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Commentaries and editorials

Removing Dams No Answer

by Ben Bennett, John Givens & Jim Toomey
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - November 4, 1999

The three Tri-Cities ports of Benton, Kennewick and Pasco believe that a recent study by the American Rivers proposes a plan that is neither affordable nor efficient.

The study, titled, "Grain Transportation After Partial Removal of the Four Lower Snake River Dams: An Affordable and Efficient Transition Plan," concludes that by investing in rail and highway infrastructure, an affordable and efficient transition can occur subsequent to the breaching of the lower four Snake River dams. We do not agree for the following reasons:

First and foremost, we believe that the drastic action of removal of the four lower Snake River dams is not necessary. Recent analyses by the National Marine Fisheries Services have indicated little value to fish recovery associated with dam removal. To date, the case has not been made. This study adds nothing new to justify dam breaching.

What is proposed is not affordable environmentally. We can ill-afford the environmental impacts to the airshed of the Northwest associated with loss of environmental efficiencies inherent to barge transportation. Shifting from barge to rail and truck will increase the use of fossil fuel by 4 to 10 times per ton-mile. The increase to exhaust emissions range from 3 to 20 times.

Compounding this degradation of the airshed is the concurrent loss of non-polluting hydropower generation. Energy from the dams could service the energy needs of the states of Idaho and Montana combined. Bringing it closer to home, it would service the energy needs of the entire city of Seattle in 1996.

What is proposed is not affordable economically. The study identified the capital infrastructure cost associated with improving existing or providing new rail and roadways to support the movement of grain. Ignored are the costs to shippers, farmers, manufacturers or other parties that must create, improve and expand all handling, storage and transloading facilities or absorb the stranded costs of those that will be abandoned. Those costs are anticipated to be substantial and will be paid by shippers. This will make it more difficult for producers in our region to compete in the international marketplace.

What is proposed is not efficient. A single Columbia-Snake river grain barge transports the equivalent of 120 truckloads or 35 rail cars of grain. A single barge tow is four to five barges. The plan proposes to replace the existing highly efficient upper Snake to Lower Columbia grain shipment with some combination of short line rail, much of which has been recently abandoned, or truck-barge combination, necessitating additional handling, storage and transfer costs.

The dollars to fund the planned scenario are not available. The plan states that capital infrastructure cost from the state of Washington, coupled with matching funds from the federal government will pay for all needed infrastructure.

The study points out with relative ease that the state is well-positioned to transfer dollars from the $2 billion state transportation budget. What is not disclosed is that this is the same biennial transportation budget that funds construction and operations of the state ferry system, all maintenance and traffic operations on existing highways, funding for public transportation and rail programs, as well as the highway construction program -- this money now is not available due to the passage of Initiative 695.

In addition, recent preliminary findings of the blue ribbon commission on transportation estimate that a need as high as $50 billion exists over the next 20 years to fund our current and projected state and local transportation system. The dollars to fund the proposed infrastructure are not there.

Subsidy is not a relevant issue. Inherent to the study's proposed funding of necessary infrastructure is the elimination of the "navigation subsidy" that dam breaching will bring about. The funding mechanism for navigation on the four lower Snake River dams is the same mechanism used on all national inland and intracoastal waterway systems.

We believe that the American Rivers' "affordable and efficient" transition plan is neither. Further, we believe that the elimination of the multiple benefits provided to the people of the Northwest from the operation of the four lower Snake River dams is too high a price to pay for what appears to be minimal or no benefit to fish.

We do believe that we must rebuild declining fish runs. However, we must do so with a comprehensive understanding of which measures will provide the greatest benefit to fish. We are all ill-served by a study that ignores the minimal biological benefit of the proposed action and also ignores the high environmental and economic costs in its analysis of proposed affordability.

Ben Bennett is executive director of the Port of Benton.
John Givens is executive director of the Port of Kennewick.
Jim Toomey is executive director of the Port of Pasco.

by Ben Bennett, John Givens & Jim Toomey
Removing Dams No Answer
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 4, 1999

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