Columbia/Snake Ports, Growers Weigh In On Dam-Breaching Plan

A letter of concern signed by a broad coalition of more than 40 agricultural groups, ports and other river stakeholders along the Columbia/Snake river system is opposing a plan to breach four Snake River dams to protect spawning salmon. The plan was proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and includes compensation for farmers and others that would be hurt by the plan. The letter, addressed to key members of Congress and available as a template, was released March 26. The letter says that while the plan wouldn’t do much to protect salmon, it would likely devastate wheat growers and other agricultural interests in the region that depend on cheap barge transportation.

According to Simpson’s plan, the first dam breaching of the Lower Granite Dam would happen in 2030. Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams would follow by 2031. The $33 billion plan would essentially reorder the entire transportation structure of the region.  Simpson announced his plan in early February in a video on his website. Much of the money would go to compensate interests, including farmers, injured by the closures. 

The Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana grow wheat for export to 20 Asian Pacific Rim nations and elsewhere. According to U.S. Wheat Associates, a wheat-export marketing organization, U.S. farmers produce about 1.9 billion bushels of wheat a year, with about 500 Panamax-sized ships-worth a year exported. 

In the PNW, that wheat is barged down the Columbia/Snake system. Without the cost savings of barge transportation, it’s unlikely PNW wheat would remain competitive. About 60 percent of the cargo that moves on the Snake River is high-quality U.S. wheat grown in the region. Nearly 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports travel by barge on the Snake River each year. The remaining 40 percent of the cargoes on the Snake are fuel products, fertilizers, wood products and large industrial components like wind turbine parts and other project cargo.

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The letter was signed by the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Pacific Northwest Grain & Feed Association, Oregon Wheat Growers League, the Idaho Wheat Commission, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Montana Grain Growers Association and other ag groups, including the National Association of Wheat Growers. It was also signed by every river port, including the ports of Benton, Chinook, Clarkston, Ilwaco, Kalama, Lewiston, Longview, Morrow, Pasco and Royal Slope, as well as the American Waterways Operators and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Wouldn’t Fix Spawning Concerns

The letter addresses the concerns about spawning salmon that led to the proposal. The letter points out that studies have shown a broad decline in spawning salmon populations along the whole West Coast, including in free-flowing rivers without any dams. The causes for this decline are debated; some scientists attribute it to ocean acidification and other changes in the ocean environment brought about by climate change.

“While we share Representative Simpson’s concerns about poor smolt-to-adult returns (SARs) for the Snake River, there is no scientific evidence that breaching the lower Snake River dams will address that problem in a meaningful way,” the letter says. It claims the Lower Snake River already has 95 percent free passage for salmon. 

Environmental Impact

The dams are crucial for providing clean power to the Bonneville Power Administration, which has estimated that replacing the emissions-free hydropower with other sustainable and emissions-free sources would cost the region $16 billion over a 20-year span, raising its wholesale rates by 50 percent and the average public power customer’s electricity bills by 25 percent, and would double the risk of power outages.

Another “brown” effect of this closure would be to increase emissions by trucks and rail. “Over 38,000 rail cars or over 149,000 semi-trucks would be needed to move the cargo that went by barge in 2018, assuming that many trucks, drivers, locomotives and rail cars could be sourced, and highways and rail lines through the sensitive airshed of the Columbia River Gorge could accommodate the additional traffic. The impact to the environment cannot be overstated. … Shifting cargo from Snake River barging to truck and rail will result in significant annual increases in emissions, as follows: over 860,000 tons of CO2, 306.5 tons of NOx, 7.5 tons of PM, 69.7 tons of CO, and 7 tons of VOC,” according to the letter.

The letter concludes, “We strongly support science-based salmon recovery solutions that address the myriad threats to Northwest fish runs over every part of their life cycle. Though we do not question Rep. Simpson’s commitment to salmon, this proposal continues the narrow focus on four run-of-river dams with some of the highest fish passage numbers in our region. It is a speculative and costly plan that assumes we must choose between productive, fish-friendly federal projects and our Northwest salmon and steelhead runs.”

Fortunately for PNW ag interests, the plan has attracted little support in Congress; there is not yet a bill including the plan, and its chances of passage are slim, according to observers.

The full letter is available at