Snake River Dams Pits Farmers Vs. Fish

June 29, 2023

The political battle in the Pacific Northwest over breaching the Snake River Dams in Washington State has, at least temporarily, swung back in the favor of farmers, grain shippers, irrigators, and power producers who rely on the river system and oppose their removal.

For decades environmentalists have argued that breaching the four dams in southeast Washington state is the best method to restore the threatened and endangered salmon populations of the Columbia Basin. Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which is tasked with salmon recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act recommended removal of the dams.

But proponents of the dams say the benefits of the dams cannot be replaced.

"These dams carry 65% of the wheat that goes out of the PNW corridor," said Columbia Grain International President and CEO Jeff Van Pevenage. "So, they are important from the standpoint that they are the most carbon neutral form of transportation for U.S. wheat."

"On the irrigation side is another are where we see huge loss for our region and nation," said Heather Stebbings with the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. "If dam breaching were to occur we would lose the irrigation behind the Ice Harbor Dam in particular and that irrigates about 50 thousand acres here in the Northwest. So that supports about $2 billion of economic value in the region. Ten thousand jobs and…but it’s really compelling when you think about the amount of food production that would be impacted."

Breaching the Snake River dams would require an act of Congress. With Democrats holding the majority in 2020 and the Biden Administration signaling support for restoring historic salmon runs it appeared dam removal was on the government fast-track.

But with Republicans winning back the majority in the House, Washington’s GOP Representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse introduced a bill this spring to keep the dams in place.

In the Senate, Republicans Steve Daines of Montana and Idaho’s Jim Risch sent forth the same legislation. Daines, Risch, and GOP Senator Mke Crapo of Idaho also recently sent a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm urging the administration to advocate for and preserve the Snake River dams.

The Senators wrote: “Hydropower is a reliable and carbon-free resource that provides power to millions of Americans. Despite this, certain voices in the Biden Administration continue to advocate for breaching dams and reducing the System’s benefits, which would have far-reaching and devastating consequences.”

Losing hydro generation is only one of the energy impacts that would be brought about if the dams were breached.

"We presently can't move enough rail transportation to the marketplace and if we need the alternative forms of transportation like barge traffic – and truck traffic is not really an option from so far away," said Pevenage. "It would be the most expensive, the most polluting form of transportation to the marketplace as well as the most inefficient form of transportation."

Those energy costs would then have a ripple effect.

"That would ultimately be absorbed by the farmer or passed along to the consumer again increasing the cost of our food that we buy at the grocery store," said Stebbings.

How the dams impact the supply and prices at those grocery stores in the northwest’s population centers is a task facing advocates for the dams.

"It’s a challenge to help folks understand on the west side to understand the value those projects because they are more disconnected with them," said Stebbings. "They aren’t right in their backyard. And so the more we can tell that story on the west side in particular, the more we’ll help folks understand the value of the projects."

"I think when they start comparing that to the joy of looking at the orca whales out in Puget Sound which seems to be one of the biggest environmentalist comments today that boy the orca whales are going away because of the dams on the Snake River," said Van Pevenage. "I think when they have to start paying that food bill they’ll maybe get a little different view of what value is to them of having these Snake River dams and to keeping U.S. food costs competitive."

Now's the time for farmers of the region to make sure their voices are heard.

"This just isn’t a Washington, Idaho, Oregon thing," said Van Pevenage. "This spreads itself all the way into Montana because when the rail has to service all the Washington/Idaho grain it means Montana grain could miss out, could be delayed, could see their costs increase as well. So it’s not just a local thing / They need to have their voices heard and they need to be loud about it."

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association states they believe salmon and the dams can coexist and are supportive of salmon recovery efforts short of breaching the dams. And at least for now, the Act of Congress needed to remove dams does not seem likely. 

Source: Western Ag Network