Benefits of Snake River barging continue to grow

Barging is in the news, and the timing is predictable. For the first time in eight years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing routine maintenance dredging of a small quantity of sand to ensure continued safe navigation in a federally authorized channel. This shouldn't be news, and it shouldn't be controversial, except that the navigation channel in question is near the Snake River dams. This little bit of geography guarantees costly litigation, newspaper headlines, fundraising, rallies, and delay, and this time is no different.

Dam breaching advocates continue to claim that barging on the Lower Snake is drying up in recent years, and can easily be replaced by rail. Their analysis is fatally flawed and wrong. They selectively developed their numbers, and ignored the fact that the river was shut down for four months in 2010 and 2011 to make repairs and other investments in the future reliability of the system.[1] They failed to acknowledge that 2009 wheat exports were low across the country, not just in our region. They ignored the worldwide recession that has depressed shipping numbers globally, including here at home[2].

Research commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association indicates that freight traffic on the Lower Snake is rising and currently trending toward pre-recession levels. Indeed, we are expecting improved numbers for 2012 and 2013. David Doeringsfeld, Executive Director of the Port of Lewiston, reports, "The Port is experiencing a strong increase in container volumes as the U.S. economy improves.  Container volumes increased 28% in 2012 and are up 41 % through June 2013.  Construction of a $2.9 million container dock extension is underway to accommodate projected container and break bulk cargo growth."

Other facilities are seeing similar increases in activity. "Grain traffic continues to grow on the Lower Snake River," states Arvid Lyons, General Manager of Lewis-Clark Terminal Inc. which operates large grain elevators in Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington. "Lewis-Clark Terminals has handled 130% of our 10 year average in each of the last 3 years, so for us the river is getting used more now that in the past. The efficiencies and economics of barging just can't be beat."

Dam breaching advocates have also claimed that dredging costs outweigh the benefits of barging, and that barging is subsidized. Unfortunately, they have based their claims on flawed studies of the benefits and costs of dredging. Our economic analysis proves that the benefits of dredging exceed the costs by at least $5.5 million annually, even when just accounting for the benefits to wheat shipments alone, a major crop in the Northwest. The dam breaching advocates don't use the correct cost of the dredging, they don't use accurate tonnage numbers, and they don't account for employment, cruise boat calls, and a multitude of other economic benefits.

"It's clear that anti-dam groups are simply seizing on this issue to continue their tired drum beat for removal of the Snake dams," said Terry Flores, Executive Director of NW RiverPartners. "Fortunately, Northwest citizens aren't buying it. Recent independent opinion polling by DHM Research, Portland Oregon, shows strong public support for the dams, and the clean renewable power, irrigation, flood control, commerce and other benefits they provide."

Washington businesses understand the importance of barging and continue to be supportive. "We believe that safe navigation of the Snake-Columbia River is essential," said Don C Brunell, President of the Association of Washington Business. "Ongoing dredging, as with lock maintenance, is needed to insure that goods such as wheat, logs, wood chips, refined fuels and other products move up and down the rivers unimpeded."

"Barges can carry more freight per gallon of fuel usage than other modes, making it the most efficient and environmentally sensitive type of freight transportation," said Robert Curcio, President of Tidewater Barge Lines. "The Columbia Snake River System is the top wheat export gateway in the nation and maintaining the viability of our river transportation system is imperative. For those with access to the river, our river system plays a major role in ensuring that our country's farmers and manufacturers have the ability to economically export their goods into the competitive international marketplace."

"As the Northwest continues to ship more commodities to the export markets, there is going to be even more of a demand for transportation routes through the Northwest in the future with new export projects currently in the development phase. That is a positive for barging as it will give us an opportunity to grow our business, hire more skilled labor, and move more product," added Curcio.

Recent investments made by the federal government in the navigation system have been followed by growth in private industry. Rob Rich, Vice President of Marine Services for Shaver Transportation explains "As a family owned, 133 year old company, Shaver Transportation Company is careful and measured in its business decisions.  That is why we have invested over $7 million in new grain barges this year - the first since our purchase of two grain barges in 2002.  We have seen many private investments in barge handling facilities both in the upper Columbia and Snake Rivers.  A balanced, competitive and responsive river transportation system is essential to our regional economy.  That is why we continue to not only support, but invest in our vital river system."

The dredging in question would happen during the winter "in-water work window" - the time of year biologists deem best for the fish. The sediment in question is so clean, it will be used downstream on the Snake near Knoxway Canyon to create resting and rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, primarily fall Chinook[3]. Unlike most other navigation channels around the country, dredging is needed fairly infrequently on the Lower Snake River. Small parts of the navigation channel were dredged in 1999, and not again until 2006. The federal navigation channel has been maintenance-free for nearly eight years. The quantities proposed for removal are a fraction of what is dredged in other river systems across the nation.

Some groups have also claimed that barging can simply be replaced by shipments by rail and truck. Kristin Meira, Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association states "We know that barging is good for the environment and for people. There are fewer spills associated with barging, and fewer accidents and fatalities.[4] A typical 4-barge tow on the Columbia Snake River System is the equivalent of about 140 rail cars, or 538 trucks on the highway. We strongly support rail, trucking and barging - all three must be maintained and efficient for cargo to flow. Take away one entire mode, and there will be significant impacts to the other two."

"Barging on the Snake River has long-established benefits to the Pacific Northwest and the nation as a whole," said Charles Costanzo, Pacific Region Vice President for the American Waterways Operators. "It's the safest, most efficient and environmentally-sustainable means of moving vast amounts of cargo. We need navigation on the entire Columbia-Snake River System to be available and reliable. It's a critical low-cost gateway that helps ensure economic vitality for the Northwest."

The Columbia Snake River System is significant national waterway, and plays a big role in ensuring that our country's farmers and manufacturers have the ability to export their goods in competitive international markets. The Columbia Snake River System is the top wheat export gateway in the nation, and second for soy.[5] The System is also tops on the West Coast for wood exports and mineral bulk exports

Ann McCulloch
(703) 373-2252