Northwest News

With shipping down on Snake River, farmers worry about dams’ future

A grain barge is loaded at the Port of Lewiston in Idaho in 2013. Container shipping has ended but wheat shippers say they need river shipping.
A grain barge is loaded at the Port of Lewiston in Idaho in 2013. Container shipping has ended but wheat shippers say they need river shipping. AP file

Editor’s note: 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.

For Idaho wheat farmers like Joe Anderson staying competitive in international wheat 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 with delegations from China, Chile and Taiwan in June in Lewiston, negotiating contracts and showing off what they can deliver. One of the their advantages they can tout is the access to shipping wheat on barges down the Snake and Columbia rivers to Pacific ports like Portland.

“This river system is incredibly important as a competitive factor,” said Anderson.

Wheat farmers are the nearly the only shippers still using the Snake River waterway completed in 1975 that linked Lewiston to the Pacific when the last of four dams were completed. Shipping on the Snake River has dropped by 70 percent since its peak in 1998 as other shippers have shifted to Puget Sound ports for hauling their products to Asia.

Lewiston and the others ports downriver to Pasco always had a hard time getting goods to ship upriver. Shippers like Clearwater Paper Co., the major employer in the port 465 miles from the ocean, have shifted to rail, a major change from 2000, the last time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies considered removal of the four dams in Washington that making shipping possible, Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite.

At the same time a handful of farmers who irrigate their orchards, potatoes, corn and other crops from the reservoir behind Ice Harbor Dam have expanded from 35,000 acres up to 60,000, making them an even larger economic impact on the region.

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.

lewiston 4
Lewiston sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers in the backwaters of Lower Granite Dam, which built in 1975 opened the city to shipping by barge to the Pacific ports. But the city has not grown much since then and shipping is down 70 percent from its peak in 1998. Ali Rizvi McClatchy

The dams’ value to shipping, irrigation and recreation also come into play as federal officials again weigh their economic benefits. The most recent environmental study, finalized in 2002, concluded 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.

I also believe protecting fish, producing renewable energy, and sustaining our economy are not mutually exclusive.

David Doeringsfeld, director of the Port of Lewiston

“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.

If I lose the river I need another way to ship my wheat. 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.

Bryan Jones, farmer in Dusty, Wash.

Reversing both of these decisions would be necessary if shipping would ever grow on the river, critics say. Doeringsfeld is optimistic Portland will get a new container shipping contractor.

“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.

A barge makes it’s way up the Snake River north of Ice Harbor Dam near Page, Wash., in 1998. Greg Lehman AP file

But river shipping remains important to Idaho and Washington wheat farmers. Several studies have estimated the river shipping takes 40 cents a bushel off the price of soft white wheat, which was selling at $5.70 a bushel in July.

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 it.

“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.

More acres, same water

If the dams come down the small group of Washington farmers who pump their water from the pool behind Ice Harbor dam 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.

This decision will be different because the acres involved have doubled. Washington law allows farmers to “spread” the water they conserve to additional land and crops, said Darryll Olsen, director of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

The value of the irrigation land also has skyrocketed as Washington’s wine industry has gained an international reputation.

We can find a solution that works for all of us.

Samantha Mace,

“If there is any place in the world you would want to be in irrigated agriculture it’s here,” Olsen said.

In 2002 the Corps estimated the cost of modifying pumps for farmers at $22.5 million. Waddell said the price was an overestimation.

Keeping them whole

Even if Snake dams are taken out, Pasco will still have barge shipping to the Pacific ports. If the decision is made to remove the dams, 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 value of the goods being shipped dropping she said the cost of maintaining the shipping corridor will only get more expensive.

“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.

Sam Mace
Sam Mace an organizer for Save Our Wild Salmon from Spokane has been working with farmers for the last decade looking for alternatives for shipping their grain if the four lower Snake Dams in Washington are removed as her group wants. Ali Rizvi McClatchy

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 removing the dams and reservoirs will provide 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.”

Next in the series: By treating salmon as a commodity and not focusing on protecting the ecosystems where they live, salmon managers have failed to tap the resiliency of these remarkable fish.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Related stories from Bellingham Herald