Washington state legislators and their staffers took a closer look at the impact of the four dams on the lower Snake River during an Aug. 31 tour hosted by several Northwest agricultural commodity groups.

They toured a portion of the Snake River and Ice Harbor Dam.

The educational program focused on salmon recovery and the dams' functions, to give perspective on power production and the interests of irrigated and dryland farmers, said Matt Harris, director of governmental affairs at the Washington Potato Commission.

An Idaho member of Congress, Mike Simpson, has called for removing the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams.

Dam benefits include low-cost energy production, river transportation, irrigation water, flood control and helping with salmon migration, Harris said.

The event gives legislators and their staffers a direct connection to experts if they have further questions about dams or salmon recovery, Harris said.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives talked about fish recovery and dam interaction, providing a "statistical analysis of how they're changing the function of the dams, and how salmon are reacting to that," Harris said. 

Harris said dam removal would reduce the irrigation capacity of tens of thousands of potato, tree fruit, onion and carrot acres. 

"If you remove the dams and the capacity to access that water, what is going to be the new cost?" he said. "Can those irrigated lands survive? We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars to the region for food production, labor and livable wage income that would be removed and taken off the table."

Those costs don't include the impacts of dam removal on the transportation of wheat and other agricultural products on the river system to get to market, Harris said.

The program was designed to give participants a broader context about the dams, Harris told the Capital Press.

Roughly 56 people attended, Harris said.

The event was "a well attended cruise with valuable presentations by Corps and industry people sharing the great value and operational capabilities of the Snake River system," said Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver Transportation, a Portland-based tug and barge company. "The legislators asked lots of good questions and were very engaged in learning more about this system."

The legislative tours started in 2019. Harris anticipates another in 2022 to give perspective on how the river system is functioning and how it could be improved. He also hopes to expand the tour discussions to include tribal interests.

"Those are conversations that are great to have on an annual basis," he said. "It gives us another perspective to think about, and that's what's needed, is to look at all sides of what we're trying to accomplish and really understanding what the system does for the region."

Tour sponsors included the potato commission, Washington Grain Commission, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, Northwest Dairy Association, Washington Potato & Onion Association, Northwest RiverPartners and the Washington Public Ports Association.

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