Dam study workshop

The Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River near Burbank, Wash. River advocates say it is important for farmers, ranchers and other industry representatives to attend meetings about the Washington governor's study on dams on the Lower Snake River.

The results of a study of stakeholder attitudes regarding the proposed breaching of Snake River dams were hardly surprising, but ag interests say the document may serve to educate proponents of the complexities the issue presents.

We can only hope so.

The study was recommended by a task force on reviving the orca population in Puget Sound. Scientists blame a declining orca population on a lack of chinook salmon for the killer whales to eat.

All Snake River salmon runs are federally threatened or endangered species. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature supported the $750,000 study to catalog different perspectives on breaching the dams as a way to increase fish runs.

The preliminary study represents the views of farmers, tribes, environmentalists, fishermen, shippers and government officials.

Breaching the dams would make it impossible to ship grain down the Snake. Loss of water impounded by the dams would impact irrigation on thousands of acres of farmland, and the loss of electricity generated by the dams would increase the cost of pumping groundwater.

Proponents of breaching the dams have suggested that subsidies to farmers could be built into the multi-billion dollar price tag.

“It is important to make agriculture ‘whole,’ so farmers do not suffer significant economic losses if the dams are breached,” the study reported.

But, according to the study, farmers don’t believe they will be made whole.

Farmers are worried about being “at the mercy of railroads” that would take over shipping and “skeptical” about switching to crops that use less water, according to the study.

Washington Grain Commission CEO Glen Squires said he appreciated that the report’s writers captured different views on breaching the dams.

“I think they genuinely listened and began to realize this whole thing is more complicated than meets the eye,” he said. “It’s not as easy as giving a farmer a nickel, dime, 20 cents a bushel — case solved.”

Indeed, it is complicated. The livelihoods of farmers, barge operators, deck hands, dock workers and the vendors who support them hang in the balance. The loudest proponents of breaching the dams seem to have the least personally at stake.

We don’t know anyone who is against saving the whales or the salmon if the real human costs and impacts can be realistically addressed. Count us as skeptical that could ever be the case.

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