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Critical Debate on Snake River Dams – DTN – AgFax

Photo: USACA

When Chandler Ghoul When asked at Commodity Classic last month in New Orleans about investing in infrastructure, the CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers took the time to highlight the value of river transportation.

He repeatedly warned of the risks to wheat farmers during a raging debate in the Pacific Northwest over four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington State. Goule also pointed out the precedent it could set.

“If this proposal goes ahead, then what about locks and dams on the Mississippi?” Ghoul asked. “What about locks and dams on other major transportation systems? So we supported the infrastructure bill, but we have to keep this clean energy transmission system in place.

The four dams – Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor – are at the center of a decades-old struggle over the recovery and migration of salmon and rainbowfish in the Columbia and River basins. Snake who also 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 about 10% of all wheat exports, on average between 80 million bushels (mb) and 100 mb per year. Often wheat from the Dakotas or other Plains states will be railed as close to the Snake River as possible, then barged the rest of the way to port terminals.

“So from a wheat perspective, it can have a big ripple effect across the country,” Goule said.

Wheat farmers and other users of the river are being countered by an outpouring of support for salmon recovery that includes fishermen, conservationists, scientists and several Native American tribes. All are calling on federal authorities to break the four dams as a last resort for more than $16 billion in federal recovery dollars over decades that have failed several efforts to restore salmon and rainbow trout populations, which are now considered endangered in the river basin.

Earlier this month, more than 220 Washington state chefs, fishers and others in the food industry wrote to top state officials asking them to come up with a plan that “restores the bottom of the Snake River and invests in our communities and critical infrastructure.”

The letter added: ‘For decades, fishing and farming communities have been needlessly at odds as salmon populations have moved ever closer to extinction. We need new policies and programs in 2022 that will provide fishers and farmers with greater certainty and the opportunity to thrive.

Reflecting on the length of this debate, 14 years ago, about 200 chiefs across the country launched a similar letter campaign calling for the removal of the same four roadblocks, according to a 2007 Los Angeles Times

The dams, the fishes, and the arguments surrounding them highlight conflicting agendas within the Biden administration. The White House wants to be a climate champion and reduce greenhouse gases. But leaders within the administration also want to right some past wrongs, like trying to restore promises once made to tribes in the area.


Last week, top Biden administration officials, including Energy Secretary 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 post Monday on the White House webpage summarizing the meeting.

The White House cites early treaties with tribes that promised the right to fish – assuming that salmon and rainbow trout were “inexhaustible” resources before fish populations began to decline.

Citing that past stimulus efforts have cost billions of dollars and failed, the White House said, “We cannot carry on business as usual. Doing what is right for salmon, tribal nations and communities can bring us together. It is time to find effective and creative solutions.

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

(CEQ Blog: here)


Removing 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 provide 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 removing a massive hydroelectric dam that produces electricity but produces no carbon,” he said. rich robvice president of the barge company Shaver Transportation and president of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

In addition to being the largest source of carbon-free energy in the Northwest, barge traffic on the river results in 10 times lower emissions than trucks per ton of freight. When it comes to transporting a lot of goods, barges have climatic advantages over rail or semi-trailers. Beyond transporting wheat — the largest commodity shipped on the river — the river is also essential for moving refined oil up the river, Rich noted.

“Using the river is more efficient, much cleaner, and it doesn’t clog the roads,” Rich said.

Simply replacing barge traffic with semi-trucks would equate to almost 151,000 additional semi-truck transports per year. “The system is a major transportation network, and if we lose that, we lose our competition for transportation costs,” said michelle henningexecutive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

“When you have barges and railroads, they can compete on price and then we can stay at a certain level. But if you remove any of these, you lose price competition and costs will increase.

Rich and others also point to the various measures used to help fish migrate upstream. There are removable weirs and weirs that basically work like fish slides. There is even a barge that goes up the river. The researchers note that other undammed rivers have also experienced similar declines in fish migrations, indicating that the complexities of lower fish populations are not simply centered around the Snake River dams.


As the White House blog noted, it would take an act of Congress to remove the blockades. Surprisingly, a forward defender is Representative Mike SimpsonR-Idaho, which has proposed a $33.5 billion plan to remove the four dams and rebuild infrastructure to replace the electricity and transportation needs currently met by the dams.

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

“We keep coming back to the congressman and asking him what the chances are of getting enough money from Congress to upgrade highways, bridges and whatever else is needed to put more tractor-trailers (trucks) on the road. road, and the chances of obtaining additional rail permits and upgrading rail lines to transport this product,” Goule said.

“We all know that’s not going to happen, and that’s one of the main reasons we insist on keeping these play-offs.”

Washington State’s Top Democrats, Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Insleedid not commit to removing the dams, but last October they announced they would do a study and publish their recommendations for the recovery of salmon and the Snake River by July 31.

After holding its own roundtable this week on the Snake River, Representative Dan NewhouseR-Wash., pushed back against the White House CEQ blog post, saying the White House only listens to the argument of people who want to remove the dams.

This position “ignores not one, but two multi-million dollar, multi-year studies implemented by Republican and Democratic administrations that have come to the conclusion that dam failure would not benefit our native salmon species,” it said. Newhouse.

Newhouse offered more history, citing that one of the reasons the return of salmon has been slow is “the fact that the State of Idaho literally poisoned its lakes and streams systematically in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to exterminate native salmon populations. Newhouse added that fish returns were clearly documented to be in decline long before the construction of the Lower Snake River dams.

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 get their goods to export markets.” .

For wheat farmers, Goule said the NAWG and others would work to stop all funding through a Water Resources Development Bill (WRDA) or a bill. credits that would call for the removal of roadblocks. Hennings also said Inslee and Murray’s recommendations later this summer will be crucial for policy considerations going forward.

“They’re going to come out with a basically yes or no report on the dams in July and so we’ve done what we can to provide them with the information they need to make their assessment,” Hennings said. She added: “We support salmon recovery, but it’s 2022 – with research and technology, salmon and dams can coexist and people can coexist. There are projects that we support. »

Chris Clayton can be reached at [email protected]

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