This article comes from NGFA's June 30 newsletter.

Advocates for the preservation of the lower Snake River dams took an opportunity to share the value of the dams to the economic fabric of the Pacific Northwest during a June 26 field hearing hosted by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries.

NGFA members are encouraged to watch and share the recording of the hearing, which is available here.

During the hearing held in Richland, WA, Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., said the Biden administration is “advancing an agenda of economic and community destruction” by pushing for dam removal within a confidential mediation process.

“The hearing will establish this panel has no enthusiasm for a breach or drawdown,” he said. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA.; Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-WA; and Rep. Mike Collins, R-GA, joined Bentz at the hearing.

“There have been too many backroom conversations recently at the highest levels of government focused on tearing out the Lower Snake River dams,” McMorris Rodgers said.

“What’s worse is that those who rely on them the most — the families, businesses, and farmers in Eastern Washington — have been shut out of the discussion. We changed that with today’s field hearing where the voices of our community were heard loud and clear.”

Negotiations managed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) began after a district court judge stayed a federal lawsuit over the dams in 2021. The deadline for the confidential mediation process is in August.

Earlier this year, FMCS invited public participants to speak at multiple listening sessions. Proponents of dam breaching dominated the sessions to assert that breaching the dams is necessary to restore dwindling salmon populations in the region. NGFA secured a chance to share its public statementin an “overflow” session held on April 3.

One of nine witnesses at this week’s field hearing, David Welch, president of Kintama Research Services in Canada, testified that the ocean has a larger role to play in salmon survival than the dams. He said according to data gathered from tracking smolts (young salmon) on their journey through the river system, about half die from causes in the river system – including the dams, predators and disease – while only about 2% come back from the ocean.

Welch said the ocean is about 25 times more powerful in determining the poor adult return to the Snake River. “Despite this, salmon biologists have persisted for half a century in identifying the Snake River dams as the root cause of the problems and that removing these four dams will magically fix the problems,” he said.

“Put simply, the Snake River dams probably never caused the major decline in salmon runs that has been claimed for over half a century (certainly not of the magnitude claimed).”

Other witnesses emphasized the immense value of hydropower from the dams, which have a combined capacity of about 3,000 megawatts. John Hairston, administrator and CEO of the Bonneville Power Administration, said replacing the dams while meeting clean energy goals would cost between $415 million to $860 million per year through 2045.

Subcommittee leaders also noted the dams play a critical role in reducing emissions. Between 50 and 60 million tons of cargo are barged through the river system each year. “In 2019, it would have taken more than 150,000 semi-trucks or nearly 40,000 rail cars to move the cargo that was barged on the Snake River,” a summary from the subcommittee noted.

Importantly for NGFA members, 11 states export wheat through the Columbia Snake River system, which accounts for more than 60 percent of all wheat exports.

Alex McGregor, chairman of The McGregor Company and managing partner of McGregor Land and Livestock, testified to the value of barge transportation for agriculture.

“Last fall, we needed 4.5 million gallons of liquid fertilizer on short notice — rail wouldn’t come through, our own truck fleet couldn’t possibly keep up with it, nor could anyone else’s,” McGregor said. “Barges and tugs were the only hope, and they came through for us.”

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said any disruption to the Lower Snake River System could hurt existing relationships with trade partners. Proponents of dam breaching have claimed the benefits from the dams can be replaced, but “the bottom line is there is insufficient alternative transportation infrastructure to replace the barge shipment of wheat in the PNW region to export markets,” Hennings said.

She also noted that according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, more than 50,000 acres of land are irrigated from the reservoirs created by the dams. “Irrigation is necessary for the production of most crops” in the state due to drought conditions.

At the hearing’s conclusion, Rep. Newhouse noted: “The facts presented by our expert witnesses today made it overwhelmingly clear that salmon and dams do coexist, and breaching the dams would be devastating to communities in Central Washington and across the Pacific Northwest.”

All testimony from the hearing can be found here.