Hells Gate Marina

Hells Gate Marina during 1992 drawdown.

Dismantling or breaching the four lower Snake River dams would add 1.2 million tons of CO2 and other harmful emissions annually to the atmosphere, and cost more than $2.3 billion over the next 30 years, according to a study commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Waterway Association (PNWA).

Performed by economic consultants FCS Group, the study looks only at impacts from the loss of barging on the Snake River, and does not include the impacts to hydropower, irrigation, ports, municipal and industrial wastewater discharge systems, or other consequences of removing the dams.

Kristin Meira, executive director of PNWA, said that her members asked to commission this study to counter what they felt was inaccurate or incomplete information in other studies on Snake River dam removal.

"In the last couple of years, different groups active with regard to dam breaching have put out reports and studies that purport to tell the story of barging on the Snake River," she said. "We felt they didn't give an accurate picture."

One of those studies—done in July by ECONorthwest for Vulcan Inc.—concluded, "Even after accounting for the public costs of increased emissions, changes in accident costs, and the higher prices of shifting to truck and rail, the federal government still spends more money than the public gets back." Adam Domanski, lead author of the study, outlined a number of differences between his study and the one done by FCS Group, including some costs which he believes were double-counted—a claim Meira disputes.

"I think fundamentally, our report highlights what they're concerned about. There is going to be a shift, and there is going to be a distributional cost," he said. The ECONorthwest study also looks at all of the impacts of dam removal, and concludes that—by putting a financial value on what people would be willing to pay for a free-flowing river and healthy salmon populations—removing the dams would result in an $8.6 billion benefit to the region.

PNWA's Meira said the new study offers the first in-depth look at shipping rate impacts, transportation infrastructure needs, carbon emissions, injuries and fatalities and other barge-related costs of removing the dams since an analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2002. Along with other action agencies, the Corps is expected to provide another complete analysis of all impacts of removing the dams—including those related to the loss of barging—when it releases its draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on Columbia River System Operations in February. As ordered by a U.S. District Court judge, one of the alternatives in the EIS will include breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

The study also comes on the heels of a newly-released report on Snake River dam removal done for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office.

"We commissioned this study to show federal and state decision makers the real economic and environmental impacts on real people and communities that would result," Meira noted.

According to the FCS Group study, over 3.5 million metric tons of commodities were transported by barge through the lower Snake River locks during nine months in 2017 when they were operational. That included more than 2.6 million tons of outbound products—mostly grain—and 874,000 tons of inbound shipments. Almost half of the West Coast's wheat exports are sent by barges traveling down the Columbia and Snake rivers. The study assumes future commodity shipments through the four dams remain at 2017 levels.

Without barging, the study says, at least 201 additional unit trains—or about 20,000 train cars—would be added each year, primarily along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line in Washington, increasing the likelihood of train-related incidents. The cost of train safety incidents was not included in the study.

Trucks would have to drive an additional 23.8 million miles a year to transport commodities now barged—about three times the miles currently driven by truck, according to the study. The added traffic would likely result in about 27 injury accidents and nearly one fatality a year, compared with the current average of nine injury accidents a year, and one fatality every 10 years, it says. The cost of these safety impacts is estimated at $5.87 million per year.

The added train and truck traffic would more than double the current levels of carbon emissions from barging every year, the study says. Currently, about 508,000 tons of CO2 are emitted annually from barging. That would jump to 1.36 million tons of CO2. The total impact of additional harmful emissions includes about 855,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 70 tons of carbon monoxide, 306 tons of nitrogen oxide, 7 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 7 tons of particulate matter. The study puts the cost of the added emissions at more than $7 million a year.

The report also identifies at least $1.6 billion in infrastructure investments that would be necessary to replace barging on this part of the river system. It includes road improvements and repair, and rail facility and track and bridge improvements, grain elevator improvements and new rail cars.

Transportation and storage expenses would increase between 50 and 100 percent—from about 40 cents per bushel of wheat to as much as 80 cents per bushel without barging, according to the report. With the current "break-even" cost at $5 per bushel for transportation and storage, the federal government would need to increase annual direct payments to farmers by up to $38.8 million to maintain current annual income for farmers, which averages about $42,825. "If farm subsidies are not increased, over 1,100 farms may be at risk of bankruptcy," the report says.

ECONorthwest's Domanski said after looking at the FCS Group's study, he believes some of the infrastructure costs were counted twice. His study used the same base analysis of transportation costs from 1999, prepared for the Washington Legislature by Lund Consulting.

In addition, he said, the FCS Group's study includes both subsidies to farmers and the added costs of transportation and storage.

He said another main difference is how far freight trucks will travel, and whether it's assumed that some of the cargo will be taken by truck all the way to Portland, or just to the barges that would continue to operate on the lower Columbia River.

"Broadly, the overall concern about the shift in transportation is certainly valid," he said, but added that the FCS Group's analysis does not include the federal government's cost in maintaining the lock system. "The exclusion of federal subsidies is pretty important," he said.

But Meira said there are no federal subsidies involved. "The federal waterways system in our nation is federally maintained, just as the federal government maintains federal highways," she said. "These are large public works projects maintained for the public good."

Some of that benefit comes in the form of lower costs, lower emissions, and higher safety. "This is the most efficient, lowest-emitting way of moving bulky cargo," she said.

There is also a public benefit to having competition between different forms of transportation, she added. "When you only have one way of moving cargo, you are a captive shipper," she said. "Here in the Pacific Northwest, and in particular in the Palouse region, you have competition, and that's what makes it possible for our wheat farmers to be competitive overseas."

Towboaters pay part of the costs of construction and major rehabilitation of waterways projects with a 29 cents per gallon diesel tax that goes to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, she noted.

She also dismissed Domanski’s concerns over double-counting of some infrastructure costs, saying the capital cost findings used in the study by FCS were based on their interpretation of the 1999 Washington Legislature transportation impact study.

"If the assumptions in the FCS analysis were adjusted to the same assumptions used in the ECONorthwest study, and if we account for local infrastructure costs and a standard 20 percent contingency, the results would show a total national cost of over $4 billion in non-discounted dollars over 30 years; and a discounted cost of $1.9 billion," Meira told NW Fishletter in an email.

She also said that dam breaching is expected to bring a significant rise in commodity shipping costs, as freight movement patters would be disrupted, and efficient Snake River barge operations would be supplanted by distant trucking, rail, and Columbia River barge options, which—according to the FCS study—would cost farmers an between $18.9 million and $38.8 million a year.

"Since current wheat prices are already near breakeven, farmers are not expected to adjust to lower levels of income without some form of subsidy. Hence, the federal government would likely need to increase the amount of federal direct payments by $28.4 million (at midpoint) to keep farm operations at the current level of net cash income," she wrote.

Meira also criticized the ECONorthwest study for using phone surveys to find out, theoretically, how much people would pay for a free-flowing river in order to find an overall benefit to the region.

A PNWA news release announcing its study noted that numerous other impacts that are not often talked about would likely result if the dams are breached. Many of those impacts were seen in 1992, when the Corps conducted an experimental drawdown of Lower Granite's pool. Roadways cracked, docks and marinas went dry, and water intakes, filtration and pumping systems were rendered useless for a number of cities, counties and businesses. "Essential health, sanitation and safety would be jeopardized, along with other public services," the PNWA news release states.

It also says that the 10 counties that would be most impacted by breaching the dams are in rural areas, where one in five people are living at or below the federal poverty level, and average wages are 25 percent lower than the national average.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.