Advocates’ views lost in listening sessions

By Trista Crossley


In two, three-hour listening sessions organized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on the lower Snake River dams, antidam activists dominated the conversation despite stakeholders’ best efforts.

In the first session, held on March 31, only three of the 50 speakers were in favor of the dams. The second session, held on April 3, was slightly better, as dam supporters claimed 14 speaking slots. There is a third session scheduled for May 25 at 10 a.m. Pacific time. According to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is facilitating the listening sessions, speakers were selected on a first-come, first-serve basis. The listening sessions are intended to allow U.S. government representatives and other stakeholders to hear the public’s issues and concerns in the Columbia River Basin. 

The listening panel included representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, CEQ, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“It was very disappointing that the conversations were so one-sided,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “This isn’t an either/or situation, and the conversation around the lower Snake River dams needs to reflect that. All of the solutions opponents of the dams championed, from using rail to replace barging and using wind and solar to replace hydropower, have serious problems that need to be taken into consideration. By not giving river system stakeholders an equal chance to speak, the CEQ is tipping the scales against family farmers and the rural communities that rely on the dams and the benefits they provide.”

Besides their main point that only by breaching the dams can salmon and steelhead be saved, a common theme from dam opponents was that most, if not all, of the barge traffic can be absorbed by the railroads. Opponents also believed that the hydropower generated by the dams can be easily replaced by wind and solar. Many of them pointed to Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s plan, published in 2021, that puts the cost of breaching the dams and replacing their benefits at $33 billion, as a viable way forward.

Although Hennings wasn’t able to get on the speaker list in either of the two sessions, Stacey Satterlee, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Alliance, and Amanda Hoey, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission, both spoke during the April 3 session.

“We’ve heard testimony that gives absolutes where absolutes don’t work. There are many who believe we can have salmon and dams and are working towards that goal,” Satterlee said. She pointed out that the river system moves more than 50% of the nation’s wheat and that barges produce less than 40% of the emissions that trucks do. It would take approximately 150,000 truck trips per year to replace barging. “Agriculture’s voice must be included in these deliberations, and there’s concerns that the dams’ impacts on ag aren’t being taken into account.”

Hoey’s remarks were similar, telling the panel that the dams’ value can’t be understated to growers.

“We’ve heard that rail could pick up (barging’s capacity), but no real pathway has been identified for that shift to occur,” Hoey said. “Rail capacity is also limited.”

Paul Katovich, CEO of HighLine Grain Growers, and Kurt Haarmann, senior vice president, grain divisions for Columbia Grain International, both speaking in the second listening session, drew on their companies’ extensive history of using the railroads to move grain through the Pacific Northwest to state plainly that the railroads, in their current state, do not have the capacity to make up for barging. Nor is there much room, Haarmann said, given the geological constraints of the region to build out the rail infrastructure that would be needed. Katovich urged the government to use the best available information, including the federal government’s own study that favored an alternative that didn’t include breaching the dams.

Hennings said wheat industry leaders will continue to monitor the CEQ’s activities and will be hoping to snag at least one of the speaking spots at the next listening session. A link for the third, May 25 session, will be posted at

“It is extremely important that we make our voice heard at these sessions, and I hope, at the final listening session, the CEQ does a better job balancing both sides of the issue,” Hennings said.