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How dam breaching would hurt ag, economy

By: Sean Ellis
Published in Blog on  February 07, 2020

PORTLAND – A recently released study concludes that transportation impacts related to breaching dams on the Columbia-Snake River system would cost the nation at least $2.3 billion.

It also found that removing the lower four dams on the Snake River to improve salmon runs, as some groups are proposing, would negatively impact the environment and threaten the existence of at least 1,100 farms in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Wheat is the No. 1 crop in the Pacific Northwest – Idaho, Oregon and Washington – in terms of total acres and the Columbia-Snake River system is the top wheat export gateway in the United States.

About 58 percent of the nation’s wheat destined for export travels through the river system, which also produces about 60 percent of the electric power used in the region. 

Some groups support breaching the four lower Snake River dams as a way to benefit endangered salmon and steelhead. 

Removing the dams would make the river system unnavigable for barges that move wheat, barley and other products to port for export.

“As this study shows, the Snake River dam system is the most efficient option for transporting goods such as wheat, generating renewable energy via hydropower and preventing flooding in the Pacific Northwest,” said Idaho Wheat Commission Commissioner “Genesee Joe” Anderson, who farms in the Lewiston area. “While removing or breaching the Snake River dams will not increase salmon numbers with any certainty, there would definitely be negative impacts on people, including growers.”

If the dams ever were removed, it would have a large negative impact on Idaho wheat growers, said IWC Executive Director Blaine Jacobson. 

Wheat is Idaho’s No. 2 crop in terms of total revenue and half of the wheat grown in Idaho is exported, almost all of it through the Columbia-Snake River system.  

Wheat is grown in 42 of Idaho’s 44 counties and helps support the local economies in a large portion of the state’s rural areas, Jacobson said. Idaho is the No. 5 wheat growing state in the nation and has led the nation in yields per acre four of the last five years.

“Wheat is a steady, consistent contributor to Idaho’s economy,” Jacobson said. “Barging is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way of getting our wheat to market.”

When other factors such as power generation, the efficiency and environmentally friendly benefit of moving goods by barge vs. rail or truck, and total jobs connected to the river system are considered, “It boggles my mind that breaching the dams is even a consideration,” he added. “There is no question the dams boost the PNW economy and the benefit of the river system vastly outweighs the cost of maintaining it.”

The Columbia-Snake system is the third largest grain export gateway in the world.

The study was commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association and conducted by FCS Group, a financial and economic consulting firm. 

PNWA is a non-profit trade association with 135 members in Idaho, Oregon and Washington that advocates on behalf of the river system.

The study was released during the Idaho Wheat Commission’s annual PNW Export Tour, which brings Idaho wheat growers to Portland to educate them on the region’s wheat industry, including providing them an overview of the benefit of the river system.

Talk of breaching the dams is not new but the pressure from groups that support doing that goes in cycles and right now, the pressure is on an up cycle, PNWA Executive Director Kristin Meira told tour participants.

In response to a lawsuit brought by dam removal supporters, a federal judge has ordered federal agencies that operate the river’s hydropower system to review all reasonable options for operating it in order to minimize the impact on endangered salmon. 

A draft environmental impact statement on the system’s operation is expected soon and its release will be followed by a public comment period. 

Meira said it’s important that growers and other wheat industry partners have their voices heard on the issue because the groups supporting dam removal are organized and vocal.

“These groups are incredibly active in D.C., so your voices are needed back there,” she said. “This is a time when the folks in the different state capitals, in our federal agencies and our federal decision makers, all need to hear from growers, shippers and everyone who supports keeping these dams.”

The study found that removing the dams would lead to higher rail rates, negatively impact air quality and cost the nation more than $2.3 billion over the next 30 years. 

Removing the dams, the study found, would increase diesel fuel consumption by almost 5 million gallons per year because barges would be replaced by less efficient truck-to-rail shipments. 

The share of goods moved to export terminals on the West Coast by barge would decrease and the amount moved by trucks and rail cars would increase. 

The increased reliance on truck-to-rail shipments would result in an additional 24 million miles of travel per year on county, state and federal roads. 

The study also found that dam breaching would likely increase grain transportation and storage expenses by 50-100 percent and put more than 1,100 farms at risk of bankruptcy.

The Columbia-Snake River system is a 465-mile federal waterway that provides farmers as far away as the Midwest access to international markets. 

Besides being the No. 1 gateway for U.S. wheat exports, the system is the No. 2 gateway for corn and soybean exports and the No. 1 gateway for West Coast wood and auto exports. 

According to PNWA, about 14 million metric tons of wheat destined for export move through the system each year, as well as 8 million metric tons of soybeans, 3 million tons of wood products and 9 million tons of corn. 

According to the study, shifting transportation of commodities from barges to truck and rail would increase carbon and other harmful emissions by more than 1.3 million tons per year. That is equivalent to adding 181,889 passenger cars or 90,365 homes.

According to the PNWA, it would take about 35,000 rail cars or 135,00 semi-trucks to move all the cargo that is barged on the Snake River. 

Meira said she believes a highlight of the study was its finding that removing the dams would create more emissions.

“Barging is the cleanest, most efficient way of moving all of that high-quality U.S. wheat overseas,” she said. 

If people say they are in favor of addressing climate change and having a healthy environment, Meira added, “You can’t be in favor of breaching because that’s headed in the wrong direction.”

During the PNW Export Tour, participants visited Shaver Transportation, which moves wheat headed for export down the river on barges.

Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver, said the reason the Columbia-Snake River system is so successful is that the option of barging or shipping products by rail provides necessary competition that keeps prices competitive. 

“We’re successful out here and the reason we’re successful is that shippers have two options to receive wheat,” he said. “Where you have barging and rail, you have competition. Where there is less ways to ship, there’s less ways to make a profit.”

Besides impacting the PNW’s important agricultural sector and affecting the environment, removing the four lower Snake River dams would also undoubtedly result in higher power costs in the region, Meira said.

Together, the four dams produce enough electricity to power 800,000 homes. 

“Those dams are producing a tremendous amount of power and they are efficient,” Meira said. “If you breached the dams, electric rates would go up, not down.”

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