Legislature’s dam memorial is short sighted

Containers shipped to ports on the lower Snake River are measured in TEUs, which means Twenty Foot Equivalent Units, a standard global measure for sea freight. What it means is that every 20 linear feet worth of loaded containers counts as a single TEU. The Port of Lewiston’s container shipments peaked in 1997 with 17,611 TEUs and have been on a long, steady slide ever since. Data source: Port of Lewiston.

The Idaho Legislature the past two weeks has been deliberating a joint memorial declaring the state’s support of the status quo on most of Idaho’s waterways. Though it doesn’t carry the weight of law, the measure perpetuates damaging myths about dams and positions the state in opposition to practically all dam removals—whether controversial or not. This is short sighted.

House Joint Memorial No. 11 passed the Idaho House 60-8 on March 31 and made its way to the Senate where it passed by voice vote today, April 7.

Although the memorial cites “the Columbia-Snake River System and its tributaries, collectively and in its entirety” it appears to specifically seek protections for the four lower Snake River dams and Port of Lewiston, which have been encountering mounting scrutiny for failure to meet basic cost-benefit analyses.

House Joint Memorial No. 11 should concern citizens who value responsible spending of their taxpayer dollars, and it’s odd that Idaho lawmakers would get wrapped around the axle over dams that aren’t even in the state and provide practically zero benefit to the state.

The lower Snake River dams were built between 1965 and 1975 with the promise of creating economic prosperity for Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington, as well as for north Idaho and eastern Washington farmers. Those promises haven’t been kept. Instead of thriving international commerce, taxpayers instead are faced with an aging and expensive system that only promises to get more expensive with each passing year.

The memorial states that the Port of Lewiston, Idaho’s only seaport, provides “global competitiveness and connectivity for regional products, economic development investment and multimodal transportation.”

It sounds good on paper, but the truth is that the Port of Lewiston is a taxpayer-subsidized financial boondoggle where things continue to get worse. Container shipments from the Port of Lewiston peaked in 1997 and have been on a dramatic decline ever since. According to an October 2014 article in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, the port lost $445,495 on its day-to-day operations in fiscal 2014 and lost $92,435 in fiscal 2013. The port’s total revenue was $1.3 million in 2014 while facing expenses of $1.7 million.

In any free-market scenario, it’s easy to see that the Port of Lewiston could already be bankrupt, but it’s propped up by Nez Perce County property owners, who fund it to the tune of $450,000 per year. The state of Idaho also subsidizes the port with an additional $100,000 per year in sales tax revenue.

Dam boosters often couch comments about freight transportation on the lower Snake River in terms of “the Columbia-Snake River System,” and this is a sure-fire sign that you’re about to be misled. Fright transport on the Columbia River is around 55 million tons per year and has remained relatively steady over the years. Freight transportation on the Snake River, as measured at Ice Harbor Dam, has declined 69 percent over the past 18 years. By always citing data for “the Columbia-Snake River System” dam supporters camouflage how inconsequential freight transportation on the lower Snake River has become. In terms of ton-miles (moving 1 ton of freight 1 mile) the lower Snake River falls into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ category of a waterway of “negligible use.”

The memorial also praises hydropower generally and specifically commends the lower Snake River dams for producing “1,000 megawatts of carbon-free, renewable energy annually, and 3,000 megawatts for peak power emergencies.”

There is no doubt that hydropower generated at dams like Brownlee and Hells Canyon dams on the Snake and at Grand Coulee on the Columbia still have a place in the Northwest’s energy portfolio, but the lower Snake River dams simply aren’t significant.

The lower Snake River dams produce a small fraction of the energy needs of the Pacific Northwest. While they produce about 1,000 annual megawatts of power their collective 3,000 megawatt capacity is rarely realized.

What’s more, the lower Snake River dams produce the most power when it’s needed the least. They are run-of-river dams that perform better during spring runoff. When air conditioners and irrigation pumps are running in July and August, the dams only generate about 25 percent of their June performance.

The average annual megawatts the dams have produced over the past 10 years is 959, about 32 percent of nameplate capacity. Northwest wind energy, meanwhile, has exploded. In 2012, a good water year, the lower Snake dams produced 1,039 annual megawatts while wind power in the region produced 2,007 annual megawatts—nearly twice the dams’ production. And wind isn’t lethal for endangered salmon.

Finally, the memorial makes a specific point of opposing use of Idaho water to help flush endangered salmon through the gauntlet of eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers on their outgoing migration to the Pacific. With this, Idaho lawmakers who supported this memorial achieve irony.

Idaho has nothing to lose and everything to gain by removal of the lower Snake River dams. The water Idaho now sends downstream to help flush salmon out to sea will be able to be put to beneficial use in Idaho when the lower Snake dams are removed and wild salmon recovered. By opposing lower Snake River dam removal, Idaho helps ensure that salmon will perpetually be endangered and Idaho’s water perpetually flushed out to sea to help their migration.

An honest economic analysis looks at all of a project’s costs and benefits, including lost benefits like restored salmon fishing and additional water for upper Snake farmers to put on their fields. The costs of operating and maintaining the lower Snake River dams, including fish mitigation and ongoing maintenance, are increasing sharply while the benefits, such as freight transportation, continue to decline.

The unfortunate truth is that the four lower Snake River dams don’t even pay their own way while inflicting an extreme toll on Idaho’s waterways, riverside communities and farmers—at taxpayer expense. The Legislature can do better than to endorse a joint memorial as short-sighted as House Joint Memorial 11.