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Dams Key To Area Shipping Barging - Not Power - Could Be Best Reason For Keeping System

Second of two parts

Economic studies are in the works to help salmon policy-makers decide by 1999 whether to ask Congress to mothball four Lower Snake River dams.

A look at some of the work already done provides a glimpse of life without concrete on the Lower Snake.

Rather than removing the dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would dig a $533 million channel around Lower Monumental, Little Goose, Ice Harbor and Lower Granite dams.

That would let the river run free once again and, presumably, help revive struggling salmon runs.

Bypassing the four dams would unplug about 5 percent of the region’s electrical generating capacity, according to the Bonneville Power Administration.

Restructuring of the energy market has created affordable alternatives to hydropower, such as natural-gas-fired turbines. But that would mean burning fossil fuel - and more pollution.

Barge transportation between Pasco and Lewiston would end. That would eliminate the cheapest, most fuel-efficient, least polluting way to ship goods from Lewiston 465 miles to the sea. Farmers and manufacturers rely on the waterway to move everything from wheat to diesel fuel.

It would take 33 railroad cars or 144 tractor-trailers to carry as much wheat as one barge does today. Take out the waterway and shippers would face $33 million a year in increased costs if they have to move goods by truck or rail, according to estimates by the Corps of Engineers.

The Port of Lewiston alone estimates shipment by barge saves $12.4 million a year compared with the cost of shipping by rail or truck.

More truck traffic also would mean more road repairs, which could cost about $4 million a year, according to a December 1995 study. Wheat and other goods that move through the Port of Lewiston from the Dakotas and the Middle West simply may pass the region by and be shipped straight to Portland. That would cost inland port jobs.

An estimated 3,700 jobs of various types would be lost if the dams are idled, representing a loss of $76 million in income, according to the corps.

“The most significant issues and one of the most significant functions of those projects is not power. It’s transportation and providing an inland waterway to the Lower Snake,” said Will Stelle of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Whether or not that in and of itself is able to justify the continued operation of those dams as we have them is a fair and appropriate question,” he says.

“The power benefits and flood-control benefits of those projects are pretty marginal. We don’t need that power.”

The glory days of barge transportation may be past, others say.

“There are some real questions about the value of barge transportation,” said Mike Kriedler, a member of the Northwest Power Planning Council from Washington state. The council helps set policy for the region’s hydropower system.

“It was at one time considered very important. I think perhaps conditions have changed,” he said.

“Maintaining barging subsidies in order to keep the railroads honest probably isn’t part of what we are about.

“I don’t see that being a good economic argument in today’s realm.”

Taxpayers cover operation and maintenance costs of the Lower Snake inland waterway.

But Ken Casavant of Pullman, also a Washington state representative on the Northwest Power Planning Council, cautioned that railroad rates could skyrocket without the competition provided by barges.

Bypassing the dams would have comparatively little effect on irrigators. Only 13 agricultural pumpers draw water from the Lower Snake reservoirs to irrigate about 35,000 acres. Another 16 non-agricultural users draw water for industrial and municipal use.

As for flood control, the dams are run-of-river design. They are not meant to control floods.

Recreation losses are estimated at $59 million a year, but much of that probably would be spent on other forms of recreation in the region, according to the Corps of Engineers.

Digging the channel around the dams is estimated to cost $533 million. With BPA’s salmon-recovery costs budgeted at up to $435 million a year, that one-time cost looks like a bargain to some.

After all, the status quo isn’t cheap either.

Salmon-recovery programs are expensive, and so far, they aren’t working. The region pays twice: once to support the industry of salmon recovery and again in the loss of prized salmon and steelhead runs.

There has been no general salmon season in Idaho since the last dam on the Lower Snake was completed in 1975. A recent Idaho report estimates a restored salmon and steelhead fishery would generate $150 million a year and support 4,500 jobs in that state alone.

Operation and maintenance costs of the dams and the inland waterway plus the cost of fish-recovery programs at the Lower Snake dams topped $143 million last year for the corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BPA.

But even if bypassing the dams proves cost-competitive, it will be a tough sell.

For starters, the $29 million a year in debt service on the dams still would have to be paid, even if the dams no longer make money.

That would be particularly painful in a region already dotted with dead nuclear plants that ratepayers still are paying for.

And the dams are reliable cash cows. In an average water year, they generate 1,243 megawatts of electricity, worth more than $240 million a year at BPA’s wholesale rate of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

And even if the region takes the major political step of deciding to bypass the dams, that would be just the beginning of the controversy.

Financing the project is a major question.

Congress would have to decide whether to decommission the dams, who would pay for that, whether to compensate people hurt economically and how to pay off the debt on inoperable dams.

Choices include raising the region’s electric rates, which are the lowest in the country.

A statewide poll conducted for The Spokesman-Review in October shows a majority of Washington voters are willing to pay more for salmon recovery programs than they are now. But a majority of Idaho voters want to spend less.

Asking U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill would be a difficult proposition for a regional project.

And while the costs of mothballing the dams are certain, the benefits are not. No one knows if a free-flowing Snake River can bring the fish back.

“The multi-use hydro system has been the basis of solid economic development in this region for 50 years. It’s hard to imagine taking away some of that without having a really good reason,” said John Carr, executive director of Direct Service Industries Inc. of Portland.

He represents six aluminum companies in Washington and Oregon that depend on cheap hydropower.

“Take away the river and we might as well sit on our hands. What do they want to do? Return the region to grasslands?” asked Rudy Bostrum, manager of the Port of Whitman County.

Confident they will win, opponents of bypassing the dams are eager to get on with the debate. Fish proponents, also confident, urge a full discussion of pros and cons.

“I feel very confident that if we do have an honest, open debate, people will first realize salmon and steelhead are not a thorn in the side of our Northwest prosperity but a vital part of it,” said Ed Bowles of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

“It’s really going to come down to whether society holds leaders accountable to an honest debate and if they take an honest look at the entire picture and there are no sacred cows except Northwest prosperity. I am totally optimistic.”

Casavant of the Northwest Power Planning Council is not.

“There is a lot of talk about an open debate now. But I’m fearful this is a straw man that people will use to say the impacts are too great and use it as an excuse to do nothing about the dams.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: The cost of bypassing the dams

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STATES AT ODDS A statewide poll conducted for The Spokesman-Review in October shows a majority of Washington voters are willing to pay more for salmon recovery programs than they are now. But a majority of Idaho voters want to spend less.

This sidebar appeared with the story: STATES AT ODDS A statewide poll conducted for The Spokesman-Review in October shows a majority of Washington voters are willing to pay more for salmon recovery programs than they are now. But a majority of Idaho voters want to spend less.

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