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Breaching Dams may Save Salmon but Leave Farmers High and Dry

by Rod Taylor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer-Reporter
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - April 19, 1999

(Mike Urban photo) Dan Blankenship sends more than 1 million bushels of wheat each year from his farm near Washtucna down the Snake River to Portland. WASHTUCNA -- Shuttered businesses haunt this Eastern Washington town.

Paint peels from silent storefronts. Plywood replaces glass in a door that never opens. A restaurant and gas station are dark. Remaining businesses, says local farmer Ben Nunamaker, "are hanging on by their teeth."

Decades of declining farm income have almost sucked Washtucna dry. This year, with wheat prices at a near 30-year low, some farmers talk openly of quitting. So, when government agents came here recently to discuss breaching four Snake River dams to help save disappearing salmon runs, the response was bitter and angry.

Opening the dams "is about one of the most foolish things I've ever heard anybody think of," said Lester Snyder, who has farmed here for a half-century.

"The devastation would be just terrible."

Here in the wheat fields of the Palouse, emotions on the Snake River dams run hotter than the August sun. The Snake is not just a river here; it's a superhighway to world markets. Barges shuttle grain downriver at less than half the rates railroads charge (refuted Shipping Wheat: Truck or Barge? Transportation Report 1995, by Ken Casavant). Columbia and Snake river barges carry almost two-thirds of Washington's grain, and drain crops to world markets from as far off as Montana and the Dakotas.

Eliminate dams and barges, farmers here say, and higher shipping costs would slash land values, bankrupt farms and turn main streets to ghost towns. Though these forecasts may be exaggerated, experts confirm that if the dams were retired tomorrow, the heaviest burdens would fall here, on farmers already down on their luck.

"In the late '80s, we lost the railroad through our town," said Dan Blankenship, who runs one of the largest wheat farms near Washtucna. "If we lose the dams, we're toast."

Asking Eastern Washington farmers to give up the Snake River dams is like urging a dying man to give blood, says Ken Casavant, a Washington State University economist. "Everything has been going wrong for these folks," he said.

The stakes have risen this year because the once unthinkable act of dam-breaching has become thinkable. Most scientists now say that breaching the dams -- by cutting a path around the concrete structures through the earthen mounds at their flanks -- offers the best chance to restore endangered and threatened fish runs.

Juvenile salmon making their way to the ocean are most at risk to damage from the dams. Shunted through or over the dams on their migration to the sea, they can scrape against screens or pipes, get hammered by water pressure changes, or be exposed to lethal levels of nitrogen gas in water below the dams. Slower downstream movement through slack reservoirs also exposes them to hotter water and more predators, and may affect their ability to adapt to salt water. Also, floods of hatchery-raised fish can compete with naturally spawned salmon for food, or even prey on them.

Most politicians don't support breaching the dams. U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has been leading the opposition to breaching. Gov. Gary Locke has said he "can't imagine any argument that would lead me to support" retiring the dams.

Still, the Endangered Species Act mandates protection of the fish, so federal agencies are looking closely at dam-breaching. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying its costs and benefits, and the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering its biological advantages.

The costs would be monumental. Preliminary analyses suggest that retiring the dams would force the region to replace about 5 percent of its hydropower with alternatives that cost upward of $200 million more a year and also increase pollution. Dam removal and loss of barge traffic would each cost another $50 million annually.

The burden of higher power costs would be modest for most people in the Northwest. Dispersed from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and blended with other power sources, the boost would drive up the average monthly electricity bill for a Seattle household less than a dollar. At worst, households in some areas would face a monthly rate hike averaging up to $10, and they would still be paying less than the national average.

Other costs of dam-breaching would be relatively small and scattered. Some marinas would be left dry, riverbanks might need to be shored up and aluminum companies could face boosts in their huge electricity bills.

Benefits from added recreation in a free-flowing Snake River might balance out such costs. One preliminary government study leaked by environmental groups predicted $1 billion in annual recreation benefits, with some forecasts running as high as $5 billion. But officials in charge of the study said the numbers were misunderstood and the analysis was incomplete.

But these impacts pale beside the effects of dam-breaching on those who farm the hundreds of thousands of acres of wheat north of the Tri-Cities. Growers would see shipping rates soar and the value of their farms plummet.

"There's no question that breaching the dams could lead to a lot of bankruptcies here," said Jim Baker, a Sierra Club representative in Eastern Washington.

To counter those losses, some environmental groups are calling for a major federal investment in roads and railroads in the region, or failing that, paying farmers outright for damages.

Farmers' reliance on the dams serves as a reminder that the main justification for their construction was shipping, rather than hydropower or flood control. The dams make Lewiston, Idaho, a seaport and offer cheap transportation from a scattering of grain elevators that hug reservoirs from Lewiston to the Tri-Cities.

Though grain farmers would be most directly affected by dam-breaching, they aren't the only ones who would be hurt.

Farmers of 35,000 acres of irrigated farmland near Pasco would see their fruit trees and vegetables go dry when reservoirs dropped below pumps in the Ice Harbor Dam reservoir.

Several small ports would have to be abandoned, and major economic losses would be felt at Lewiston and Clarkston. Perhaps hardest hit would be Lewiston's dominant employer, Potlatch Corp., which sends paper, pulp and lumber downriver on barges.

Potlatch workers bristle against official talk of mitigating the damage. ``They aren't going to mitigate my job," says Jerry Klemm, a union leader for about 2,200 Potlatch employees.

Protests against dam meddling have proved popular in Eastern Washington. One "Save the Dams" rally in Pasco in February drew more than 2,000 people and was attended by about a third of Washington state's legislators.

Protests this year echo those heard a decade ago in timber towns like Forks, Morton and Omak. Like loggers, farmers are a small, shrinking and isolated minority. They believe other Americans don't understand them, and that uninformed urban masses are forcing the destruction of their noble, hard-working way of life.

Here in Washtucna, about 22 road miles from the Windust river port, farmers gathered in the local high school in January to discuss what dam-breaching would do to them. Though polite and respectful, they voiced gloom about the prospects for their community even without dam-breaching.

Asian economic woes last year drove wheat prices down to $3 a bushel, perilously close to the break-even point for some farmers. "On $3 wheat, we can't hardly make money anyway," said David Baumann, a third-generation farmer. "If it wasn't for us being family businesses and working for nothing, we couldn't make it."

Washtucna has shriveled since a brief boom in the 1960s, when it swelled with homes and the paychecks of workers who built the dams. The workers drifted off in the 1970s, and as farm income fell, population and town vitality sagged.

The little town puts up a game fight. On Main Street, McKenzie's Drive-In still serves meals, and J&D Groceries and Meats sports a sign that says "Now Stocking Fresh Meat," as if that were a miracle. And though the high school classes have fallen to five or six kids, they join with neighboring La Crosse High School to field athletic teams.

But many farmers now drive to the Tri-Cities to shop. Adults complain that it's hard to round up enough people to run a Scout troop or hold a Lions Club meeting.

With breaching, a grinding struggle could become a disaster.

"The price of land would be cut in half," said Nunamaker, the farmer. ``A lot of it would go back to rangeland."

Feeding off each other's discontent, farmers forecast doubling or tripling of shipping costs and soaring accident rates as trucks clog poorly maintained roads.

"How many salmon does it take to equal a child's life? I want to see a graph on that," demanded one man.

Preliminary studies suggest farmers have reason for concern, though the problems may be less severe than many believe. A legislative study found that roads and railways in the area would be overwhelmed by traffic if the barges disappeared. Upgrading them so grain shipping costs remained stable might cost up to $300 million, it concluded. That kind of government largesse is unlikely, and without it economists agree that grain shipping rates would rise.

Most affected by rate hikes would be farmers within 70 to 100 miles of the lower Snake River. They truck their grain to river terminals and currently reap the advantage of barging's (subsidized) lower rates and economies of scale.

If dam-breaching blocked barges from traveling above the Tri-Cities, farmers would either have to truck grain or use the railroads, and both are more expensive than barging. (refuted Shipping Wheat: Truck or Barge? Transportation Report 1995, by Ken Casavant)

Loss of competition might even encourage the railroads to boost rates even more.

And it could get worse. Federal agencies also are studying drawdowns of the Columbia River's John Day Dam, the second dam downstream from Pasco. Blankenship, the farmer, figures the Snake River dams would be just the first to go. "They're going to take all the Columbia River dams out, too," he growls.

Some farmers have predicted a boost in shipping costs of 30 cents to 50 cents per bushel of wheat.

WSU's Casavant, the leading transportation expert in Eastern Washington, expects an increase of about 9 cents per bushel, to a total of about 58 cents for shipping. Farmers closest to the river, who have had the lowest shipping costs, could see increases of up to 22 cents per bushel, Casavant says.

But the number rises if it includes the cost of upgrading roads and railways. Dennis Wagner, who is overseeing a study of shipping costs as far off as the Dakotas for the Army Corps of Engineers, figures some shipping costs could rise as much as 35 cents per bushel.

Whatever the amount, it would come out of the farmer's wallet, because wheat prices are set by world markets. And that could take a big chunk out of currently meager earnings and push some farms into red ink.

The irony is that American farming has paid a bitter price for its high-tech productivity. Farmer John Crouse pays more than 10 times more for a combine now than when he started farming. But with less than half the manpower his father fielded, he farms twice as much acreage and produces about four times as much grain. Such success, multiplied across the landscape, has fed the world but starved farm incomes and payrolls by driving down world prices.

Despite hard times, Washtucna residents still voice a fierce pride in their farms and their way of life.

The land here is some of the most productive in the world for wheat production.

Averaging 60 bushels per acre, Washington production is double that of Kansas and North Dakota, the nation's leading wheat growers.

It also can be eerily beautiful. Wind has smoothed volcanic loess soils into rounded hills that resemble sea swells from a distance.

Dry-land farmers, who raise only one crop on each strip of land every two years, paint this rolling landscape in stripes of brown, green and amber -- representing plowed soil, growing grains and harvested stubble.

"Washtucna is a great place to raise children," said resident Donna Stoess. The air and water are clean and the streets are safe. "In some ways, you're stepping back to the 1950s when you come here."

But economically, farms here are flirting with the bankruptcies of the 1930s. For years, smaller family farms have been selling out to bigger businesses with deeper pockets.

Casavant, the WSU economist, agreed that if barging were cut off tomorrow, land prices would fall, some marginal wheat-growing lands would revert to rangeland, and more farms would be gobbled into larger, more capital-intensive farms.

One that might be swallowed is the Snyder place, which Lester Snyder took over in 1948. With his wife, Marie, Lester raised a son, Jerry, who today is the fourth generation in his family to farm the land.

Jerry Snyder doesn't want to end the family tradition, but he may be forced to, his father says.

"I've farmed here all my life," Lester Snyder muses. "Should I put more money into farming, or should I get out and quit?"

Dam breaching could become intolerable burden
To understand the impact of shipping costs on a wheat farmer, consider a typical 2,500-acre dry-land wheat farm operated by two generations of the same family.

Producing about 100,000 bushels of wheat a year, the farm could sell its crop for about $290,000 at recent price levels ("near 30-year low" of $2.90 per bushel). After expenses, that nets about $80,000 for a year's work.

That's not much for a farm worked by several people who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in land and machinery. But raise shipping costs, and the earnings start to evaporate.

Boost rates by a dime per bushel, about the average boost expected by some economists, and net earnings drop by $10,000. A 35-cent boost, in the range expected by some farmers, would drain $35,000, or 44 percent of the farm's earnings. If expenses rise or prices fall, the farm could easily fall into bankruptcy.

Related Pages:
Illustration showing dam-breaching plan
Farmers stand to see lifetime investment bulldozed
Sciences slowly come to favor dam-breaching

Rod Taylor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer-Reporter
Breaching Dams may Save Salmon but Leave Farmers High and Dry
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1999

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