Debate Over Snake River Dams

Key to Wheat Exports and Clean Power, Battle Over Snake River Dams, Salmon, and Environmental Justice

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A barge is loaded with wheat on April 18 at Columbia Grain's Snake River terminal called Central Ferry in southeastern Washington state between the last two dams on the lower Snake River -- the Little Goose Dam and the Lower Granite Dam. There are 13 grain elevators along the lower Snake River in southeast Washington state that ship roughly 100 million bushels of wheat annually to primarily Pacific Northwest export terminals. The debate over removing the four dams is one of the biggest controversies in the region. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

RICHLAND, Wash. (DTN) -- 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," said Berg, a farmer in southeast Washington state and immediate past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG).

Berg farms along the Columbia River, just south of the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers at the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, Washington).

Debate over removing the four dams is intensifying in the Pacific Northwest among farmers, grain companies, and regional economic development leaders as President Joe Biden and his administration have increasingly spotlighted support for removing the dams to help wild chinook salmon recovery in the region, a priority for Native American Tribes and conservationists.

This past week, DTN toured the lower Snake River locks and dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Monumental -- as well as some grain elevators that rely on the dams for navigation. Advocates on both sides of the arguments talked about the ongoing conflicts over protecting the dams versus spurring salmon recovery in the region.

Removing the four dams affects agriculture, transportation and industry, the power generation of four dams that combined can generate as much as 3,000 megawatts of clean, low-emission energy, the recovery of salmon runs in the river into Idaho and treaties with tribes that promised protected access to fishing rights.

For farmers and the 13 grain elevators along the Snake River, the dams support about 60% of all wheat exports out of the PNW area, or roughly 100 million bushels (mb) annually.

Berg pointed out the grain elevators along the dams provide an average of 40 cents per bushel positive basis over the futures wheat price. Right now, Tri-Cities Grain in Pasco, Washington, is offering producers as much as 60 cents over the CME price.

"The basis would completely change if it all went to rail," Berg said. "They wouldn't be able to handle it all."

A single barge hauls roughly 120,000 bushels, about the same as 35 rail cars. Tug boats along the Snake can move four barges at a time, or about 140 rail cars. That also equates to nearly 540 semitrucks.

Bill Flory, a farmer near Lewiston, Idaho, and member of the Idaho Wheat Commission, said dam removal would make wheat production less feasible for a lot of farmers, especially those with limited storage capacity. He noted he would likely find himself shifting to other crops.

"Not everybody can do that because it takes some innovation and some work, and then it takes a good banker," Flory said.


Mark Weber, general manager of Tri-Cities Grain, has a terminal right at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers. Tri-Cities exports about 12 mb to 13 mb of wheat per year and also handles corn for local demand.

"Around here, the river is a key component in how we get product to market," Weber said. "Without those dams, suddenly there's a giant gap in how we move this product and how we get it through the system."

Already past the last dam on the river, Tri-Cities initially looks like it would be in a key position if the dams were taken out. But Weber said there would quickly be questions about sediment loads moving down the river.

"Day one, we're in a fantastic position, but you don't know where it goes after that," he said.

Columbia Grain International has two grain elevators farther upriver on the Snake. Jeff Van Pevenage, CEO for Columbia Grain, noted barges are "by far the cheapest source of transportation," and the most carbon-neutral way for grain to move down river, as well as send fertilizer or fuel up the river.

"So, it's kind of a major disturbance," Van Pevenage said. "And the interesting thing is, the topic comes and goes, and you think it gets put to bed. There's really been nobody from the government speaking to the industry. They might be listening to us when we discuss the issues as they look at it, but there's really been nobody speaking to us. OK, if you're going to take them out, how are we going to replace it? And how is the infrastructure going to be compensated, and those kinds of items?"

Most of the river terminals from Richland, Washington, to Lewiston, Idaho, are surrounded by foothills. Van Pevenage noted replacing 13 grain elevators on the river would require significant investment in large-scale railroad areas of flat land to deal with miles of track needs for 110-car unit trains.

"So, replacing it, you could have it trucked to the Tri Cities and build more facilities there. I think that's really difficult to do. You want to put more trucks on the road, and the infrastructure for rail into that area of the state is extremely poor. 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."

Earlier this month, 25 farming groups and businesses in Idaho sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack raising their concerns about the ongoing federal mediation efforts over a long-standing lawsuit that could lead to a decision to remove the dams. The groups cited "agriculture's strong ties to the dams" and their worries that the agricultural impacts are not being taken into account.

"For example, eliminating barging would lead to significantly increased transportation costs for growers," the groups wrote. "The environmental impacts of replacing barging with trucks or rail would be tremendous. Importantly, all these impacts would be realized even though it is infeasible to increase rail or truck capacity in the region."


Salmon runs up the Snake River are increasing, though conservationists point out a lot of the salmon counted are not wild but hatched.

On Wednesday night, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, spoke at the opening reception for the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting in Boise, Idaho. While U.S. Fish and Wildlife designate most of the salmon as "threatened" and not "endangered," Simpson said the fish are facing extinction. Simpson 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.

"You're not going to recover Idaho salmon runs if you don't take the dams out," Simpson said.

Simpson added that any plans to remove the dams need "to make the stakeholders whole."

Simpson also pointed to the treaties with tribes such as the Nez Perce, who gave up 13 million acres of land when they signed their treaty with the U.S. but were promised protected salmon fishing rights.

"Fishing rights don't mean a lot if there are no fish," Simpson said, "and especially if the reason they're gone is because of actions we take that we can reverse. Is it expensive? You bet it is."

Last month, President Biden spoke at a conservation conference where he committed to working with tribal leaders and referenced the support of Washington's senators as well as Simpson "to bring healthy and abundant salmon runs back to the (Columbia) River system."

The White House Council on Environmental Quality has been issuing reports. Meanwhile, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which negotiates possible federal litigation settlements, held an April 3 packed meeting on Snake River litigation and has another meeting set for May 25.

Despite White House support, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, speaking Friday at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, was asked about removing the dams and the support of 57 Tribes for doing so. Haaland still declined to offer full support for dam removal.

"What I can say is that every watershed is different and we need and I'm happy that Tribes are engaging in this process," Haaland said. "You know, for a very long time nobody asked the Tribes what they thought about anything. So it's good that their voices are being heard now. We will of course be engaged when somebody wants us to be engaged."

Talk from Simpson, Washington state Democrats and the Biden administration led Washington state Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairwoman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, and Rep. Dan Newhouse to introduce their own bill to protect the dams from removal.

"The four lower Snake River dams are integral to flood control, navigation, irrigation, agriculture, and recreation in central Washington and throughout the Pacific Northwest -- to put it simply, we cannot afford to lose them," Newhouse said.


Diahann Howard, executive director of the Port of Benton in Richland, said the river's clean power generation is a driving force for economic development in southeastern Washington.

"Everything around our region, it's the electrical generation and water that drive our economy," Howard said.

Combined, the four Snake River dams have the 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.

She pointed 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 said. "This region is already 87% clean power. The dams are a key part of that."

Howard noted economic development right now focuses as much on sustainability and green power as a major component for infrastructure.

"I don't think the people who support dam removal realize all of the unintended consequences," Howard said.


Shannon Wheeler, vice-chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, has a counter argument about the power generated by the dams. "It's carbon-free but it's not environmentally free -- it burns fish," Wheeler said at the SEJ conference.

He added 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."

Tribes such as the Nez Perce have been among the biggest advocates for Simpson's plan to remove the dams. The tribes' push also meets the Biden administration's executive order signed Friday for federal agencies to put a priority on environmental justice. The executive order also establishes the White House Office of Environmental Justice. Wheeler, in talking about the value of the salmon runs to the tribes, pointed to the need for "environmental justice for the tribes on the river."

Last fall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommended removal of the Snake River dams to rebuild the recovery of salmon and steelhead trout.…

Helen Neville, a senior scientist with Trout Unlimited, said the dams lead to mortality rates of roughly 20% to 25% for each dam the salmon encounter leading to the Pacific Ocean and back. The overall volumes of wild chinook salmon are only about 5% of historical levels. Salmon levels are only at about 25% of what it would take to delist the fish from the Endangered Species Act. When rises in salmon runs occur, as happened last year, they then decline.

"We have seen this happen before and it is unsustainable," Neville said. She added that the dams "are bottlenecks in mortality."

Video: Nicole Berg talks about agriculture and the Snake River,….

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Chris Clayton