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Commentaries and editorials

Report: Breaching Snake River Dams
Would Put Thousands of Farmers at Risk

by Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, August 15, 2023

"Most would have a very high likelihood for bankruptcy unless the
federal government stepped in and significantly increased subsidies,"

-- Heather Stebbings, Executive Director of Pacific Northwest Waterways

Graphic: Recent Downriver Grain Shipments on the Snake River (2000 - 2019) The livelihoods of thousands of farmers would be put at risk if the four lower Snake River dams are breached, a new study says.

The study from the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association examined the economic, environmental and social justice impacts associated with breaching the dams, long targeted by environmental groups and tribes seeking endangered salmon recovery.

Twelve counties -- six in Washington, five in Idaho and one in Oregon -- would be directly impacted by removal of the dams, according to the report, issued Aug. 13.

About 7,644 farms in the affected area generate approximately $2 billion in annual sales, according to the report.

"Most would have a very high likelihood for bankruptcy unless the federal government stepped in and significantly increased subsidies," said Heather Stebbings, policy adviser for the association.

The majority of the farms that are small to medium-sized would be most at risk, said Stebbings and Leslie Druffel, co-chair of the association's Inland Ports and Navigation Group.

If the dams were removed, barging wheat to downstream ports for export would be impossible. Using trucks or railroads would significantly drive up the cost of transportation, according to the report.

Moving commodities from barge to truck or rail would increase the cost of wheat per bushel by at least 8%, the report states.

Because the market price of wheat is determined by such global factors as international demand, global supplies and currency rates, increasing wholesale prices for commodities to cover the added cost of transportation "is not an option and has a high probability of bankrupting over 7,600 farms unless U.S. farm subsidies to the tri-state region increased by $55 million a year or $1.65 billion over 30 years," according to the analysis.

Other concerns range from the inability to irrigate crops to the logistics of shipping through port terminals, mitigation costs for wastewater outfalls and new investments in water intakes, filtration and pumping and transmission systems.

"The loss of irrigation would, of course, devastate the farms that depend on water from the Ice Harbor pool, and the 8% increase in transportation costs is too much for dryland farms, especially when you are paying the cost of freight," Stebbings said.

Federal mediation in the long-running litigation tied to the dams is slated to end Aug. 31. The association provided the study to the mediation teams and federal government to disseminate to all parties in the mediation, Stebbings said.

IPNG is a party to the mediation.

Efforts to obtain comments from Earthjustice were unsuccessful. The law firm is leading a coalition of environmental and fishing groups in a federal lawsuit over the dams' operations plan.

Much of the information about impacts on transportation, climate and the economy has been shared all along, but agricultural stakeholders wanted to take a "deeper dive" into the impacted communities, Stebbings said. The report uses data from the White House Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.

"We look at this as another layer of information to be included in the discussion, especially when we look at some of the demographics we see in these counties, where we see higher poverty rates, lower income, higher unemployment," she said. "We really believe these folks need to be considered in the decision making on this."

The communities in the study area are nearly 10 times more dependent on agriculture than the national average. The region is already suffering from higher rates of unemployment, poverty, energy cost burdens, risk of natural hazards such as fire, asthma and travel barriers, according to the report.

Farm bankruptcy would result in employment and wage losses that would lead to less tax revenue and services, including schools, clean drinking water, safe roads and emergency services, the report said.

Moving from barging on the river to truck and rail transportation would require 5 million more gallons of diesel each year, and increase carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions by 1.2 million tons, the equivalent of 181,000 passenger cars or adding one new large coal-fired power plant every two to three years, according to the association.

Breaching and related mitigation costs are estimated to cost between $10.5 billion and $65.7 billion.

The highway and rail network would need a short-term $1.3 billion capital investment to handle 4.2 million tons of annual shipments to and from the region.

"The crucial jobs at risk of being lost include hard-working haulers, planters, pruners and harvesters -- all essential for providing agricultural produce to consumers," the report states. "They are already in short supply with first-generation Americans, seasonal farm workers, and disadvantaged workers."

The final decision on breaching the dams remains with Congress, Stebbings said.

"We do not believe Congress has any desire to consider dam breaching, currently," she said.

Matthew Weaver
Report: Breaching Snake River Dams Would Put Thousands of Farmers at Risk
Capital Press, August 15, 2023

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