The lower Snake River dams were primarily built to establish an alternative way to get inland goods to seaport markets. Now the future of the system could hinge on whether river navigation, and the heavy public investment required to keep it going, still makes dollars and cents.
At least that is what critics of the system would like. But thus far, a draft 20-year plan to manage sediment accumulation in the Snake and Clearwater rivers near Lewiston doesn't include a cost-benefit analysis. That has left both critics and supporters of the dams, and the river transportation they make possible, to crunch their own numbers.
Their arguments are based on how much benefit taxpayers receive from maintaining the system. But the real argument is over salmon and steelhead and the effects dams have on the prized sea-run fish.
Since Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams were built - first and foremost to make Lewiston a sea port and secondarily to provide hydropower generation along with a small amount of irrigation and flood control - breaching advocates want to prove the navigation system is antiquated and costly.
To that end, Kooskia resident and Port of Lewiston critic Linwood Laughy made waves last spring when he calculated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would spend $3 million a year over the next two decades to keep the navigation channel near Lewiston deep enough for barges. Earlier this year, Laughy and comrades in the fight to free the river of dams hired a professional economist to shore up his numbers.
Comments submitted by him and members of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, which includes several environmental groups, indicate they believe dredging alone will cost $2 million a year and only provide $500,000 to $1 million in annual economic benefit. They also cite other expenses involved in maintaining the river system that include repairs to locks, dredging between Portland and the mouth of the Columbia River and the cost to analyze dredging and other sediment management.
They say that amounts to federal subsidies for area farmers and shippers - from $11,000 to $18,000 per loaded barge - to get wheat and other products to the Port of Portland. Laughy and his colleagues went on to argue that most products shipped on the river could be moved by truck and rail at the same or even lower cost.
"If you look at what has gone on over the last 15 years with river shipping, the markets themselves are making those decisions and traffic on the lower Snake River is down substantially, way more than you would say is a result of the recession or anything else," said Kevin Lewis of the Boise-based Idaho Rivers United.
They have made much of some agricultural interests' willingness to invest in rail. The Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative and the Cooperative Agricultural Producers Inc. recently invested $17 million of private money in the McCoy shuttle train loading facility near Oakesdale. Comments submitted by the environmentalists say that facility and others in eastern Washington will compete with barge transportation and make the river system less efficient.
But that is not the way Bill Newbry, CEO of the Genesee-based Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, sees it. Although he said he understands both sides of the argument, barge, rail and truck transportation are essential for growers to get their crops to market, and attempts by dam opponents to use McCoy as a breaching "poster child" are wrong.
"The McCoy grain terminal shuttle system is a complement to the river system and the river system is a complement to the train system. We need all forms of transportation," he said. "To say that because somebody has built a unit loading facility, there is no need for a barge system, that is erroneous, that is so wrong."
In fact, the cooperative is also heavily invested in the river system. It owns or is part owner of three Snake River barge terminals.
The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association countered the comments of the environmental groups with numbers crunched by its own hired economist. The industry group claims dredging the river will cost about $800,000 a year and produce a net annual economic benefit of at least $5 million and perhaps as high as $10 million. After a sharp drop to less than 3 million short tons shipped on the river in 2011, a dip they blame on the recession and the winter of 2010-11 when lock maintenance closed the river, they say the number of goods moving via the navigation system is on its way back up and approaching pre-recession levels.
Eenvironmental groups are calling on the corps to crunch the numbers. They say the National Environmental Policy Act requires it, as does good governance."
The corps doesn't plan to dive into the numbers. Corps spokesman Bruce Henrickson at Walla Walla said the agency has an obligation to maintain the navigation system that was authorized by Congress.