River dams are removed? Of course. The tribes and public should demand, and Congress should ensure, that all impacts be mitigated and all people and businesses be “made whole” in a breaching action.

Neutral third-party studies have shown that, along with the barge transportation, the energy and irrigation benefits of the lower Snake River dams are fully replaceable at a cost that would allow regional ratepayers and taxpayers to save money over the long run. And the more abundant, sustainable salmon runs that would result from dam breaching would result in hundreds of millions in new dollars for the Northwest from revitalized fishing and recreation industries.

The Columbia and Snake River system is mired in a patchwork of jurisdictions, special interests and conflicting mandates. The river has grown sick after decades of development followed by failed “break it, then fix it” forms of mitigation.

Our tribes’ decision to support breaching was made after careful cultural, economic and scientific consideration.

Stripping the debate of rhetoric and muzzling the exploiters of fear gave the tribes a chance to ponder a sustainable and responsible future for the Snake River. In the end it was understood that the greatest risk is in doing nothing.

Fishing, farming and stable port commerce are all critical pieces of the Northwest economy. Breaching the lower Snake River dams would enhance each, giving science and economics the chance to stand side by side and create forward-thinking public policy, and in so doing, correct the mistakes of the past.

Related Pages:
Breaching Just Doesn’t Make Sense by Glenn Vanselow, Portland Tribune, 8/13/4
Irrigation from 4 Lower Snake Reservoirs Fact Sheet 1993 by Reed Burkholder
Navigation Tonnage Summary by Commodity by Army Corps of Engineers
Seasonal Hydropower from 8 Dams by Army Corps of Engineers

Charles Hudson is the public information manager for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
We’re Better Off Without Barricades
Portland Tribune, August 13, 2004

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