What Future for the Lower Snake River Waterway?
In late 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers’ in Washington State released a document and started a critically important conversation about the future of the lower Snake River waterway – and its use as a barge transportation corridor. It’s a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) about sediment management for the waterway. Save Our wild Salmon, in concert with several others groups and the Nez Perce Tribe, has begun work to understand this Dredging DEIS, how the Army Corps would like to manage sediment, shipping and taxpayer dollars in the Lower Snake River for decades to come. The results of our collective research culminated in extensive comments that we submitted in late March before the comment deadline.
Though the Army Corps is not explicit, the future of the waterway as a transportation corridor is this document's real subject and issue. Read below to learn how this new regional discussion is taking shape. Local citizens are challenging the Army Corps' numbers and analyses. Understanding the actual value of this waterway in the 21st Century - its costs and benefits - and who pays and who benefits - and its risks, must be the foundation for any decisions about its future. Freight transport options in and out of the Lewiston/Clarkston area are essential for local farmers and other businesses, but shipping alternatives exist and these need to be part of this larger discussion.
Spokesman Review guest opinion: It’s time to assess use of shrinking tax dollars on lower Snake River dams
By Dustin Aherin, May 5, 2013
When I grew up in Lewiston in the 1970s, people believed that the then-new lower Snake River waterway would be the economic engine for our town’s future. The lower Snake dams, which made Lewiston a seaport 400 miles inland, would be our route to prosperity.
Today, I still live in Lewiston and own a business. I worry about our town’s continued struggle to jumpstart its stagnant economy. It is clear to me, and to growing numbers of my neighbors, that the lower Snake River waterway has not brought the economic prosperity dam boosters promised us decades ago. And so our town must think anew about our economic future.
Freight shipped by barge on the lower Snake River has declined almost 50 percent in the last decade, and not just since the recession that began in 2008. The lower Snake now carries just one-tenth of 1 percent of ton-miles on the Army Corps of Engineers’ national waterway system. At a time when Army Corps budgets are dropping, it’s not hard to see that limited taxpayer funds will go to the Mississippi and Columbia, not the Snake. If the Army Corps dredges the Snake navigation channel next winter, as it plans to, the taxpayer subsidy will be $11,000 to $18,000 for each barge leaving the Port of Lewiston.
The Port of Tacoma is now a favored destination for Inland Northwest grain; it can only be reached by road and rail. Growers who still ship to the Port of Portland are able to bypass the lower Snake via road and rail to the Columbia waterway at Tri-Cities. Private and public investments are building new rail infrastructure in the region. New technologies continue to improve efficiency in rail and highways as barge transportation grows more outdated.
The Army Corps just released a $16 million environmental impact statement so it can get the legal authority to dredge the waterway next winter. In 1,500 pages, there is NO cost-benefit analysis of the dredging. It’s not hard to see why; it’s an economic loser that’s impossible to paper over. The fact that the Corps will still need to raise the levees in Lewiston – highly unpopular with the locals – is buried deep in the document.
Whether the Army Corps gets to dredge next year or not, the writing is on the wall. The lower Snake waterway is a loser for taxpayers. It has brought little to the economy of the Clarkston-Lewiston Valley. So far the Army Corps is choosing to dodge or hide that fact, and manage by drift and deterioration.
Whether we like it or not, Lewiston/Clarkston needs to engage with the larger region in an honest assessment of whether maintaining the lower Snake River dams is the best use of declining taxpayer dollars. Fishing businesses, the Nez Perce Tribe and conservation groups continue to push for their removal to benefit salmon and fishing jobs.
There are calls from some elected leaders in region, most notably Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, for a stakeholder process to resolve the long-standing conflict over how to restore Columbia-Snake River salmon and the impact of the lower Snake dams. NOAA Fisheries recently launched a “stakeholder assessment,” a first step.
It is in the best interests of Clarkston and Lewiston to get on board with this effort and call for a new economic analysis of the dams. I hope to see Gov. Jay Inslee and other leaders in Washington, as well as in Idaho, support such a process. We are likely to discover the growing number of dollars spent on four aging dams can be better spent on behalf of both my town and the salmon our region cares so much about.
Dustin Aherin is a fifth-generation Lewiston-area resident and owner of a rafting company.
Dredge plans draws opposition
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS — Associated Press
April 21, 2013
LEWISTON, IDAHO — Cargo barges sail serenely between Portland, Ore., and Lewiston, Idaho, the most inland seaport on the West Coast.
But rough waters may lie ahead, because some environmental activists oppose the federal government's latest plan to dredge a shipping channel on the lower Snake River. Dredging is necessary every few years to keep the channel in front of the Port of Lewiston deep enough for barges.
Critics say the Lewiston seaport - located 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean in a deep Idaho gorge - suffers from declining business and dredging amounts to a huge taxpayer subsidy to shippers.
"Costs are rising, use is dropping and taxpayers won't continue to foot this bill," said Sam Mace of Save Our Wild Salmon, one of a coalition of environmental groups who in late March submitted comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in which they opposed dredging.
Navigation from the Pacific Ocean to Lewiston is possible because the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s built four massive hydroelectric dams, equipped with locks, on the upper Snake River. The reservoirs keep water levels high enough for barging. Environmental groups for years have tried unsuccessfully to remove the dams to restore runs of wild salmon that were decimated when the huge concrete structures blocked migration routes.
But barge traffic has many supporters, including the Port of Lewiston, which receives grain from as far away as the Dakotas. The grain is barged to Portland, Ore., where it is loaded on cargo ships bound for Asia. The river highway carries other cargo, and even small cruise ships, up to Lewiston and adjacent Clarkston, Wash., which form a community of 50,000 people at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.
The cargo barges are an incongruous sight on the Snake River, as they move past the bare brown hills of an arid and lightly populated farming region known as the Palouse.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing an environmental impact statement for the dredging. The Corps says it is required by law to maintain a shipping channel that is 14 feet deep and 250 feet across, spokesman Bruce Hendrickson said. Barges can get grounded on sediment if the channel is not dredged.
The coalition of environmental groups, who tried and failed to halt the dredging the last time it occurred in 2005-06, recently submitted comments in which they contended the Corps is not seriously looking at alternatives to dredging.
"Dredging is a foregone conclusion," the environmental groups contended. The Corps should more seriously consider alternatives that don't require dredging, such as loading barges with less cargo, stopping shipping during low water periods or diverting more cargo to rail and truck transport, the groups said.
The Corps will consider all comments before issuing a final decision this summer. The earliest the dredging could occur is next winter, Hendrickson said.
The Corps has not estimated how much dredging would cost, because it will be collecting bids to perform the work and federal rules prevent it from setting a price before that. Critics estimate the dredging will cost millions of dollars. The Corps wants to dredge more than 470,000 cubic yards of sediment near the confluence of the two rivers. The sediment would be used to create habitat for salmon and steelhead.
"Generally dredging is expected to keep the river open for five years," Hendrickson said.
While critics argue that the cost of the dredging is not justified by the economic benefits of the barging, the Corps did not perform a cost-benefit analysis because that is not its mission, Hendrickson said.
"Dredging is the only effective, short-term tool available to restore the navigation channel," Hendrickson said.
The Corps also questions critics who contend that barging can be easily replaced by train and truck transport.
"A barge is still equal to 35 railroad hopper cars or 134 trucks on the road, creating pollution," Hendrickson said. "Barging is a very efficient and non-polluting way to move cargo up and down the river."
There's no question that business has dropped at the Port of Lewiston, which opened in 1974.
In 2000, the Port of Lewiston shipped more than 900,000 tons of grain, a number that declined to just over 500,000 tons in 2012, according to Port statistics. The number of containers shipped was more than 16,000 in 2000, and had dropped to around 5,000 by 2012.
"Business is down because of the national recession," Port general manager David Doeringsfeld said.
The economy and the port's business is rebounding, he said. "Business is up 88 percent so far this year," Doeringsfeld said.
The Port of Lewiston lies at the tail end of the reservoir of Lower Granite Dam. When the Snake and Clearwater rivers merge at Lewiston and then collide with the slackwater, sediment settles on the river bottom. This requires dredging every few years to keep the port deep enough for fully loaded barges to operate.
Doeringsfeld said they are already "light loading" grain barges because the water is only 11 feet deep in some places. Barges can be loaded much heavier when the water is 14 feet deep, he said.
Grain is the port's biggest export product, with a majority grown within a 100-mile radius. But 15 percent of the grain comes from Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, he said. In addition to barges filled with grain, the port ships containers full of wood and paper products, peas, lentils, beans and some wheat, Doeringsfeld said.
All of the grain shipped from Lewiston to Portland is sent to Asia, he said.
Linwood Laughy of Kooskia, a major dredging opponent, has conducted his own studies showing costs of keeping the river open amount to a subsidy of thousands of dollars per barge leaving the Port of Lewiston. He estimated it costs $30 million to $40 million per decade to maintain the shipping channel.
"Nothing on the horizon suggests any significant increase in shipping," he said.
But Doeringsfeld disputed the concept of comparing costs of dredging to the amount of shipping.
"This is a maintenance project for a U.S. marine highway," Doeringsfeld said.
Even with reduced business, the Port moves an enormous amount of cargo, he said.
A single barge contains 100,000 bushels of grain, worth nearly $1 million, Doeringsfeld said. The port shipped 220 barges of grain last year, he said.
But Laughy said dredging primarily benefits the Port of Lewiston, and loss of the facility would not be a great economic blow.
"The Port of Lewiston employs six people and requires an annual local tax subsidy of $450,000," Laughy said. "The Army Corps' proposal for perpetual dredging ... simply doesn't make sense."
Old Arguments, New Realities
From the desk of Lin Laughy, of Fighting Goliath
As the Army Corps of Engineers blunders on with its plan to dredge the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers every 3-5 years for the next half-century, defenders of lower Snake River dams and barge transportation present the public with reruns of obsolete arguments. While many of these claims lacked validity 15 to 20 years ago, today they face more challenges than a sockeye’s run to Redfish Lake.
Freight transport on the lower Snake has declined 45% over the past 11 years, the majority of which occurred before the recession of 2008. Some regional industries have abandoned barge transport all-together. System maintenance costs have soared while our federal government goes broke. Electric cooperatives are contracting for rapidly expanding wind energy, and farmer cooperatives are investing in facilities for unit trains. The National Academy of Sciences even suggests the Army Corps may need to divest itself of parts of an unsustainable, aging empire.
Today the lower Snake River transports just 5% of the total tonnage of the Columbia-Snake River System. Based on ton-miles, the lower Snake accounts for a mere 1/10th of 1% of all freight transported on U.S. inland waterways, making it one of the most subsidized sloughs in the nation.
Below is my report on what I have learned about the current level of barge transport on the lower Snake River. This information contradicts figures recently presented by the Army Corps in its draft dredging Environmental Impact Statement.
Freight Transport on the Lower Snake River: A New Perspective
By Lin Laughy
March 7, 2013
Summary: In the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Lower Snake River Programmatic Sediment Management Plan, the Army Corps of Engineers grossly exaggerates the volume of commercial freight transported on the lower Snake River. This volume declined 45% between 2000 and 2010, with more than half of this drop occurring before the 2008-2009 recession. The lower Snake River carries 5% of total tonnage of the Columbia/Snake River System and less than 1/2 of 1% of the nation’s total tonnage on inland waterways. In terms of ton miles, a more accurate reflection of a given river’s relative importance in U.S. waterborne freight transport, the lower Snake River accounts for a mere 1/10 of 1% of all freight transported on the U.S. inland waterway system.
Introduction: On January 24, 2013 the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) held an open house and Q & A session in Lewiston Idaho regarding the Corps’ proposed Lower Snake River Programmatic Sediment Management Plan (LSRPSMP) and related Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).1 This plan calls for dredging the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers every 3-5 years for the next 50 years. Most of the questions attendees raised concerned short-term and long-term project costs, for which the Corps provided no information. Two related questions involved the future priority of funding for lower Snake River navigation given the inability of present Corps budgets to address the financial demands of an aging national inland waterway system coupled with large pending budget cuts at the federal level. Corps spokespersons did answer these questions, explaining that a major criterion for funding used by the Corps nationally is total tonnage shipped on any given waterway. The data below shed light on this topic with respect to the Columbia Snake River System (CSRS) as well as lower Snake River shipping itself. All data come from USACE data centers, the LSRPSMP Draft Environmental Impact Statement, web-based district dam and lock information, or port shipping reports.
Lewiston Morning Tribune Editorial: Don't take Linwood Laughy's word for it
January 31, 2013
Dredging the Ports of Lewiston and Clarkston as well as the shipping channel of the lower Snake River may not be worth the money.
So says Linwood Laughy of Kooskia. The megaload opponent worked his way through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 20-year plan to maintain shipping lanes to Lewiston and Clarkston and produced a "bridge to nowhere" scenario:
Including the $16 million spent on the corps study, the feds plan to spend $3.2 million a year, Linwood says.
That works out to $18,900 a barge - or a subsidy of $5.40 a ton.
Not so, complains the navigation community.
But what has it offered in response?
Bland generalities. Navigation spares wear and tear on highways. It opens world markets to local producers.
Criticism of Laughy's motives.
Arguments that his analysis omitted the Port of Clarkston - and that port had "one of its better years" in 2012. Port Terminal Manager Arvid Lyons offered the Tribune's Eric Barker nothing more specific, however.
"That's all you need to know," he said.
Lewiston Morning Tribune: Dredging costs rise to top of meeting
Supporters of river system equate it with growth; those opposed see wasted money
By ERIC BARKER of the Tribune
Friday, January 25, 2013
Concerns about the high cost of maintaining the shipping channel of the lower Snake River dominated an information meeting on a sediment management plan hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Thursday in Lewiston.
Many in the audience of about 50 hammered away at what they see as a huge expense to taxpayers to continually keep the shipping channel clear of sediment through dredging and other actions.
"Does it make sense to keep subsidizing barge transportation at a cost of many tens of millions of dollars when barge traffic is going down as I understand it?" John Fisher of Juliaetta asked. "We are facing multi-trillion dollar budget deficits in the country and you are talking about spending tens and tens of millions of dollars, that is not cost-effective."
The public debate over sediment management in the river has become a surrogate for the debate over the best way to save threatened and endangered runs of salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Snake River and its tributaries. Many fish advocates who favor dam breaching once hoped a possible call for higher levees as a sediment management action would sway local public opinion in favor of dam breaching. But the corps is not calling for higher levees in the near term, and fish advocates now appear intent on highlighting the huge costs of maintaining the shipping channel and attracting allies from people concerned with the nation's debt problems.
Rocky Barker Blog: Corps faces a fight over dredging behind Lower Snake dams.
January 24, 2013
Idaho historian Keith Petersen asked the question in his 1995 book River of Life, Channel of Death: “Will the government continue to pour money” into the maintenance costs of the four lower Snake Dams in Washington?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released for public comment a plan dredge the channel over the next 50 years. The Lower Snake River Programmatic Sediment Management Plan and draft Environmental Impact Statement looks at several alternatives but the preferred alternative inevitably is to dredge the channel for the first time since 1995.
This week they extended the comment period From Feb. 8 to March 26.
“We extended the public comment period to allow for more complete public input,” said District Commander Lt. Col. Andrew Kelly. “The draft Environmental Impact Statement is fairly lengthy and complex because we took a very broad look at sediment management options.”
But Kelly wanted to make a strong point: “This is about potential long-term options beyond just dredging.” That’s because the environmental impacts of dredging will always be a challenge, a pinch point for activists who prefer the alternative of removal of the four lower Snake River dams.
The Corps under law is supposed to maintain the lower Snake River navigation channel at 14 feet deep and 250 feet wide.
In the draft EIS, the Corps is proposing a long-term plan to manage, and prevent if possible, river sediment deposition behind all four dams, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite Locks and Dams.