Columbia, Snake river systems have crucial role in moving grain to port

By Michael Anderson
U.S. Wheat Associates Assistant Director, West Coast Office

Early in 2019, I attended a presentation given by the Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), Kristin Meira. In the audience were farmers eager to hear how U.S. legislators shared their interests regarding the ongoing navigability of the Columbia and Snake River systems. Open waterways are a crucial and efficient source for U.S. farmers to export their product to international markets. In the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia and Snake River systems are a leading gateway for wheat exports with 53 percent of U.S. wheat destined for export coming down the Columbia River alone. The rivers can move more volume at once, with greater fuel efficiency, making them more effective for moving grain to market then by rail or truck. One barge can carry the same amount as 35 rail cars or 134 18-wheelers, and a barge tow can carry more than one 100-unit train or 538 trucks. One barge can travel 647 miles on just one gallon of gas, while a train travels 477 miles and a truck travels 145 miles.

The commercial benefits are apparent, and the PNWA is an active voice in promoting the benefits of keeping the river systems open for navigation. In their own words, the PNWA is a collaboration of ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals who combine their economic and political strength in support of navigation, energy, trade and economic development throughout the Pacific Northwest. The organization’s history dates back to the projects of the New Deal in 1934 when the group, known as the Inland Empire Waterways Association (IEWA) at the time, petitioned President Roosevelt to fund a navigation lock along the Columbia River just east of Portland, Ore. Since then, the PNWA has been a leader in securing Congressional authorization for the necessary funds to build another seven locks and dams along both the Snake and Columbia rivers. The PNWA also works hard to maintain and improve navigability by advocating for deepening the draft and improving the jetties that allow safe passage into the Columbia River.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recently had the opportunity to attend a tour of United Grain Corporation’s terminal on the Columbia River with the PNWA executive director and Doug Walker, a State Department senior advisor assisting in negotiations for the Columbia River Treaty with Canada. Taking in the view from atop the highest grain elevator in the Western Hemisphere, you could see the convergence of commerce made possible by the Columbia River that forms the border between Oregon and Washington.

While the importance of the river system is not lost on the farming community, balancing the interests of environmentalists is difficult. Save Our Wild Salmon, an organization with the goal of increasing wild salmon and steelhead populations to the Pacific Northwest, advocates for the removal of dams on the Snake River and expanded spill ways on remaining dams. They would also like to modernize the Columbia River Treaty with Canada to include the river’s health as an equal portion of the treaty, which currently only governs energy production and flood management.

Many environmental groups do not place value on the beneficial role that the dams play in efficient grain transportation and clean renewable energy. The four dams on the Snake River power up to 800,000 homes while producing zero carbon emissions. Environmental groups are instead focusing their argument on enhancing the railroad as a replacement for barge grain transportation, which would take billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades to be productive and would not be as efficient nor as environmentally friendly

The value of the river system as a transport hub from farm to market is link necessary to connecting the United States to its trading partners. The river system keeps U.S. wheat competitive by moving higher volumes at more efficient prices. The wheat associations that make up the tri-state region of Idaho, Oregon and Washington all support, through their PNWA membership and resolutions,  the ongoing navigability of the rivers system. There will continue to be controversy surrounding the river system and the rich ecosystem that they sustain. The shared interest between farmers, sportsmen, environmentalists, scientists and commerce are diverse which is why having an organization like PNWA, that has spent more than 80 years advocating for an open river system, is the key to keeping it open for decades to come.

This article appeared in U.S. Wheat Associates Wheat Letter on Sept. 15. The original article is here.