Lewiston Tribune editorial: Dam cost-benefit study even better idea today

April 18, 2015

PortofLewistonIf calling on the Government Accountability Office to examine the costs and benefits of maintaining the four lower Snake River dams was a good idea two years ago, it's an even better one now.

Back then, Linwood Laughy of Kooskia added up the costs of dredging the shipping lane. Including a $16 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study and an estimated $3.2 million annual costs, Laughy figured it worked out to a subsidy of $18,900 per barge.

Delayed by litigation, this past winter's dredging project was expedited to fit a tighter window. How much it cost has not been released.

Back then, the navigation community said Laughy was biased and his numbers were flawed.

Earlier this year, Jim Waddell, former deputy district engineer with the corps, opened the books about dam costs. The annual average cost of operating and maintaining the dams is $217 million, or $160 million a year more than the corps estimated, Waddell said.

Waddell says the cost of rehabilitation all 24 turbines at the dams is going to be $776 million in today's dollars, more than twice the corps' estimate.

Taxpayers and Bonneville Power Administation ratepayers will foot the bill.

Navigation system defenders contend Waddell lacks the credentials to make his assertions - and that he is not objective. Furthermore, they cite a 2002 corps study that says replacing the hydropower generated by those turbines would cost more than $271 million. It may be more today.

Meanwhile, container traffic from the Port of Lewiston has collapsed. From a high of 17,590 containers in 2000, traffic dipped to 3,240 in 2014. With the withdrawal of the container carrier business Hapag-Lloyd from the Port of Portland, that number is now zero.

This occurred after taxpayers spent $2.8 million from federal, state and local sources to expand the port's container dock.

Now the port is laying off 21/2 of its seven-member staff.

Navigation system defenders point to stable bulk shipments out of Lewis-Clark Terminal, which exceeded 600,000 tons in 2014.

Throw in the elephant in the room - the estimated more than $1 billion spent during the past 20 years preserving imperiled salmon and steelhead from the threat of extinction posed by dams and the slow-moving reservoirs behind them.

Fish advocates say the wild stocks are barely holding on. But the production of hatchery fish fuels the counter-argument that recovery efforts have yielded fishing seasons.

The last time anyone weighed the cost and benefits of maintaining the dams or breaching was nearly 13 years ago - and the study was conducted by the corps, hardly a disinterested source.

Why not bring in the GAO? It's the government's gold-plated source for credible, objective analysis.

If the GAO's numbers support the dams, its critics will have to accept the findings. A cloud over the future of the dams, the port systems and local economic expansion will have been lifted.

If, on the other hand, the GAO were to validate the accusations that the operation is a drain on the taxpayers and ratepayers, at least the region would have a clear-eyed view of its prospects.

That's where Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, comes in.

The 2nd District congressman heads the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. That puts the Army Corps of Engineers directly within his panel's jurisdiction.

If Simpson makes the call, the GAO will get moving to answer his question.

Make the call, congressman. - M.T.

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