Dam breach of etiquette

·7 min read

Jun. 26—City and port officials from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley say their concerns were ignored or downplayed in a draft report exploring the costs of removing the lower Snake River dams.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray released the report earlier this month outlining the benefits provided by the dams and the costs to replace those benefits if the dams are breached as part of an effort to save wild salmon and steelhead.

The draft document, compiled by contractors Kramer Consulting and Ross Strategic, tabbed replacement and mitigation costs in a range of $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion, but noted the full cost of some actions haven't yet been tabulated. It was compiled from a review of other reports and interviews with stakeholders.

Many salmon advocates who have long called for the dams to be removed said the report proves it is economically feasible to restore the river to its free-flowing state and help recover threatened and endangered fish. But dam supporters largely said the report is flawed and lowballs what they see as the true cost of replacing things like tug-and-barge transportation, electricity generation and irrigation.

Among the latter group are the elected mayors of Clarkston, Asotin and Lewiston and managers of the ports of Lewiston and Clarkston.

"The substance of the report embraces discredited theories of pro-dam breaching advocates but doesn't recognize the contribution of data and information we provided," said Port of Clarkston manager Wanda Keefer.

The contractors didn't interview anyone from the city of Lewiston. Clarkston Mayor Monica Lawrence and Asotin Mayor Dwayne Paris, along with Keefer, were interviewed, but Keefer said those meetings, conducted remotely, happened only after they pressured Murray's office. Port of Lewiston manager David Doeringsfeld offered input through an industry group.

They said the draft report doesn't include many of their concerns and glosses over others. For example, all three mayors said if the dams are breached, they will have to make adjustments to essential water infrastructure. Pipes and pumps that withdraw water from the rivers will have to be extended, diffusers that discharge treated wastewater into the Snake River may need to be altered, and they fear their federal permits allowing those discharges will change because the volume of water in the river will be much reduced.

"Dam breaching would lower the water levels in the river from 41 feet to 10 feet at our waste-water plant outfall line," Lawrence said.

Paris said his city faces the same issue, and Johnson said Lewiston may have to move pumps that remove water from the Clearwater River farther east and upstream and that stormwater runoff also might be affected.

"From a city of Lewiston standpoint, I think we can show that removing the dams is going to have an impact on us financially, and we're going to have to respond to that. I don't know what those costs will be," Johnson said.

The report does mention the need to adjust municipal and commercial water infrastructure, including the water intake system at the Clearwater Paper mill. It cited a 1999 economic analysis associated with a look at an Army Corps of Engineers report that indicated modifying pump stations could cost between $25 million and $121 million, and the lion's share of that expense was attributed to Clearwater Paper. It doesn't specifically mention costs to cities.

A $33.5 billion conceptual dam-breaching plan released last year by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, included $275 million pledged to Clearwater Paper to mitigate water intake and discharge infrastructure. Simpson's concept didn't specifically address municipal water infrastructure but it did pledge $150 million to the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston for waterfront restoration, $100 million for economic development and $50 million for tourism promotion.

Paris worries property values will drop if the dams are breached and the river recedes from the Asotin's waterfront. He notes the small town doesn't take in much in the way of commercial property or sales tax.

"We have the Nom Nom (gas station and convenience store.) I mean, let's be realistic, that's our retailer. Right? We don't get a whole lot of revenue from them, we get our entire operating expense from property values. So if property values drop, do we even have a city anymore? Can we provide for fire, EMS, police services? Can we do that?"

Jay Backus, a commissioner for the Port of Clarkston, noted cruise ships will no longer be able to navigate the lower Snake River if dams are breached. The report notes cruise ships brought an estimated $4.6 million to the valley in 2019. Backas said that number is expected to grow.

"It would be a pretty big deal to lose that kind of a customer base," he said.

The draft report estimates replacing and mitigating for the loss of transportation on the river will cost $542 million to $4.5 billion. That includes Simpson's concept that would give farmers $1.5 billion and the ports of Lewiston, Clarkston and Wilma $200 million.

Doeringsfeld said even the high end of that range is insufficient and criticized Simpson's concept as lacking rigorous economic analysis.

"The report consistently undercuts the impacts of breaching," he said of the Inslee-Murray draft.

For example, he said inland ports like his would be hard-pressed to transition from water-based transportation to rail hubs as many have suggested. That's because they lack the space typically required for unit train facilities. Unit trains typically have 100 cars or more and gain efficiency by carrying a single commodity and staying together as a single "unit" from their place of origin to their destination. While loading, unit trains follow a circle or oval track as individual cars pass through a loading station.

"All of them look like Lewiston or Clarkston," Doeringsfeld said. "You are in a valley or a canyon. There isn't enough room to put in a unit train facility with the track that's required to make that circle."

Doeringsfeld criticized the study for including what he calls advocacy economics that in his view were placed on equal footing with federal studies such as the Columbia River Systems Operation Environmental Impact Statement of 2020. For example, he said the report cites studies by the Northwest Energy Coalition, a think tank with environmental leanings, and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a barge shipping trade association of which the Port of Lewiston is a member.

"The only thing that's not advocacy is (Columbia River Systems Operation Environmental Impact Statement). And that's a peer-reviewed document. And so to me, you know, including the other stuff is just confusion."

Keefer said cumulative costs to cities, shippers and ratepayers would be immense. That includes what she sees as a loss of quality of life if the Lower Granite Reservoir were to be replaced by a free-flowing river. For example, she likes to kayak on the reservoir. But said she wouldn't be comfortable doing so on a free-flowing river that would be much narrower and where she would have to compete with other vessels like jet boats in that smaller space.

"I'm thinking that's a quality of life loss."

While those advocating for dam breaching were largely pleased with the report, they too spotted what they view as shortcomings. For example, Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association Executive Director Aaron Lieberman said the draft also underplays the economic contributions of salmon and steelhead fishing. He noted the estimated contribution of $4.6 million in economic activity attributed to the cruise ship industry in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley in 2019 was mentioned several times in the report.

He said that pales in comparison to the economic contribution of fishing. In 2019, when the fall steelhead season on the Clearwater River was closed because of low returns, the Idaho Department of Labor estimated $8.6 million in lost economic activity per month over a four-month period. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimated the 2001 spring chinook fishing season generated $107 million in economic activity for the entire state of Idaho.

"There is a huge sport fishing economy that I don't think was fully captured in the report. Which is no different than most other recent reports," he said. "I think if fully captured, it could at least on the margins change some of the calculus of doing nothing, or the status quo and continued declines, or the potential benefits of breaching."

The draft report is available for review at lsrdoptions.org and public comment is being accepted through 5 p.m. July 11.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.