Grain Will Flow despite Snake Dam Removals

Oct. 5, 1999

Removing the four lower Snake River dams will not impede grainshipments, a fear voiced by eastern Washington farmers, as long as state and federal money is used to improve railway and highway infrastructure, according to a study released Oct. 1.

Conducted by a former high-ranking U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official, the report was commissioned by the conservation group American Rivers, a strong voice for dam removal in the Pacific Northwest. The findings attracted immediate criticism from Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

Every species of Snake River salmon is listed under the Endangered Species Act. To avoid their impending extinction, environmentalists say the earthen portion of Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams must be removed. More than 200 scientists and nearly 450 businesses and organizations have endorsed dam removal in the area.

But farmers in eastern Washington have expressed concernsthat removing the dams would significantly increase their cost of shipping grain. Subsidized by $10 billion a year in tax dollars, the dams have provided an inexpensive means of shipping an annual 3.8 million tons of grain out of eastern Washington. Some farmers say having to transport grain by trucks and railways could put them out of business.

The report presents a conceptual plan for how to identify, fund and execute rail and highway infrastructure upgrades that would offset the impact of removing the Snake River dams.

"These fears need not come pass. Prudent investment in transportation infrastructure will minimize potential transportation rate increases," Dickey said.

The report recommends federal and state funding to upgrade highway and rail infrastructure, and loans and grants to the private sector for grain elevators, terminals and rail cars. Specific investments would be identified by the states in collaboration with local governments and stakeholders, and would be approved by the Secretary of the Army.

Eliminating barge traffic on the Snake River would move the head of navigation from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Tri-Cities, Wash., near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers. If the waterway is closed, grain would be shipped to deepwater ports or Columbia River terminals.

Although it is too difficult to estimate how much the investments would cost, Dickey said the infrastructure improvements are affordable. American Rivers spokesperson Justin Hayes said the high-end estimate for such repairs is $217 million. "It's stunningly affordable.Those kinds of repairs happen all the time, " Hayes said.

But while American Rivers has demonstrated that both salmon and agriculture can be saved if the dams are removed, Sen.Gorton said breaching the dams could increase transportation costs by $40 million and year and would also place too many oil guzzling trucks on overcrowded highways.

Hayes said that need not be the case. "Economists have said that if you have to remove dams, take out the lower Snake River dams because they provide fewer benefits to the region than Columbia Riverdams. . .You can have a very vibrant agricultural economy in eastern Washington where grain moves without the Salmon River Waterway, if we make prudent investments in upgrading truck and railroad infrastructure."

"What makes this very unique among all of the reports available, is that this is the only report trying to figure out how to minimize the impact dam removal might have on communities," Hayes said.

Another study, looking at the full economic impact of removing the four dams from the Snake River will be released in late October. That analysis, sponsored by Trout Unlimited and Earthjustice, with assistance from American Rivers and other groups, weighs the economic gains and losses of dam removal including impacts on irrigated agriculture, power and water users, tribes, recreation, transportation, and construction, and places those changes in the context of evolving local and regional economies.