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U.S. would lose $2.3 billion if barging is lost through breach of lower Snake River dams

If barging on the lower Snake River is lost through removal of four dams and hydroelectric projects, that would cost the U.S. over $2.3 billion over the next 30 years; lead to significant additional carbon emissions that contribute to climate change; and jeopardize health, safety and livelihoods in already economically fragile local and regional economies.

This finding comes from an independent evaluation commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. The study was performed by financial and economic consultants FCS Group to assess impacts that would result if barging on the Snake River is lost. Not captured in this report are significant additional effects due to the loss of hydropower, irrigation and other authorized uses, the association says.

Below are the findings of this study:

Carbon emissions equivalent to the cumulative emissions generated by a Boardman coal-fired power plant every five to six years would result. Barges would need to be replaced by less efficient truck-to-rail shipments, which would cause diesel fuel consumption to increase by nearly 5 million gallons per year. At least 201 additional unit trains and 23.8 million miles in additional trucking activity would be required annually, resulting in increases in CO2and other harmful emissions of over 1.2 million tons per year.

Transportation and storage expense will likely increase 50% to 100% for grain suppliers and shippers. At the current “break even” cost per bushel of $5.00, the transportation/storage cost is now about $0.40 per bushel of wheat. These costs could increase by up to $0.80 per bushel with barging removed as a transportation option.

If farm subsidies are not increased, over 1,100 farms may be at risk of bankruptcy. Average regional net farm cash income was only $42,825 in 2017. With wheat prices already near the break-even point, the federal government would need to increase annual direct payments to farmers by up to $38.8 million to maintain current income levels.

Highway, rail and grain elevator networks would need over $1.6 billion in capital investment. If barging were removed, new infrastructure or costly upgrades would be needed to accommodate the displaced cargo. This includes hundreds of miles of shortline rail track that have been abandoned, new rail, major highway improvements, and retrofits for grain elevators that do not have rail loading capabilities.

Essential health, sanitation and safety would be jeopardized, along with other public services. As observed in the 1992 Snake River drawdown experiment, existing wastewater infrastructure is likely to be damaged or rendered useless if the river level drops, requiring new investments in water intakes, filtration and pumping/transmission systems for many cities, counties and major industrial businesses. Roadways, public docks and other infrastructure adjacent to the river would also be damaged or rendered useless.

The impacts would be socially unjust and target fragile economies. The 10 counties most impacted by a dam breaching scenario are primarily rural areas in which one in five people are at or below the federal poverty level, and average wages are 25% below the national average. Dam breaching would have a negative regional economic impact on agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and tourism businesses that are physically or functionally related to freight movement and river access.

PNWA is a non-profit trade association of ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals who support navigation, energy, trade and economic development throughout the region.