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Save Our Wild Salmon

Feb 16, 2024

I grew up with the dams. I was graduating from Walla Walla High School when the dams on the Snake were being built. My dad, a farmer, was trained in engineering. He left me with an appreciation of the dams as engineering successes. I am still awed by the massive structures.

Another thing my father left me was the importance of commitment. My father has passed now but he would be distressed by my generation’s shortfall in meeting our commitments to ensure the salmon runs on the Snake. These commitments go back to the 1855 treaties and to the more recent Endangered
Species Act in 1973.

No one in particular is to blame for the failure of the salmon to thrive. The Corps of Engineers has tinkered with the operation of the dams to make them more friendly to the salmon. We have come a long way from the idea that the turbines were chewing up baby salmon. The Corps has met every metric for smolt survival, but still. ... We now speculate that the pools themselves are responsible for the poor survival rate. And we now concede that deteriorating ocean conditions are probably the most important determinant of salmon survival. Dealing with the dams, though, seems easier than moving the temperature dial for the Northern Pacific Ocean. 

Courts, not politics, are going to decide whether we have met our commitments to treaty and law. Even the recent settlement between the Federal government and the tribes was to settle a legal dispute, not a political decision. No amount of pounding our chests and proclaiming our commitment to keeping the dams intact or, for that matter, breaching them is going to make much difference in the long run.

My guess, and it is a guess, is that we have maybe 10 years before the courts command the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams. We have the choice of continuing to make indignant protestations, or set about making plans for a smooth transition, so smooth that if and when the breaching is to happen, we are indifferent — if we can look past our sense of loss.

This transition needs to solve at least three different problems. These are called “services” the dams provide. Power — electricity — is an obvious “service” that needs to be met. Irrigators in Franklin County and Walla Walla County rely on the pool behind Ice Harbor. This is a “service.” We need to keep them
growing crops. The third “service” is moving grain grown in the Palouse to the export terminals in Portland and Kalama. We need to figure out how to replace the barges without wildly increasing the cost to wheat growers.

We can turn to a couple of different ways to meet these “services.”

We need to assure that we have wind, solar, storage and maybe nuclear, power sufficient to replace the hydropower. Our test is simple. No blackouts. Private money is the answer here. There is money in electricity. There is enough profit in electricity to attract the necessary investment to make us whole. We need to guide solar and wind development and make sure that we have the necessary grid capacity but otherwise the power problem will take care of itself. Private dollars will drive the solutions.

For irrigators the answer is Federal take it, you pay for it. If Ice Harbor no longer holds the river back irrigators will be left high and dry. Water will still flow in the Snake. It will just be farther out. The irrigation intakes from behind Ice Harbor Dam need to be extended farther into the river and the pumps beefed up to handle the longer draw. The Federal Government pays this bill.

Replacing the barges means investment in rail, a pretty easy choice if burning diesel and rebuilding highways is the alternative. State government is the player here, but with help from Federal investment.

Rail investment takes a little more description, and the description comes in two packages.

The first package is to retrofit the ports along the Snake. These ports have a rail line that runs through their parking lots. They don’t use it. Ports of Lewiston, Almota, Central Ferry, and Lyons Ferry need to turn around and fill rail cars instead of barges and provide rail-siding space in their back lots. The Great Northwest Railroad runs along the north shore of the Snake from Lewiston to Pasco. This existing rail has the capacity to replace the grain shipped via barge to Pasco. The rail is there and the train runs. It is ready to go. This first step is quick and easy. It does not change how grain reaches the river. Once at the river, it just moves by rail instead of barge in case Tidewater is no longer on the river.

Growers can see this solution every time they drive across rail tracks on their way to the river. They are right to complain, though, that every time they have had to rely on Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (BNSF) or Union Pacific (UP) to haul their grain that they forfeit their profit margin to these monopolies. Growers rely on barges not only to move their crop but to keep BNSF and UP honest.

A second package would help keep competition alive. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) owns short line rail in the Palouse but has neglected it. By rebuilding a couple of short sections of track and reclaiming a longer stretch of unused line, WSDOT can create an alternate route for independent rail operators to move grain all the way through the Palouse without relying on BNSF or UP. There are two major grain shuttles in the Palouse that accumulate grain from smaller elevators to load onto rail. These are at McCoy near Rosalie and at Endicott. They are currently locked to either BNSF or UP. With a little effort, WSDOT could make way for eager independent operators to move grain from Rosalie to Pasco without using either BNSF or UP. McCoy and Endicott could choose BNSF, UP, or an independent, depending on price and service.

This WSDOT corridor would replace the competition between the barges and the mainline railroads (BNSF and UP). Growers for the first time would have a real choice of how to move their grain. We can leave it to the market to figure out what works best and cheapest. If it turns out that the WSDOT corridor wins, it can steal business from that rail line that runs through the Snake River canyon. That would move trucks off public highways including State Highway 127, the twisty road from Dusty to Lyons Ferry, not a bad idea.

I have sketched out a couple of thoughts about how to replace the “services” the dams provide. A transition from the Lower Snake River dams — if that is what the courts determine — can come with dollars, some private, some public. Solutions take dollars and these dollars flow into our communities. This means jobs and customers. If we go about this willy-nilly then we will leave dollars on the table. We will survive, at least most of us. Most everyone will be angry.

If we are smart, we begin now. Just in case. Let’s make the best deal we can. We can be both happier and better off.

Don Schwerin owns and lives on a dryland wheat farm in the Blue Mountains outside Walla Walla, Wash. His father was a wheat commissioner; his brother chaired WAWG. He was Speaker Tom Foley’s ag staffer in CD 5 and remains engaged as chair of the Ag and Rural Caucus of the State Democratic Party.

Capital Press: Commentary Let's plan for a transition article link 

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