PNW stakeholders send letter supporting dams to ag secretary

The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) joined with other Pacific Northwest agricultural stakeholders in sending a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, outlining concerns over increasing rhetoric at the federal level on breaching the lower Snake River dams and highlighting the importance of the entire Columbia-Snake River System to the U.S.

“… We are increasingly concerned that the USG (U.S. government) position is shifting to support a dam breaching action that would completely devastate the Pacific Northwest agricultural community. Dam breaching would eliminate irrigation from the pool behind Ice Harbor Dam and would remove barge access for our farmers, requiring them to turn to either rail or truck to move their product. As you well know, neither form of transportation is as safe, efficient, or environmentally friendly as barge navigation,” the letter states.

The letter points out that the Columbia-Snake River System moves more than 60% of the nation’s wheat, not to mention significant amounts of corn, soybeans, lumber products and crop inputs, with products coming from as far as the Midwest. Eliminating barging would exacerbate existing rail issues, increase shipping costs for farmers and increase carbon emissions.

The dams also help support a safe, abundant food supply through irrigation, especially Ice Harbor Dam, which irrigates enough acres to feed 18 million people with apples, 19 million people with sweet corn and 6.4 million people with potatoes. Those farms have an indirect value of up to $2 billion and support more than 10,000 jobs.

“In other words, any actions taken that impact these farms will have a reverberating effect on millions of Americans, not just the local community that produces the food,” the stakeholders write.

The letter poses several questions, based on prior U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) public statements, and requests a response from Vilsack:

  • How is a reduction in agricultural production from the loss of irrigation water, supply chain disruptions and cost increases consistent with USDA’s priority to “work every day to strengthen the American agricultural economy?”
  • How is removal of barging as a transportation mode consistent with USDA’s stated priority to “transform our nation’s food supply to create more options for producers and consumers and improve the resiliency of our food supply chain?”
  • How is a potential reduction in export capability, a likely outcome of breaching the lower Snake River dams, consistent with USDA’s state priority of “creating more, better and new market opportunities?”

“We feel it is important to also recognize that we strongly consider ourselves good stewards of the environment. Our lower Snake River dams have state of the art fish passages, and the Army Corps is continuously looking at how they can improve their efforts to get the salmon returns desired by so many in our region. We support those efforts and many more throughout the basin, but we cannot support the removal of the Snake River dams and this critical trade gateway for the region’s and nation’s agricultural products.”

The letter is signed by the wheat organizations in Oregon, Montana and Washington, as well as the Washington State Potato Commission, agricultural businesses, state farm bureaus and grain shippers. See a copy of the letter here.