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Critical Snake River Dams
Stir Debate

by Chris Clayton
Progressive Farmer, April 1, 2022

Dams on Lower Snake River, a Key Export Artery for Wheat, at Center of Salmon Recovery Battle

Graphic: Shipping wheat on the federally-subsidized Lower Snake River has declined over recent years.  More of this grain is being shipped by rail, a mode of transportation that has been more effecient than by barge for over a quarter century (see 29th ed. Transportation Energy Data) OMAHA -- When Chandler Goule was asked at Commodity Classic last month in New Orleans about infrastructure investments, the CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers took the time to highlight the value of river transportation. He repeatedly warned about the risks to wheat growers over a raging debate in the Pacific Northwest about four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state. Goule also stressed the precedent it could set.

"If this proposal goes forward, then what about the locks and dams on the Mississippi?" Goule asked. "What about the locks and dams on other major transportation systems? So, we supported the infrastructure bill, but we've got to keep this clean energy transportation system in place."

The four dams -- Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor -- are at the center of a decades-old fight over salmon and steelhead fish recovery and migration in the basins of the Columbia and Snake rivers that also has caught the attention of the White House.

The four dams and their locks support about 60% of wheat exports out of the PNW region, or roughly 10% of all wheat exports, on average, between 80 million bushels (mb) to 100 mb annually. Often wheat from the Dakotas or other Plains states will be railed as close as it can get to the Snake River then barged the rest of the way to port terminals.

"So, from the wheat perspective, this can have a significant ripple effect all the way across the country," Goule said.

Wheat growers and other river users are countered by a groundswell of support for salmon recovery that includes fishermen, environmentalists, scientists and several Native American tribes. All are calling for federal officials to breach the four dams as a last resort for more than $16 billion in federal recovery dollars over decades that have failed in several efforts to restore populations of salmon and steelhead, which are now considered endangered in the river basin.

Earlier this month, more than 220 chefs, fishermen and others in the food industry in Washington state wrote the state's top officials asking them to develop a plan that "restores the lower Snake River and invests in our communities and critical infrastructure." The letter added, "For decades, fishing and farming communities have needlessly been at odds while salmon populations have edged ever closer to extinction. We need new policies and programs in 2022 that will provide both fisherman and farmers greater certainty and the opportunity to thrive."

Reflecting on just how long this debate has been going on, 14 years ago roughly 200 chefs across the country launched a similar letter campaign calling for removal of the same four dams, according to a 2007 Los Angeles Times article.

The dams, the fish and arguments surrounding them highlight conflicting agendas within the Biden administration. The White House wants to be climate champions and reduce greenhouse gases. But leaders within the administration also want to right some wrongs of the past, such as trying to restore promises once made to tribes in the region.


Last week, senior Biden administration officials, including Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, held a "nation-to-nation consultation" with leaders from six regional tribes. The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) wrote a blog item Monday on the White House web page summarizing the meeting. The White House cites early treaties with tribes that had promised the rights to fish -- under the premise that salmon and steelhead were "inexhaustible" resources before the fish populations began to decline. Citing that past recovery efforts have cost billions of dollars and failed, the White House stated, "We cannot continue business as usual. Doing the right thing for salmon, Tribal Nations and communities can bring us together. It is time for effective, creative solutions."

In its discussion with tribes, the White House noted, "We heard calls to support breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River to restore a more natural flow," but "also about the need to replace the services provided by those dams and recognition that such a step would require congressional action."


Removing the dams doesn't just affect wheat shipments on the Snake River. The four dams, all built in the 1960s and 1970s, also provide enough carbon-free energy to power more than 800,000 homes. The dams help make up the largest source of renewable electricity in the Pacific Northwest, according to the federal government's webpage for government agencies and salmon recovery efforts.

"I just don't get it because if we're serious about climate change, we would never consider taking out a huge hydropower dam that produces electricity but doesn't produce carbon," said Rob Rich, vice president for the barge company Shaver Transportation and president of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Along with being the biggest source of carbon-free power in the Northwest, the barge traffic on the river leads to 10 times lower emissions than trucks per ton of cargo. When it comes to moving a lot of freight, barges have climate advantages over rail or semis. Beyond moving wheat -- the biggest commodity shipped on the river -- the river is critical for delivering refined petroleum back up the river as well, Rich noted.

"Utilizing the river is more efficient, far cleaner, and it doesn't choke up the roads," Rich said.

Just replacing the barge traffic by semi-trucks would equate to nearly 151,000 more semi-truck hauls annually. "The system is a major transportation network, and if we lost that, we lose our competition for transportation costs," said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. "When you have barge and rail, they can compete on prices and then we they can stay at certain level. But if you remove one of those, then you lose the competition for pricing, and the costs will increase."

Rich and others also highlight the various measures used to help fish migrate upstream. There are removable spillway weirs and bypasses that basically operate as fish slides. There's even a barge that moves fish up stream. Researchers note that other undammed rivers also have seen similar declining numbers in fish runs, indicating the complexities of lower fish populations are not simply focused on the Snake River dams.


As the White House blog noted, it would take an act of Congress to remove the dams. Surprisingly, one advocate for moving forward is Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who has proposed a $33.5 billion plan to remove the four dams and rebuild infrastructure to replace the power and transportation needs filled now by the dams.

Goule said NAWG has met with both the Council on Environmental Quality members and Simpson about their concerns.

"We keep coming back to the congressman and asking what are the chances that we're going to get enough money from Congress to upgrade the highways, the bridges and everything needed to put more semis (trucks) on the road, and the chances of getting additional railroad permitting and upgrade the rail lines to move that product," Goule said. "We all know that's not going to happen, and that's one of the main reasons we are pushing to keep those dams."

Top Washington state Democrats, Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee, have not committed to removing the dams, but last October they announced they would form a study and release their recommendations for salmon recovery and the Snake River by July 31.

After holding his own roundtable this week on the Snake River, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., pushed back on the White House CEQ's blog post, stating the White House is only listening to the argument from people who want to remove the dams. That position "ignores not one, but two multi-year, multi-million dollar studies implemented by both Republican and Democratic administrations that came to the conclusion that dam-breaching would not benefit our native salmon species," Newhouse said.

Newhouse offered more history, citing that one reason salmon have been slow to return is "the fact that the state of Idaho quite literally poisoned their lakes and waterways systematically in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s to exterminate native salmon populations." Newhouse added that fish returns were clearly documented as declining long before the Lower Snake River Dams were even built.

Newhouse said the river and dams provide "clean, carbon-free energy throughout the region, water for their crops that feed the world, and clean, reliable transportation to move their goods to export markets."

For wheat growers, Goule said NAWG and others will work to stop any funding through a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill or appropriations bill that would call for removing the dams. Hennings also said the recommendations from Inslee and Murray later this summer will be crucial for policy considerations going forward.

"They are going to come out with a report basically yea or nay on the dams in July and so we've been doing what we can to provide them with information they need to make their assessment," Hennings said. She added, "We do support salmon recovery, but it's the year 2022 -- with research and technology, the salmon and dams can coexist, and people can coexist. There are some projects out there that we do support."

Chris Clayton
Critical Snake River Dams Stir Debate
Progressive Farmer, April 1, 2022

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