Advocates: Transportation Costs
by Eric Barker
Barging group's study says cost of moving products would be an additional $2.3 billion over 30 years
A study commissioned by a barging advocacy group says breaching the four lower Snake River dams to save salmon would increase commodity transportations costs by $2.3 billion over the next three decades and could drive some farmers out of business if federal agriculture subsidies are not increased.
The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association released the study Monday in an effort to influence regional dialogues and processes about the best way to save and recover Snake River fish runs listed under the Endangered Species Act. The federal government is analyzing a handful of salmon-saving measures, including breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, and is expected to release a draft report as early as next month.
This evening, Washington officials will hold a public workshop to detail the results of a study commissioned by Gov. Jay Inslee and his Orca Task Force that sought to document opinions about the dams and whether they should be breached or retained. The meeting at the Quality Inn of Clarkston starts at 6 p.m.
The dams make it possible to ship products, mostly wheat, via barge between the Port of Lewiston and deep-water ports along the lower Columbia River. But the dams also harm salmon and steelhead during their migrations to and from the ocean. Fish advocates have long called for the four dams to be removed and for the government to invest in rail and highway infrastructure to help inland grain growers get their crops to coastal ports.
The report released Monday was written by the financial and economic consulting firm FCS Group of Portland. It found governments would need to invest $1.6 billion in rail and highway infrastructure to compensate for river transportation made obsolete by breaching. It also said breaching would raise transportation and storage costs incurred by farmers by 50 to 100 percent and significantly eat into their profit margins.
If federal crop subsidies aren't increased by $18.9 million to $38.9 million, the report says as many as 1,100 farms could be forced into bankruptcy.
"Dam breaching extremists talk about how easy and inexpensive it would be to compensate Washington, Oregon and Idaho businesses and residents if the lower Snake River dams were removed," PNWA Executive Director Kristin Meira said. "We commissioned this study to show federal and state decision-makers the real economic and environmental impacts on real people and communities that would result."
The report said an additional 5 million gallons of fuel would be burned each year with the transition from barge transportation to a combination of truck and rail, resulting in an additional 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide and other emissions annually. It also said both highway and rail accidents would rise.
The report doesn't include costs associated with maintaining the dams that breaching advocates see as an ongoing subsidy to farmers, or the price tag to remove them. Nor does it include costs associated with replacing hydropower produced at the dams, or positive economic activity that could arise with increased fish abundance after dam breaching. Those types of cost estimates have been included in similar reports.
In July, ECONorthwest released a study that said the benefits of breaching the dams outweigh the costs by $8.6 billion. The study relied heavily on the value people place on knowing salmon and steelhead would be recovered and said regional ratepayers would be willing to spend as much as an additional $40 a year in electricity costs to save the fish. It acknowledged a steep cost because of the loss of barge transportation, an increase in traffic accidents and fossil fuel emissions, but said the government spends more to maintain the dams than the economic benefits they provide.
A 2015 study conducted by Anthony M. Jones of the Boise economic consulting firm Rocky Mountain Econometrics found that farmers who use the river instead of rail save about 2.4 cents per ton, or about $7.6 million annually. But he said the Army Corps of Engineers spends $17.8 million per year to maintain the river transportation system and hundreds of millions each year to mitigate the harm dams cause to fish. He calculated that the dams provide a benefit of 21 cents for ever dollar the corps spends.
In 2002, the Army Corps of Engineers released an environmental impact statement saying removing the dams would have an annual average transportation cost of $38 million and overall annual cost of $266 million in 1998 dollars. The analysis included things like the price of replacing power generated at the dams and economic benefits from dam removal such as increased abundance of salmon and steelhead.
Port of Lewiston Manager David Doeringsfeld, who advocates retaining the dams, called the report conservative in its estimates and said many of the regional discussions about Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery include the idea that farmers would need to be helped if the dams were removed.
"I think the PNWA work provides some analysis and background about what it would take to make farmers whole," he said. "I think it helps decision makers/policy makers -- inform them of what the actual long-term costs would be for a farmer on the Camas Prairie to be able to get their products out for export."
Doeringsfeld sits on the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force and Idaho Gov. Brad Little's Salmon Work Group, two collaborative bodies looking at how best to recover the fish. He said the report will be useful in those efforts and in commenting on both the Washington and the federal government's salmon and dams reports.
The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association report is available at www.pnwa.net/energy-salmon/.
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