This weekend, Lynda Mapes at the Seattle Times wrote an interesting article on the drop of barge traffic along the Lower Snake River, and how a shift from barge to rail as the means of shipping wheat from Idaho to foreign markets may take away one of the primary obstacles to the removal of four dams along that river. She goes into the political and economic dynamics of this issue in detail, and the article is worth a read. To summarize, the four dams on the Snake River have been the target of salmon advocates for decades–and the removal of those dams is viewed by many as a critical step in restoring the Columbia River salmon populations. On the flip side, the dams provide cheap electricity to the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and have turned the town of Lewiston, Idaho into a major port for exporting wheat and other agricultural products via barge.

This waterborne commerce has been an important argument in keeping the dams in place. Dam supporters argue that removing the dams would eliminate the ability of farmers in Idaho to export their products overseas through West Coast ports. However, as Lynda’s article details, that reliance on barge traffic has dropped as exports have shifted to rail-based transport, and some farmers are even coming around to the idea that barge-based transport of their crops may not be needed in the future if rail traffic can be substituted for those barges.

The shift to rail-based transport is where the dam removal fight and the coal export fight collide. As I’ve detailed previously, the anti-coal export crowd has attacked all aspects of the coal export infrastructure–including attacking the additional rail traffic that comes with the coal export terminals. The anti-train arguments by Mayor McGinn that I’ve blogged on previously would apply with equal force to increased rail traffic through Seattle associated with the shift from barge-to-rail transport of agricultural commodities from Idaho. This is an example of the short-sightedness of the anti-coal crowd, because I’d be willing to bet that many of the individuals that are against coal exports are also for removal of the Snake River dams. Any plans to remove those dams will need the support of the agricultural community in Idaho–and that support only comes once that community is convinced there is an economically-viable substitute to barges as a way to get their products to market. Suppressing rail traffic to fight coal exports potentially means not being able to expand that traffic later to support dam removal.

The recent expansion of SEPA review by the Washington Department of Ecology has similar negative implications for dam removal. Presumably, any major shift from barge-to-rail traffic will come with an expansion of existing port facilities or possibly new port facilities to accommodate that increased rail traffic. These projects may be much more difficult to permit using Ecology’s new SEPA approach that was developed to analyze the impacts of the proposed coal terminals, as the SEPA review of these new facilities will presumably need to analyze rail traffic, vessel traffic, cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters, and end-use impacts in the receiving countries. All of these impacts will have to be balanced with the gains to salmon populations that would come with dam removal. It may be years before this dynamic fully unfolds, and I am sure that other implications of Ecology’s SEPA scoping for the coal terminals will come to the surface. But, the intersection of dam removal and coal exports is potentially the first example of how near-term policy decisions, made based on ideological grounds, may impact the long-term economic and environmental health of the Pacific Northwest.