Taskforce team begins interviews for state’s dam study

Back in September, Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), took part in a stakeholder interview held by a consulting team hired by the Washington State Governor’s Office to talk about the potential impacts of breaching the lower Snake River dams.

The Washington State Legislature earmarked $750,000 in the 2019-21 operating budget to have the governor’s office “…contract with a neutral third party to establish a process for local, state, tribal and federal leaders and stakeholders to address issues associated with the possible breaching or removal of the lower Snake River dams in order to recover the Chinook salmon populations that serve as a vital food source for Southern Resident orcas.”

According to the governor’s website, the consulting team will provide neutral facilitation and evaluation services while:

  • Gathering and summarizing previous analysis related to lower Snake River dam retention and removal or breaching;
  • Engage with stakeholders, tribes, states, federal agencies, legislators and congressional delegation to gain their perspectives;
  • Produce a draft and final report summarizing all the gathered information; and
  • Gather public input following completion of the draft report through hosting open public workshops.

A draft report is expected in December 2019 with the final report submitted to the governor and legislature in February 2020.

The governor’s office has said the report will not recommend whether or not the dams should be breached or removed, nor will it develop new or prioritize potential mitigation options.

“The interview went very well, and I was able to communicate how important the lower Snake River dams are to our industry,” Hennings said. “We are completely opposed to any action regarding the dams that would negatively impact our ability to move grain to the ports in Portland and Vancouver. We are confident that dams and salmon can co-exist, and we believe breaching the Snake River dams will not have a noticeable impact on the Puget Sound orcas. In addition, we believe this process is redundant and an example of not using taxpayer dollar efficiently as the study duplicates similar efforts currently underway by the federal government.”

Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, was also interviewed as part of the consulting team’s process.

Here are some of the talking points WAWG staff prepared for Hennings’ interview.

  • The dams are essential to navigation and transportation of wheat and other cargo from Eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and Idaho. The Columbia-Snake River System is the largest gateway for wheat in the U.S. Nearly 90 percent of the wheat grown in Washington is exported, so having a direct line from the Inland Empire to the seaports on the lower Columbia River (and our global markets) is very important. 
  • Barging is a cheaper, more efficient and cleaner way to move wheat to the Columbia River seaports. A typical four-barge tow that travels down the Snake River hauls as much wheat as 1.4 unit trains and as much as 530 semitrucks. Barges also use far less fuel per ton of cargo moved than either trains or trucks.
  • Keeping barging available also provides important competition to the rail and trucking industries. If growers didn’t have the option to use barging, rail rates and trucking rates would likely go up since they would no longer have to compete with barging.
  • Railroads might also favor higher value commodities like crude oil, so growers may have a harder time moving grain reliably on a limited amount of track. Growers also operate on much tighter margins than other commodities, so we are less able to absorb price increases.
  • The loss of reliable, clean power production and increased transportation emissions will be taking our response to lessening greenhouse gases in the wrong direction. Unless we plan on replacing dams with nuclear power plants (with their own environmental issues), the only reason we can even realistically contemplate making Washington’s power production fully emissions free is because we have lots of hydropower. 
  • A host of issues impact salmon runs, including large human developments along the Snake and Columbia rivers (like Tri-Cities, Portland and Vancouver); pollution; ocean conditions; and lack of access to already existing upland habitat because of culverts. Ultimately, we don’t know that simply removing the lower Snake River dams will improve salmon runs all that much. In addition, there are large dams both upriver and downriver of the lower Snake River dams, so there’s no guarantee that simply removing the those dams will greatly improve fish runs.
  • We think the place to start regarding salmon recovery is to focus on the low-hanging fruit that can be implemented now and doesn’t harm our long-term infrastructure. Plus, we already know that they will have an immediate impact on fish. Those efforts include replacing fish-impassible culverts with passable culverts or bridges so fish can get to the habitat that already exists; continue salmon habitat restoration efforts in urban and suburban areas; increase and improve hatchery production of chinook and other salmon species; improve stormwater and wastewater treatment infrastructure; and continue to upgrade the fish passage infrastructure on the dams, like better fish ladders and “fish friendly” turbine upgrades.