Let's really talk about taking down those Snake River dams

Economic effects have long been cited as reasons to keep the dams in place. While some inland businesses and farmers are willing to look at how dam removal could work for their communities, the leadership for a larger conversation has been missing. Are you listening, Sen. Murray?
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The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is one of four that are critical to debates about salmon.

Economic effects have long been cited as reasons to keep the dams in place. While some inland businesses and farmers are willing to look at how dam removal could work for their communities, the leadership for a larger conversation has been missing. Are you listening, Sen. Murray?

If the four lower Snake River dams come down, will they drag the economy of eastern Washington and western Idaho down with them? Salmon advocates don't think so.

They think that anyone who takes an unbiased look at the costs and benefits of those dams will call in the bulldozers. They have argued for years that the dams should be breached, so that Idaho salmon populations have a better shot at recovery. But they say they'll take a chance that if someone weighed all the costs and benefits, the dams would stay. They want somebody to do the math.

Save Our Wild Salmon and its allies in a new Working Snake River for Washington coalition have gotten more than 60 'ꀝbusiness owners and community leaders in eastern Washington and its border communities in Idaho'ꀝ to write Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, asking them to "bring the affected stakeholders in our region together, to talk and work directly together to seek solutions."

Last year, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo — who received a similar letter from business representatives in the Lewiston area — talked about convening such a group. "Some Lewiston businesspeople believe that taking out the dams would kill this region's economy," Doug Nadvornick reported last year on Spokane public radio. "That's why they've fought dam breaching so fiercely here.

"But the concept isn't going away," Nadvornick said, "and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo knows it." But as a Republican in a Democratic Senate, Crapo didn"t have the political clout to pull everyone together.

Murray does.

The lower Snake River dams are keystones of the status quo. They generate power, irrigate some Washington farms, and make Lewiston, 465 miles from the Pacific, a deepwater port.

Congressman Doc Hastings, who represents central Washington, claims that breaching the dams would create an economic disaster. He calls breaching "an extreme action that would cause real economic harm'ꀝ and suggests that "the future of our region's economy and thousands of jobs could depend on" the administration considering it only as a last resort.

No one has ever really done all the math. But a 2002 RAND study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust found: "The four dams on the lower Snake River could be removed without negative consequences to economic growth and net employment."

In fact, 'ꀜremoving the dams would provide economic benefits associated with fishing, recreation, and tourism, and would have a significant environmental benefit," the RAND researchers found. But the effects would be mixed.

Dam removal "would also have a negative economic impact on some agriculture. . . . Bypassing the four dams would require investments for modifications to the municipal and industrial water-use infrastructure, highway and rail infrastructure expansion, and creation of a new irrigation infrastructure. While these changes would cost taxpayer dollars, they might also create thousands of jobs."

The issue of climate change makes the arguments more complex. Inevitably, defenders of the status quo have seized on the fact that the dams generate 1,250 megawatts of electricity without producing greenhouse gases. The argument may be disingenuous, but the megawatts are real.

On the other hand, breaching the dams would not mean building another coal plant, although it might mean running gas turbines a little more often. And it would not risk brownouts. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council says that — with or without the lower Snake River dams — the region can meet its goals for the next 20 years with conservation and renewables. Losing the dams would not even bring higher utility bills. The Council's new plan foresees so much conservation that even though dam breaching would drive wholesale power rates up slightly, the individual household's utility bill would go down.

And we might have Columbia Basin fish a good deal longer. The prospect of climate change increases the significance of salmon populations that migrate through the Snake.

If average temperatures rise, spawning streams will get warmer, and many of the Columbia Basin's salmon populations may be toast — make that poached — leaving primarily the populations that spawn at higher elevations, where the water will stay cooler. Those are largely Snake River populations, which spawn in the mountains of Idaho. A lot of their spawning habitat is already protected. The trick is getting to and from it. The lower Snake dams don't help.

The same dams that make it hard for Idaho salmon to survive their journeys up and down the Snake make that same journey possible for barges. The lock system has been a good deal for people shipping wheat or lentils downstream. Grain growers are noticeably absent from the list of business people who signed the letter to Murray and Cantwell. But if the public were willing to invest in new rail infrastructure, grain growers are among the people most easily made whole. It's just a question of which transportation modes governments choose to subsidize.

"Subsidize" is a loaded word, but the free market has little to do with any economic activity linked to the dams. Water run through the locks to move barges is lost to power generation just as surely as water spilled for salmon, but no one bills barge companies for the lost revenue. Maintaining and operating the lock system and channel cost money, but no one bills barge companies for that, either.

Agriculture is heavily subsidized, too. Pasco Republican Senate hopeful Clint Didier, who bashes big government, has reportedly received $273,000 in federal subsidies since 1995 for his 1,000 acres of wheat, corn and barley. "Didier acknowledges," Jim Brunner wrote in the Seattle Times, "that 'without water from the Grand Coulee, we would be nothing more than a desert.'&thinsp"

One could say that the fish are also subsidized. Indeed they are. But that has been part of the plan for the past 30 years. The 1980 Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act divvied up the power produced by the dams, ensured that the benefits of those dams would keep flowing primarily to the Northwest, and required "equitable" treatment for the fish. Exactly what that means is open to debate, but clearly, saving fish is a quid pro quo for keeping all that cheap electricity close to home. Don't like it? Change the law. See if representatives of California and other power-hungry states will still give us preferential access to the power. Not a good idea. So the fish are part of the bargain.

We have already spent billions trying to save salmon, and we'll spend billions more. The question is whether or not some of that money would be better spent creating alternatives to the dams.

In Lewiston, the main conversation starter might be the fact that part of downtown now lies below water level.

Rail would be key. A 1998 Washington State University report pointed out that the impact of ending barge transportation on the Snake would depend heavily on the availability and price of rail. If there were''t enough rail cars to handle the harvest, and rail companies raised rates, shipping costs would jump Under eight different scenarios, the price of shipping wheat rose anywhere from 2 to 17 percent. The costs of highway infrastructure — over which more grain trucks would be driving more miles — actually dropped slightly if rail could handle all the wheat farmers wanted to ship. The authors suggested that 'ꀜcooperative investment agreements between grain producers, rail companies, and state transportation officials may have long-term benefits for shippers and short line railroads."

A study done by BST Associates in 2003 for Save Our Wild Salmon, American Rivers, and other groups concluded that "in order to minimize the impact to shippers from removing the dams on the Lower Snake River, the infrastructure serving this market requires an investment of between $44 million and $420 million. This figure excludes any bridge or trestle improvements that may be needed." It also ignores the fact that "existing capacity and safety constraints may be exacerbated by the additional volume of grain that would be transported by rail." Funding for meeting the systemwide problems was estimated at more than $1 billion.

One of the 1998 authors, WSU economist Ken Casavant, who is a former member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, cautions that the 12-yeaer-old report may not have much relevance now. Casavant and colleagues are getting ready to study the impact of a scheduled 14-week lock repair process that, starting Dec. 8, will close the river to barges above The Dalles.

They want to see how shippers and communities prepare, what alternatives they use, what happens to shipping rates and other other economic variables, and what happens after the locks are back in business. One may be able to extrapolate from the 14-week experience to a permanent closure of Snake River locks, but Casavant warns against it. "We can all hold our breath for a while," he says.

A better rail system, partly financed with public dollars, would take up the slack for farmers who currently depend on barges. It would vastly improve transportation for farmers who do not. Growers are smart enough to separate the subject of transportation from the subject of dams. "There's where people are publicly and where people are privately," says Sam Mace, who represents Save Our Wild Salmon in the inland Northwest. "I think you'd be surprised by the number of people who are are at least willing to have a conversation" about other ways of getting grain to market.

In Lewiston, the main conversation starter might be the fact that part of downtown now lies below water level. The city stands at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. Lower Granite Dam not only backed up the reservoir that made Lewiston a deepwater port; it also trapped silt that the Clearwater washed down from 37,000 square miles of central Idaho. As the silt built up, the water level rose. The surface of the dam pool now stands higher than the land.

The only thing that keeps the water from flowing into downtown Lewiston is the levee system built there by the Corps of Engineers. Now, it's getting too high for the levees. The Corps could raise the levees, or breach the dams. Most people don't want higher levees. They like being able to see the river.

"The silt buildup has been kind of the hidden problem," says Dustin Aherin, who chairs Citizens for Progress in Lewiston. "That particular issue, more than any I think, will engage the average citizen in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley."

The letter that some Lewiston business leaders sent to Crapo last year asked for the kind of conversation that this year's letter to Murray and Cantwell envisions. "After an honest assessment of costs, benefits, and uncertainties," the signers of the 2009 letter said, "we may decide the dams should go. We may decide they should stay. We may remain of different minds. But we all agree that long-term uncertainty, without an informed resolution, is the worst option of all."

So far, a truly informed resolution remains a pipe dream. Don't bash Murray too hard over this. What's the alternative? You're not apt to get a realistic weighing of costs and benefits from her opposition.

Still, the resistance of Washington politicians to any signficant change in the way the river is run consitutes "the biggest challenge we're facing now," says Save Our Wild Salmon outreach director Joseph Bogaard. If Murray and Cantwell got all the interested parties to sit down and reason, it might "create the space and the pressure for political leaders in this state to shift gears."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.