In agriculture, everything is cyclical. The same seems to be true of the lower Snake River dams. Every few years, advocates of breaching the dams start speaking out on why they should be torn down, and the communities and industries that depend on those dams answer back with facts to prove why the region needs them. This time around, however, the stakes have been raised, thanks to breaching advocates tenuously linking the dams to survival of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (orcas) and the $750,000 Washington Gov. Jay Inslee proposed and the Legislature funded to study the impacts of breaching the dams.
Stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest have already spent millions of dollars on salmon recovery. Chinook populations in the Columbia-Snake River Basin have been increasing since the lows of the 1990s, unlike the declining Puget Sound chinook salmon stocks, which are the No. 1 food source of the orcas, according to NOAA Fisheries. We are disappointed the state of Washington is planning to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more on a study that is redundant and pointless. Adding to that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is already undertaking a federally mandated environmental impact study on the lower Snake River dams. Our taxpayer money would be better spent improving our roads and bridges or investing in education and research.
The Columbia-Snake River System is the top wheat export gateway in the U.S., and the third largest grain export gateway in the world. Farmers as far away as the Midwest use the system to access international markets. More than half of the wheat barged on the system passes through at least one of the lower Snake River dams, and it would take at least 137,000 semi-trucks or 23,900 railcars to transport that wheat by rail and road.
Breaching the dams would end barge navigation on the Snake River and force nearly 10 million tons of commercial cargo, valued at $3 billion, onto our roads and rails, adding wear and tear, not to mention increased levels of air pollution and traffic congestion. For comparison’s sake, a typical four-barge tow moves the same amount of cargo as 140 rail cars or 538 trucks.
Beyond moving goods, the lower Snake River dams also provide enough energy to power 1.87 million homes. Hydropower is one of the lowest-cost, most environmentally friendly, consistent sources of renewable energy available. And unlike solar or wind power, the dams can produce power at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. The cost to replace critical winter energy provided by the dams has been estimated at more than $7 billion.
Washington wheat growers share the same concerns as advocates of dam breaching about stabilizing the orca population, but we don’t believe breaching the lower Snake River dams is the solution. Continued investment like Bonneville Power Administration’s installation of improved fish ladders and environmentally friendly turbines are proven solutions to help migrating salmon pass through the dams. The dams are the foundation of a thriving, environmentally friendly system underpinning a good portion of the Pacific Northwest in terms of transportation, clean energy production, recreation, flood control and irrigation.
Every cycle has a beginning and an end. It’s time for Gov. Inslee and the Washington state Legislature to recognize the conversation around removing the lower Snake River dams has run its course.
Marci Green is past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
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