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It has been over 40 years since the last of the four lower Snake River dams was completed and the promise of an “Inland Empire” was to be finally realized.
This dream has never come to fruition.
The Army Corps flooded 20,000 acres of a once vibrant agricultural valley, flush with vineyards, orchards, villages, and salmon to support tribes and farmers alike. Per capita income in the reservoir area has been on the decline since 1980, four years after the construction camp closed. The number of small and mid-size farms capable of supporting a household also continues to decline. Small towns never boomed beyond the construction heydays, many now suffering from empty properties and youth flight to the cities. Lewiston, Idaho, stuck behind high levees prone to over-topping, has experienced growth rates less than half the rest of Idaho. The promise of significant savings for farmers shipping wheat by subsidized barging on the lower Snake never materialized. The publicly owned Port of Lewiston, in spite of significant taxpayer investments, is virtually out of the barging business. In short, in-spite of all the rosy projections, nothing but economic morbidity has occurred in this part of the region.
In the years before the lower Snake River was stilled by dams, people congregated on its beaches, fished from riverbanks, and camped and hunted in the river bottom. They rafted more than 50 rapids that once surged at up to 180,000 cubic feet per second through the remote, arid canyon–rapids with names like Log Cabin, Little Pine Tree and Haunted House.
In 2001, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game calculated the direct spending benefit of its constituents who bought salmon and steelhead tags in a rare year of decent salmon returns to the state: $46 million, with $10 million of that in the rural riverside town of Riggins alone.
Other studies place the figures higher still. An April 2003 study by Boise-based Ben Johnson Associates, Inc. places direct and indirect angler spending in Idaho during the 2001 fishing season at $89.9 million. The same economic think tank did a follow-up report in 2005 to estimate the potential economic impact of restored salmon and steelhead runs throughout Idaho and determined direct and indirect angler spending could generate $544 million annually.
By contrast, the 1999 Corps report valued “general recreation” on a free-flowing Snake at a paltry $5.9 million to $31 million. Improved fishing, both in the Snake and its hundreds of miles of wilderness tributaries, was to be worth a maximum of $4.5 million.
The ’02 FR/EIS provided an estimate of $291 million to modify the irrigation system as a result of draw-down of Ice Harbor pool. This was twice the assessed value of the farmland. As such, the conclusion was that these 14 farmers (roughly) would be bought out, no doubt leading to their antagonistic view toward breaching. However, it was known at the time the $291 million was very speculative and based on faulty assumptions, but again, corrections were not made for the lack of more study funds and time. In recent months water supply engineers have recalculated the cost of pump and pipe modifications and found that in current year dollars it would cost $19 million. Because available pipe and pump sizes inevitably lead to larger system capacities, these modifications will allow for the irrigation of an additional 5,000 to 7,000 acres, further driving up farm employment and income not accounted for in the original 02 FE/EIS. The $19 million should be part of the breach cost.
The economic effects for shifting to rail was assumed to cost $27 million on annual average basis if commodities were shipped by rail. However, the 2002 FFR/EIS itself showed sufficient evidence to conclude virtually no economic effect by shifting to rail, yet this conclusion was not drawn due to a lack of funds to recalculate the BCR based on input from navigation economists contracted and to field-verify the original calculations generated via models. Since then (and largely driven by the fact that in most cases there was little difference between barge and rail rates), several significant strides were taken that have already shifted all petroleum shipments and 30-40% of the grain to rail shipments. Farmer Co-ops built two 100-car unit train grain loaders in the lower Snake Region and are building a third only a few miles from the river; the rail lines along the lower Snake River have been upgraded to class 1 and 2 standards allowing more economical shipments from Lewiston to barge loading facilities on the Columbia or grain terminals in Portland Oregon; the State of Washington’s “Grain Train” has grown from a small shuttle service of 30 cars to over 110 and have upgraded most of their rail lines.
digging into the numbers
re-imagining the future
The best way to re-imagine the future is by reading Venture Magazine, a foodie magazine showing the vision of a restored river valley economy!
A free-flowing Lower Snake River would increase tourism in Lewiston, making it a more attractive city to live in as incomes grow, increased opportunities for recreational fishing and wildlife viewing. And whale watching, centered on the Southern Resident Killer Whales, will continue to bring immense value to the state through wildlife viewing opportunities.
Returning the Snake to a free flowing river will generate thriving commercial, sport and tribal fisheries and help sustain an ecosystem that depends on salmon. Recreation opportunities will increase dramatically and create jobs that directly benefit local economies. The four lower Snake River dams stand in the way of this future.
There will be increased economic activity within the counties and legislative districts surrounding the Lower Snake River in southeast Washington. The large influx of visitors in Year 1 will have expenditures of $500 million and will generate nearly $400 million in economic contribution.