Economist says dredging makes sense

By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune

The financial benefits of dredging outweigh the expense, even using figures from environmentalists to estimate how much it costs to remove silt from the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

That’s the conclusion of Eric Fruits, an economist hired by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of ports.

Fruits, of Portland, Ore., spoke to the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon Wednesday at the Lewiston Red Lion Hotel.

He is wading into the debate at a time when the ports of Lewiston and Clarkston are anxious to see dredging move forward. The water is so shallow at the Port of Clarkston that crews can no longer fully load grain barges. At the same time, the largest cruise boats can’t use a dock designed for them, also because of low water.

Dredging was scheduled to happen this winter, but environmentalists succeeded in delaying the work. The earliest dredging will happen now is in a year, but many believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans will face a legal challenge.

Pacific Northwest Waterways Association tapped Fruits to counter arguments environmentalists have been making about the economic feasibility of dredging.

Environmental groups contend that dredging needs to be done every three years, at a cost of $6.5 million, or about $2.17 million per year. In reality, dredging usually occurs once every six years, putting the yearly tally at $812,500, Fruits said.

But it doesn’t really matter who’s right about the frequency, Fruits said, because the annual benefits range from $7.64 million to $16.6 million, with the majority helping those in agriculture and recreational industries.

Wheat growers barge their crops to Portland, where it’s loaded onto ocean-going ships and moved overseas. Tour boats run between Portland and the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

When farmers pay less to get their commodities to market, food prices are lower, Fruits said. “We don’t go to bed at night and think, ‘Thank God for dredging.’ It’s a small benefit that accrues to a lot of people.”

What’s more, if barging didn’t exist, at least one alternative, rail, would cost 20 percent more, Fruits said. “Barge traffic disciplines rail rates.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.