By Trista Crossley
We are less than two months into 2020, and it’s already proven to be a busy year where the Columbia-Snake River System is concerned.
In January, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office finished accepting public comments on their draft report on the impacts of breaching the lower Snake River dams. And later this month, a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the operations, maintenance and configurations for 14 federal projects in the Columbia River System will be released.
In 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon struck down the federal government’s 2014 river system operating plan and ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration must redo it and consider dam removal as a way to bolster salmon numbers. When the draft EIS is released, the public will be able to comment on it, something that is crucial for every farmer in the region who relies on the river system to move their product to market, said Tom Kammerzell, port commissioner for the Port of Whitman County and a Whitman County wheat farmer.
“Agriculture is, at present, a complex system. It’s going to get more complicated in the future, more expensive, and shipping costs will go up if we lose navigation on the river system,” he said. “So everybody has to take a look at their own operation and see if they can bear the burden of that cost. If the answer is, as I suspect, no, then they need to take the opportunity to help influence present change. This is an opportunity for proactive action, and that doesn’t come along all that often.”
Kammerzell said the agencies responsible for the EIS have made it clear that how those comments are submitted will play a big part in how much weight they carry. He cautioned growers to avoid signing onto group form letters and should instead submit personalized, individual comments. Form letters, no matter how many signatures they include, will only be counted once.
“If they (the agencies) get a form letter with 100 people signing the bottom, those people have wasted their time. That will be considered one letter. But if you write to the agencies and talk about how removing the dams is going to affect you, your letter will stand alone and will weigh as heavily as those 100,” Kammerzell explained. “Farmers need to tell their story, every single person needs to tell their story.”
The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) is firmly opposed to breaching any of the dams along the Columbia-Snake River System. WAWG has partnered with other stakeholders to educate the public on why the dams are so important to growers and to the region’s economy. One of those partners is the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), an organization that advocates for the region’s waterways; Kammerzell is treasurer for the PNWA.
A study, commissioned by the PNWA and released last month (see page 16), estimates that removing the four lower Snake River dams would cost the U.S. more than $2.3 billion over the next 30 years and put more than 1,100 farms in the region at risk of bankruptcy due to higher transportation costs.
“(Removing the dams) will be a game changer for sustainability in the future for farming in this area because I expect in these pressured times, where we don’t have much margin, that this would be the stake in the heart for many farms,” Kammerzell said.
Another potential cost of removing the dams that is often overlooked is the millions of private dollars that have been invested in infrastructure along the river. Many of those businesses have been built specifically to use the transportation opportunities the river offers and can’t easily be relocated.
“All that money, all that time and that private investment will have been for naught. Who will make that right?” Kammerzell asked. “Who’s going to pay to move the Almota elevator? They have no other outlet. They are river focused. They will have no business (on the river) so will have to be relocated up on the rail line. Who is going to pay for that?”
Kammerzell added that some of the suggestions he’s heard from dam removal proponents are unrealistic.
“I’ve heard, can’t you just make a longer chute down to the river? What would the point be because there’s not to going to be any navigation? Everything that has been built along the river from the Tri-Cities up is a stranded asset, and somebody would have to make them whole, but that hasn’t been talked about.”
Even farmers who don’t directly send their grain to the river will be impacted if the dams are removed. Kammerzell pointed out that removing the dams will create upland pressure because without the river, all grain will have to move by rail or road, both of which are already at or above capacity.
Ryan Poe, WAWG president and a Grant County farmer, agrees that the dams are vital to his operation, even though he looks mostly to the rails to move his grain to market.
“Why are the lower Snake River dams important to me? Our state is very fortunate to have multiple modes of transportation available to move our products, a luxury most other states don’t have,” he said. “Having the option of barging allows us to keep rail and road rates in check through competition. That’s important for my ability to make a living as a wheat farmer, especially when commodity prices are so low.”
For more information on the EIS, visit nwd.usace.army.mil/CRSO/. When the draft EIS is released, farmers will be able to find a comment link at wawg.org.
“The sustainability of agriculture in our part of the world will come from the actions we take today. What we do today is going to affect what happens with our farms and agriculture for the next generations,” Kammerzell said.