For Idaho wheat farmers like Joe Anderson, staying competitive in international markets is critical to their future.
That’s why Anderson, a fourth-generation farmer from Genesee and a member of the Idaho Wheat Commission, met in June with delegations from China, Chile and Taiwan, negotiating contracts and showing off what the farmers can deliver. One of the advantages they tout is access through Lewiston to ship wheat on barges down the Snake and Columbia rivers, to Pacific ports.
“This river system is incredibly important as a competitive factor,” said Anderson.
Wheat farmers are nearly the only shippers still using the Snake River waterway, completed in 1975, that links Lewiston to the Pacific.
Shipping on the Snake has dropped by 70 percent since its peak in 1998. Other shippers have shifted to Puget Sound ports for hauling their products to Asia, and the various ports always had a hard time getting goods to move back upriver to Lewiston. Clearwater Paper Co., the major employer in the port 465 miles from the ocean, has moved its operations to rail — a major change from about two decades ago, the last time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies considered removing four key Snake River dams in Washington.
At the same time, a handful of farmers who irrigate their orchards, potatoes, corn and other crops from the reservoir behind one of the dams, Ice Harbor, have expanded their presence from 35,000 acres up to 60,000, also growing their economic clout.
Energy efficiency, cheap natural gas, and growing wind and solar plants have made the dams’ combined power — enough to keep Seattle lit each year — less essential. For years now, environmentalists have argued for removing them, saying the benefits to Northwest salmon runs will far outweigh any negative effects.
The dams’ value to shipping, irrigation and recreation comes into play as federal officials again weigh their economic benefits. The most recent environmental study, finalized in 2002, concluded that leaving the dams in place was cheaper than taking them out. But Jim Waddell, the retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manager who headed the study, now says the agency’s calculations were wrong.
“A re-analysis of the 2002 report demonstrates that the projected cost of keeping the dams was understated,” Waddell said. “Today the reality is not that breaching the dams would be too expensive, but rather that we cannot afford to keep these dams in place in their present configuration.”
His view is not shared by the people who depend on those dams.
“I believe the current efforts by the region to restore salmon runs are important,” said David Doeringsfeld, director of the Port of Lewiston. “I also believe protecting fish, producing renewable energy and sustaining our economy are not mutually exclusive.”
In 2014, the Port of Portland, the key destination for most goods shipped from Lewiston, lost its container shipping. Lawsuits also halted the shipping of oversized loads of mining equipment on the river and U.S. 12 east to Montana.
Reversing both of these decisions would be necessary for Snake River shipping to recover, critics say. Doeringsfeld is optimistic that Portland will get a new container shipping contractor and that a court decision will allow oversized loads to resume.
“With the return of container steamship service in Portland and transport of oversized cargo on U.S. Highway 12, I believe shipping volumes will grow,” said Doeringsfeld.
Waddell said the costs to the federal government and electric ratepayers to continue barge shipping on the Snake far outweigh the benefits.
But river shipping remains important to the Idaho and Washington wheat farmers. Several studies have estimated that it takes 40 cents a bushel off the price of soft white wheat, which was selling at $5.70 a bushel in July.
“There’s history that if rail doesn’t have competition, the rates will double,” Anderson said.
Bryan Jones is a farmer from Dusty, Wash, who also depends on the river system to ship his wheat crop. But he’s open to the idea of removing the four dams if new rail systems are built to replace their route.
“If I lose the river I need another way to ship my wheat,” he said. “Change is never easy, but if you have an economic avenue and you show both sides there’s a way to come out of this even better than they are now, it can work.”
Ken Casavant, an economics professor at Washington State University, said the strength of the current transportation system is that it is a complete system. That means all three modes, rail, truck and barge, are available.
Extra costs for some farmers
The Ice Harbor farmers find that dam vital for another reason. If it comes down, they would either have to modify the specialized pumps that lift their water to the crops hundreds of feet above the river or sell out to the federal government.
The farmers have used a Washington law that allows them to “spread” water they conserve to additional land and crops, nearly doubling their acreage since the last review. And the value of the irrigation land has skyrocketed as Washington’s wine industry has gained an international reputation.
“If there is any place in the world you would want to be in irrigated agriculture, it’s here,” said Darryll Olsen, director of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.
In 2002 the Army Corps estimated the cost of modifying the farmers’ pumps at $22.5 million. Waddell said the price was overestimated.
T&R Farms, owned by the family of the late Ron Reimann, grows potatoes, grains and fruits. Reimann said in a May interview that the modifications would be too costly and could leave them without water for several years. (Reimann died July 30 when he was struck while on a four-wheeler.)
“Apple trees don’t survive three to five years,” Reimann said. “When you looked at the figures I said, ‘Oh, my God, you know, you might as well just buy us out.’ ”
Keeping them whole
Even if Snake dams are taken out, Pasco, Wash., will still have barge shipping to the Pacific ports. WSU’s Casavant said all sides should get together to ensure wheat farmers aren’t forced to go solely to trucks, which would be costly and increase impacts on highways and air quality.
“The worst of all worlds for the shipper is the loss of barge transportation, and the rail alternative doesn’t have the capacity to handle the traffic due to lack of infrastructure,” he said.
Samantha Mace of Save our Wild Salmon has worked with Jones and other farmers to find alternatives. The conservation coalition has sought to remove the dams since the late 1990s. With the dropping value of the goods being shipped, she said, the cost of maintaining the shipping corridor will only get more expensive. And there is a maintenance backlog for other dams and transmission lines.
“Can our region afford to maintain high-cost, low-value infrastructure when other valuable projects in the basin that deliver greater value are themselves facing expensive upgrades and repairs?” Mace said.
She points to unit train shipping facilities that Washington farmer cooperatives have financed themselves as an example to build on. Ultimately, she believes the free-flowing recreation and the farmland restoration provided by removing the dams and reservoirs will help the surrounding economy more than the dams’ continued existence.
“We can find a solution that works for all of us,” Mace said.
Doeringsfeld is skeptical.
“I don’t believe meaningful mitigation would happen,” he said. “Northern Idaho shouldn’t base its economic future on promises that would require consistent, long-term support from multiple administrations in Washington, D.C.”
The Northwest has yet to figure out a sustainable plan to save imperiled Columbia salmon. This is part of a series exploring whether salmon can ultimately survive.
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By treating salmon as a commodity and not focusing on protecting and connecting the ecosystems where they live, salmon managers have failed to tap the resiliency of these remarkable fish.