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Harvest 2020 at Deardorff Farms in Colville.
Photo by Jayson Deardorff

Wilbur-Ellis

PROFILES

Organization helps keep PNW navigation interests flowing

Kristin Meira, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association

August/September 2021
By Kevin Gaffney


Many people travel through their careers with quite a few bumps, curves and unexpected stops along the road. Some folks just seem to cruise along, landing at one good position after another, despite the difficulties.

Kristin Meira fits into the latter category. Along with some good fortune, however, her skills, dedication and hard work had much to do with her successes over the years. Currently the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), Meira’s resume includes serving on the staffs of two U.S. senators in Washington, D.C.

Born and raised in southern New Jersey about halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, Meira actually grew up in a rural area that produced crops including peaches, apples, blueberries and corn. She was in 4-H for years and had many FFA friends through high school. She graduated from Williamstown High School in 1989. Meira worked at various jobs to earn money during high school and college; much of that involved working with horses. She began riding at an early age and trained horses and taught riding lessons as a teenager. After a hiatus during her early work life, Meira took up riding again in her mid-30s. She recently purchased a new project horse that she is jumping in the hunter category of equestrian show events. Living near Portland with her husband, Erik, and son, Alex, she keeps her horse boarded at nearby Aurora, Ore.

Meira chose to stay in her home state of New Jersey for college, earning a dual bachelor’s degree in political science/history and English from Rutgers University in 1994. Her favorable employment opportunities began with an internship her senior year. Offered by the exclusive Eagleton Institute of Politics, her position was working in the office of Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey. Following her graduation, she was hired to continue working in the governor’s office.

“Soon after that, I had my first lesson in how unpredictable the work life of a political staffer can be,” recalled Meira. “That same year in November, Gov. Florio was defeated in the election, and I was looking for a new job by January.”

Meira quickly found a job working for an assemblyman in the lower house of the New Jersey State Legislature. Then she decided to bite the bullet and move to Washington, D.C., to look for work in the nation’s capital. Surprisingly, her first position in D.C. was in the office of Sen. Bill Bradley.

Before his political career, Bradley had become quite famous for his collegiate basketball career at Princeton and for a 10-year stint with the New York Knicks. He was also a Rhodes Scholar.

“It was so exciting to have the opportunity to work with Sen. Bradley,” Meira said. “He was a very thoughtful legislator, and someone who looked at public policy issues from all different perspectives. He was constantly seeking out the opinions of his constituents and strived to implement government policies to efficiently serve their interests.”

Meira admired Bradley’s ability to bring people together in a time when there was much more bipartisan cooperation than is apparent now. But Bradley decided not to run for a fourth term, so Meira was again looking for a new job.

Good fortune provided a lead in a most unexpected way. Meira took a bus trip to Georgia with others to volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, rebuilding a black church that had been destroyed by an arsonist in Millen, Ga. While there, she met a fellow volunteer at the site who mentioned that there was an opening on the staff of Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state. She joined that team in early 1997. Helping with the Murray re-election campaign in 1998, Meira had her first taste of the Pacific Northwest region, and she loved it.

In 2000, Meira and her husband decided to leave the nation’s capital for Portland. She was working in the tech industry during the boom time in the early 2000s. When the dot com bubble burst, the firm she was working for went bankrupt, disrupting her career. One day, while having coffee with a friend, Meira was tipped off that PNWA had a staff opening. The rest, as they say, is history. She joined the PNWA team in 2002 and took over the executive director position in the fall of 2011.

PNWA was founded in 1934 as the Inland Empire Waterways Association to provide water for crop production, to electrify the rural northwest and provide a low-cost navigation channel to export products to world markets. In the 1970s, the organization merged into what is now PNWA.

“We serve multiple states helping ensure products can get to market,” explained Meira. “We represent a very diverse group of stakeholders that includes tugboat and steamship companies, growers, public utilities, union labor, ship pilots and large and small ports all over the Pacific Northwest. There have been many times when I have felt lucky in my career path. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities I have enjoyed over the years, including my 19 years with PNWA.”

PNWA has four employees and a 40-member board of directors. Part of Meira’s job is to bring all those various concerns and opinions together to find areas of agreement and cooperation. PNWA advocates for federal policies that support the needs of the navigation stakeholders of the Columbia-Snake River System. They advocate for public policies that support the Pacific Northwest on transportation, energy, trade and environmental issues. One recent development near the top of the list of concerns is the proposal of Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) to breach the lower Snake River dams, ostensibly to help increase salmon runs.

“We respectfully disagree with Rep. Simpson’s views on how all the different variables that affect salmon should be handled,” said Meira. “We join with Rep. Simpson in wanting to find solutions for Idaho fisheries. Given the outstanding fish passage rates achieved at these projects, we don’t believe that the Snake River dams are a major reason for declining salmon runs.

“We have studied the issue in great detail, and we believe that ocean conditions have more to do with the salmon run problems than the dams. Ocean temperatures, toxics, nutrient and food sources and predators are all very important to the health of the salmon populations. Breaching would eliminate a lot of clean power generation and would greatly increase carbon in the Pacific Northwest. It would mean moving about 38,000 more rail cars or nearly 150,000 more semi-trucks on our highways each year to make up for the lost barge traffic. We hope to use the resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to learn more about all these variables affecting the ocean and salmon runs to help to find workable solutions.”

Meira noted that studies have shown that virtually all salmon runs on the U.S. and Canadian west coasts have been struggling, including those on rivers without any dams. This would indicate that the problem is much larger than the lower Snake River dams. She believes it is an issue that encompasses an entire region, both inland and oceanic, from Alaska all through Canada, Washington, Oregon and California.

“Another factor is how problematic trying to replace dependable, cost-effective hydropower with intermittent solar and wind power sources would be,” said Meira. “We believe the salmon issue is much more complicated than just the dams on the Snake River.”

Meira believes the most challenging public policy conversations of PNWA are also the most rewarding. That is, bringing together all the various stakeholders in the member organizations and companies to provide a unified voice in the state capitals and in Washington, D.C. Education and information are an important part of those efforts.

“We hope to get port and dam tours up and running again soon. I wish we could get more legislators and environmental groups to come see, in person, our world-class fish passage facilities,” Meira said. “While using social media is helpful and educational, it would be great to take it a step further. We need legislators and other groups to come out and visit the river systems and our farming communities to see how and why the ag industry is dependent upon the efficiency of our waterway systems.”

To learn more about PNWA, visit pnwa.net.