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Aerial of Snake River
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GrainTransportationEpisode 166

Saving Snake River dams

Matthew Wilde
May 14, 2024

The Snake River is a vital waterway in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Four dams on the river provide clean energy, support irrigation and allow barges to ship agricultural commodities and products.

A long-running National Wildlife Federation lawsuit related to declining salmon and other fish populations could result in removal of the dams. Jim Morken, CHS vice president of operations in the PNW, offers insights into the value of the river to the grain supply chain and efforts to preserve the dams.

Snake River value

Morken says about 55% of U.S. wheat exports arrive at PNW terminals primarily by rail and barge. About 10% of wheat exports moves on barges through the four locks and dams on the Snake River, he says. The region also grows high-quality white wheat and 90% of that wheat is exported.

Removing Snake River locks and dams would make the river unnavigable for barges, which is the most efficient way to ship grain, Morken says. “Grain would need to find other modes of transportation to reach export facilities. Trucks would be the immediate solution, which would add costs, consume more fuel and increase traffic and wear and tear on roads.”

Morken says the investments required to replace barge infrastructure, such as new rail facilities, would negatively impact cooperatives and farmers in the region. “Rail could be a longer-term solution, but that would take years to build and suitable rail sites are limited along the current rail lines.”

Potential solutions

In early 2024, a judge agreed to a stay of the lawsuit when federal, state and tribal officials signed a $1 billion agreement to fund fish restoration and clean energy projects and analyze potential alternatives to transportation, recreation and irrigation provided by the dams. The agreement will keep the dams in place for at least five years to allow implementation of the initiative.

The CHS government affairs team in Washington, D.C., and cooperative leaders are advocating for a responsible solution to help the Snake River ecosystem while preserving the dams, Morken says.

“As a members of numerous trade organizations, we are joining with our cooperative partners and the entire ag industry to speak on behalf of the Snake River system and its positive impact on agriculture and the region,” he adds. “Farmers have been advocates of preserving the land and water for a long time. Their way of life depends on it.”

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