It's a classic case pitting agriculture against environmentalists. Salmon is at the heart of the dispute, but like most disagreements between two groups, it's complicated.
Four federal dams on the lower Snake River, in Washington state, provide navigation for grain and hydropower for the region. However, the dams also interfere with the annual migrations for chinook and steelhead salmon, breaking treaties with Native American tribes in the region that once relied on those salmon runs.
Nicole Berg has heard the debate about removing four dams on the lower Snake River essentially since they were completed in the mid-1970s. "Coming from around here, you just get a little numb to it, because you have heard about taking the dams out your whole life," says Berg, a farmer in southeast Washington state and immediate past-president of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG).
Debate about removing the four dams is intensifying in the Pacific Northwest among farmers, tribes, grain companies and others as the Biden administration has increasingly spotlighted support for removing the dams to help wild chinook salmon recovery in the region, a priority for American Indian tribes and conservationists.
The lower Snake River locks and dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Monumental -- have been in place for some 50 years and led to the development of grain elevators along the river that rely on the dams for steady navigation.
Combined, the four Snake River dams also have capacity to produce about 3,000 megawatts of power with zero emissions. A solar farm to replace that power would take roughly 20,000 acres.
"It's carbon-free, but it's not environmental-free, it burns fish," explains Shannon Wheeler, vice-chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, in a counter argument about the power generated by the dams.
Tribes such as the Nez Perce have been among the biggest advocates for a plan to remove the dams. Wheeler adds that other issues such as irrigation and agricultural transportation are "low-hanging fruit" that can be resolved. "It's an issue that we need to face. Some things are not environmentally free. Those things we can change and do better, we should be doing that. I don't see the hydro issue as a large hurdle to being able to do that. We can change the way that we do business as long as it's not harming the environment."
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has proposed a $33-billion plan to remove the dams and replace the power generation, as well as look to the railroads and other alternatives to help alleviate the freight issues.
Simpson also points to the treaties with tribes such as Nez Perce, which gave up 13 million acres of land when they signed their treaty in the 1800s with the U.S. but were promised protected salmon-fishing rights.
"Fishing rights don't mean a lot if there are no fish," Simpson points out, "and especially if the reason they're gone is because of actions we take, actions that we can reverse. Is it expensive? You bet it is."
For farmers and the 13 grain elevators along the Snake River, the dams support about 60% of all wheat exports out of the Pacific Northwest, or roughly 100 million bushels annually. Tow boats along the Snake can move four barges at a time -- roughly 480,000 bushels or about 140 rail cars. That also equates to nearly 540 semitrucks.
Mark Weber, general manager of Tri-Cities Grain, in Pasco, Washington, has a terminal located at the confluence between the Snake and Columbia rivers. Tri-Cities exports about 12 to 13 million bushels of wheat per year and handles corn for local demand.
"Around here, the river is a key component in how we get product to market," Weber explains. "Without those dams, suddenly there's a giant gap on how we move this product and how we get it through the system."
Columbia Grain International has two grain elevators farther upriver on the Snake. Jeff Van Pevenage, CEO for Columbia Grain, argues barges are "by far the cheapest source of transportation" and the most carbon-neutral way for grain to move downriver, as well as send fertilizer or fuel up the river.
"You want to put more trucks on the road, and the infrastructure for rail into that area of the state is extremely poor," Pevenage says. "You need massive upgrades to get the rail to the point where it could do it. Finally, farmers are going to have to drive more miles for delivery than they do today."
For farmers such as Berg, the grain elevators along the dams provide an average of 40 cents a bushel positive basis over the futures wheat price. Often, Tri-Cities Grain offers producers 40 to 60 cents over the CME price.
"The basis would completely change if it all went to rail," Berg stresses. "They wouldn't be able to handle it all."
Diahann Howard, executive director of the Port of Benton, in Richland, says the river's clean-power generation is a driving force for economic development in southeastern Washington. She also points to one of the driving focuses of the Biden administration to convert the economy from fossil fuels to "emission-free" energy.
"It's going to take all of the above to get us there, and we are one of the closest areas in the country to getting there," Howard explains. "This region is already 87% clean power. The dams are a key part of that. I don't think the people who support dam removal realize all of the unintended consequences."
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