Delving into the dams Federal legislative tour shows staffers how critical lower Snake River dams are to region

By Trista Crossley

The locks at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
The locks at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.

In an effort to show, not just tell, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, along with other industry stakeholders, brought 15 federal legislative staffers to Lewiston, Idaho, in August to showcase the lower Snake River dams and the critical services they provide to the Pacific Northwest.

“We appreciate those staffers who took the time to come to the Inland Northwest and experience first-hand our river system and learn how vital this river highway is for agriculture, energy, and the economy,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG). “There’s a world of difference when people can experience our infrastructure in person and see the technology in use that generates clean energy, provides safe fish passage, and offers carbon-friendly methods of transportation.”

The educational tour included a boat ride through the locks at Lower Granite Dam, followed by a tour of the dam’s state-of-the-art fish passage system and a trip to the powerhouse. The group visited Idaho’s only seaport, the Port of Lewiston, as well as the Port of Wilma, followed by dinner at Lindsay Creek Vineyard. The visitors included staff from many PNW congressional offices, as well as staff from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the House Committee on Natural Resources. Industry stakeholders who participated in the tour and spoke to the group included representatives from several ports, transportation groups, cruiselines, and advocacy groups. Besides WAWG, the tour was sponsored by the Washington Potato Commission, NW RiverPartners, and The McGregor Company.

Matt Harris, director of governmental affairs for the Washington Potato Commission, told the group that removal of the dams would hit irrigators hard, as not only are growers in the Odessa area struggling to manage over 30,000 acres of potato production from a failing aquifer, but now special interest groups want to remove another 10,000 acres of potato production by demolishing the lower Snake River dams. That’s over 2.4 billion pounds of food. He added that all irrigated lands receiving electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration could see up to a 50% increase in costs. He estimated that a 2,000-acre potato farm in Franklin County would see an increase in energy costs of $50,000 per year, which is a significant shock to a family farm. The Washington potato industry contributes more than $7 billion to the region’s economy, 31,000 jobs, and is responsible for 20% of the country’s potato supply.

“There’s a lot to consider,” he said.

Kurt Miller, executive director of NW RiverPartners, told the staffers that dams are not the reason salmon numbers have declined and may not be the reason they haven’t returned. He explained that salmon returns from 1915-1937 averaged less than 1 million; Bonneville dam wasn’t built until 1938.

“There’s a strong correlation between ocean temperatures and salmon returns,” he added.

One thing staffers heard multiple times was the fact that removing the lower Snake River dams would have national implications. Hennings pointed out that 30% of the country’s wheat, corn, and soy goes down the river system.

“This is not just a regional issue, it’s national,” she said. “I’m thankful you are on this tour. We want to find a science-based solution we can all live with.”

Michael Seyfert, president and CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), which includes nearly 1,000 member companies representing all aspects of the grain fuel and food supply chain, echoed Hennings’ remarks. In a follow-up email, Seyfert said he’s very familiar with the lower Snake River dam issue and protecting the dams is one of the NGFA’s top policy priorities.

“The Columbia/Snake river corridor is the third largest grain and oilseed export corridor in the world. It is of incredible importance to farmers and exporters not only in the PNW, but also into the interior of the U.S.” he said. “I was having a conversation with one of the congressional staffers and was able to explain how this issue directly impacted NGFA member facilities and jobs in their congressional district. I could tell it was really a moment that tied it all together for them.”

Seyfert said he hoped the staffers came away with a better understanding of the complexity of the issue and the potential impact on the overall agricultural economy, including producers, exporters, and processors in both the Pacific Northwest and throughout the U.S. He pointed out that there is strong data representing the importance and economic value of the dams, while there is little, if any, data demonstrating that salmon populations will go up if they are removed. 

“I’m a big believer there is nothing better than ‘boots on the ground’ and seeing it for yourself,” he said. “I am hopeful they are able to return back to D.C. and their district offices and have fact-based discussions with their members of Congress and constituents that will result in common-sense, science-based solutions.”

Christen Harsha, senior counsel for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, said she learned more of the importance of the dam system to the local economy before the tour. 

“I thought the whole tour was really valuable. Some of the safety and environmental benefits of shipping local products via rivers were new to me and very interesting,” she said.

Christopher Perez, outreach representative for the Congressional Western Caucus, was a staffer who wasn’t very familiar with the issue. He was briefed before the tour, but said he learned more than expected, especially about how removal of the dams would impact wheat exports that could feed 1 million people in Yemen for a year.

“One thing that stood out to me on the tour is that the Snake River dam system is the top exporter of wheat in the U.S., and last year, they made a profit, which benefits taxpayers around the country,” he said. “These facts changed my perspective on the dam system. Now I see them as not just of regional importance but of both national and international importance.”

Mark Matava, communications assistant for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, just recently joined the congresswoman’s staff. While he was familiar with the issue, he said the tour opened his eyes to how vital the dams are, not only for exporting agricultural products, but for the stability of farmland and entire local economies throughout the region’s communities. 

“One moment that really stood out to me was seeing Lower Granite Dam’s retrofitted fish passage technology first-hand and hearing how seriously the staff took counting fish returns and investigating causes and potential solutions to low returns,” he said. “It’s no wonder Lower Granite Dam has hit 98% fish passage!”