One of the break-out sessions at the 2023 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention definitely gave a “dam” about the Columbia-Snake River System.
Moderated by Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, a panel of stakeholders talked about the importance of the Columbia-Snake River System and updated attendees on advocacy and legislative efforts to protect the lower Snake River dams.
Jeremy Nielsen, Columbia River pilot
Nielsen, a 20-year veteran of the Columbia-Snake River System and president of the Columbia River Pilots, explained that no matter how you measure it, ships are getting bigger, in both size of the ship and cargo carrying capacity, but the infrastructure hasn’t kept up.
“This is becoming a real problem, not only for U.S. ports, but for ports around the world,” he said.
The modern deep draft navigation channel on the lower Columbia River (from Astoria to Portland) was designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was designed around a ship that was 600 feet long, with an 85-foot beam that drafted 35 feet. The channel started out with a depth of 37 feet and has been modified twice, the last time in 2010, when it was deepened to 43 feet. Ships operate on the lower Columbia River with a two-foot under-keel clearance, which Nielsen said was the industry’s lowest.
“Channels are deepened for money. They are widened for safety,” he explained. “It’s been deepened three times, but it’s never been widened.”
The largest dry dock on the West Coast is located in Portland, so the lower river is seeing larger and larger ships, including, last year, the largest cruise ship that has ever come up the river. Nielsen said they relied heavily on technology, and it took a lot of planning to get the ship under the Longview Bridge as they had to pick the right day, the right stage of the river, and the right speed. Besides GPS, they had surveyors on the shore and on the boat using laser equipment to measure the space between the bridge and the highest part of the ship. In the end, they passed under the bridge with just over four feet of clearance.
Another part of the infrastructure that hasn’t kept up with the increasing size of ships is the anchorage area where ships wait. The “swing” areas for Panamax vessels (the point a vessel rotates around while anchored) already bump up against each other and the edge of the shipping channel. Larger boats need a larger swing area.
“We can’t even bring those ships in because we don’t have a place for them to anchor,” Nielsen said.
The Columbia River Pilots is working to alleviate some of these issues. Efforts include:
•Having the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey all the above-water structures in the Columbia River, including docks, bridges, and overhead power cables, to collect precise measurement data.
•Working with the Coast Guard to designate new anchorages.
•Continually improving piloting software.
•Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to identify dredging needs.
•Working with the Corps to designate two new turning basins in Longview and Kalama. Because the channel is only 600 feet wide, larger ships will need a larger place to turn around in.
•Advocating for a real-time air gap sensor on the Longview Bridge. Nielsen explained that in the last four years, there’s been about 15 ships that have been within 10 feet of that bridge.
“We have a system that is reliable. It’s efficient. It’s adaptable. It’s paid for, and it’s viable on all levels. And we have capacity,” Nielsen said. “We still have capacity, and it’s technology that has allowed us to do that.”
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners
Miller talked about the recent efforts of Northwest RiverPartners, an organization that advocates for hydropower on behalf of about 100 member organizations in the Pacific Northwest, including many public utility districts. He said groups advocating for breaching the lower Snake River dams are very well funded and have been influencing the public’s perception of the dams and hydropower. Fortunately, recent polling by Northwest RiverPartners has shown that their pro-dam digital media campaigns are making inroads, especially with young adults.
“It’s an incredible turnaround for the youngest group of adults in the Northwest. They were the least supportive group for hydropower, and now, they are up there with the most supportive,” he said. “We can make a difference. It does take money, and it does take strategy, and we do have to copy some of the strategies some of these other groups use that fight against us, but it’s an effective strategy, and we can make a difference. We just can’t sit on our hands.”
Anthony Peña, government relations manager
at Pacific Northwest Waterways Association
Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit trade association, represents stakeholders who are concerned with the movement of people and goods on waterways across the Pacific Northwest.
“We are a huge trade gateway, especially for grain, and that’s because of our multimodal transportation corridor enabled by locks and dams and rail,” Peña said. “Two of the really big benefits are irrigation and transportation.”
PNWA is heavily involved in advocating for funding for the Corps’ Portland, Walla Walla, and Seattle districts and the Northwestern division, which means the association keeps a close eye on the federal Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA. WRDA legislation is passed by Congress every two years and authorizes any projects or studies done on civil works projects run by the Corps. PNWA is a defendant intervenor in the litigation surrounding the lower Snake River dams.
In 2020, the Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was published by the federal government. It was a four-year effort to develop an operations plan in regards to salmon and EIS obligations. The EIS concluded that the dams couldn’t be breached for multiple reasons and that there would be a lot of mitigating factors and consequences that would occur. Environmental groups were quick to sue. After the Biden Administration came in, there was a two-year stay in litigation while the opposing sides went through a federal mediation process.
“It’s been tough. It’s almost been like a moving goalpost in terms of who the players are, what the rules are, and what the goals are overall for this mediation,” Peña explained. “Regardless of where this ends up, the litigation, the courtroom drama isn’t going to end. Breaching advocates are already suing the Corps over warm water issues in the Snake River. The overall objective has been to get us out of the courtroom, and ultimately, it’s been a massive failure because we are going to end up back in the courtroom, whether it’s on this or something else.”
Recent developments in the issue include:
•An announcement by the Biden Administration that $200 million will be spent in the Upper Columbia River Basin for reintroduction efforts of non-endangered salmon runs above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.
•A Sept. 27 memo from the Biden Administration that sets a new federal policy of “healthy and abundant” fish populations. Peña said they are still trying to figure out what healthy and abundant means.
•The results of the mediation process are set to be published by Dec. 15, 2023.
Danielle Nelson, the Torrey Advisory Group
The Torrey Advisory Group is a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that works for WAWG on the lower Snake River dams issue and is keeping a close eye on WRDA.
“Everything that is done by the Corps, in terms of water resource activities, has to go through WRDA,” Nelson said. “Typically, it’s been a bipartisan effort. What we’ve seen in the last few years is an uptick in contentious conversations, and some voices have started to stir the pot.”
The last time WRDA was authorized, in 2022, the first draft of the bill contained language that would have created a taskforce to do a study on breaching the dams. Fortunately, all the language pertaining to breaching the dams was removed from the final bill during the conference process. Nelson said one of the big concerns going into 2024 is that those in favor of breaching the dams could potentially use WRDA to further their cause. Congressional authorization to breach the dams can only begin through WRDA legislation.
“That’s why it is so important to make sure that that first effort in a WRDA bill is not made. Once that ball starts rolling, we all know how quickly it can snowball, and what we can be looking down,” Nelson said. “This time around, we are being even more proactive. We aren’t going sit around and play defense this time around and wait for there to potentially be language that could harm our efforts.”