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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Barging grain on the Lower Snake River: It’s time for plan B

March 17, 2023 Updated Fri., March 17, 2023 at 7:45 p.m.

Linwood Laughy

By Linwood Laughy

Wheat comprises about 90% of all Lower Snake River barge freight. Breaching the four Lower Snake River dams would eliminate barging on this inland waterway. The scientific community has clearly concluded the removal of these dams is essential to protect wild Snake River salmon and steelhead from extinction. Area wheat farmers oppose any changes to the river’s status quo. However, a growing number of realities threaten the continuation of barging.

First: Litigation. A 20-year-old lawsuit challenging Columbia River System Operations is temporarily on hold as plaintiffs and defendants attempt to reach a solution to the salmon/dams conflict.

Litigation over Lower Snake River water quality remains active. Reservoirs absorb radiant heat, raising water temperatures to levels harmful, even lethal, to migrating salmon and steelhead. Maintaining water temperature limits required for salmon survival is likely impossible without eliminating the four Lower Snake River reservoirs.

Additionally, the Snake River was once a major source of chinook salmon upon which the Salish Sea’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales depend. Because of a lack of chinook salmon, the orcas now suffer from malnutrition. Breaching the LSR dams has become critically important to avoiding the orca’s extinction.

Some people claim dam breaching requires the consent of Congress, which is debatable. Nevertheless, to find examples of the impacts a court can have on Corps of Engineers-operated dams, google “Ruling Forces Corps to Make Immediate Changes to Dams in Willamette Valley to Save Salmon.”

Second: Native American treaty rights. Salmon are woven into regional Native Americans’ very existence – their sustenance, spirituality, and economic well-being. In the mid-1800s the U.S. government signed treaties with Pacific Northwest tribes guaranteeing tribal members the right to fish, hunt and gather in their usual and accustomed places. The right to fish implies the existence of fish, and the U.S. Constitution identifies treaties as the law of the land.

Third: Long-term decline in LSR freight volume. In 2000, LSR freight totaled about 4.5 million tons, while today’s total tonnage averages just 2.6 million tons–a decline of more than 40%.

Fourth: Increasing costs of maintaining the status quo. Pacific Northwest electricity ratepayers have spent over $17 billion attempting to mitigate, with negligible results, the damage Columbia River basin dams have wreaked upon wild salmon and steelhead. The annual cost to Bonneville Power customers approaches $700 million, with a significant part of those costs attributable to the impact of the Lower Snake River dams. Additionally, taxpayers subsidize Lower Snake River freight transportation by at least $42,000 per barge load.

Is anyone willing to bet the farm that aging infrastructure will require less-costly repairs? That freight volume will dramatically rebound? That the United States will fail to honor treaties backed by the U.S. Constitution? That the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act will be ignored in the courts?

The accumulating set of threats and uncertainties over continued barging begs for a Plan B. Solutionary Rail’s detailed analysis of a potential pivot from barge to rail merits careful consideration.

Linwood Laughy lives in Moscow, Idaho.

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