Port brass defend dredging plan

They say river trade easily offsets cost of dams, channel maintenance

By ERIC BARKER of the Tribune

Port managers David Doeringsfeld and Wanda Keefer said Tuesday the four lower Snake River dams and the water transportation and hydroelectric power they make possible are critical drivers of the local economy.

They also said planned dredging of the lower Snake River navigation channel and port berthing areas, which is subject to a court challenge, is needed to keep the river transportation system safe and viable.

Doeringsfeld of the Port of Lewiston and Keefer of the Port of Clarkston spoke Tuesday to the Clarkston Rotary Club and sought to counter a recent campaign by port critics and supporters of dam breaching that paints both the ports and dams as economically unjustified.

“Ports are job creation engines for their areas,” Doeringsfeld said.

Critics allege the cost to keep the dams and maintain the navigation channel far outweighs any economic benefit derived from shipping goods on the river. Last month, the Nez Perce Tribe and a coalition of environmental groups led by Idaho Rivers United filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the planned removal of about 400,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Lower Snake and Clearwater rivers. That work could start as soon as Jan. 12, but a hearing on a requested dredging injunction will take place Monday.

Doeringsfeld said the anti-dredging lawsuit is an attempt to discredit the river transportation system and bolster the argument for dam removal.

“The goal is not to stop dredging,” he said. “The goal is to take out the lower Snake River dams. It’s a means to an end.”

He said dredging is needed about every seven to nine years. The navigation channel was last dredged in 2006, and the channel, authorized at 14 feet deep, is as shallow as 7 feet in some places.

Doeringsfeld cited a 1997 study indicating the two ports, along with the Port of Whitman County, support more than 7,700 jobs and generate $1.5 billion in regional spending. Although container traffic is down at the Port of Lewiston, Doeringsfeld said the ports set a record for the amount of grain shipped last year.

He also said all three ports bring in about $1.8 million in taxes and generate $5.70 in economic activity for each tax dollar spent.

“That is a huge impact on our local economy,” he said.

Keefer said more than 26,000 people visited the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley last year via cruise boats, the second-highest passenger tally on record. But she said those visits are at risk if dredging doesn’t take place.

Keefer said strong salmon and steelhead runs over the past few years, some of which have set records, are evidence that dam breaching is not needed to recover salmon and steelhead.

“The fact is the fish are returning in record numbers,” she said. “It’s not quite at pre-dam numbers but it’s really close.”

Although fall chinook, coho and sockeye that return to the Snake River and its tributaries have shown improvements in recent years, many of the runs remain imperiled. Snake River sockeye are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and wild runs of fall chinook, spring chinook and steelhead are threatened. Each of the runs has been boosted by hatchery production, and the number of hatchery fish generally far outpaces the return of protected wild fish.

Keefer and Doeringsfeld also said breaching the dams would make Lewiston and Clarkston less appealing places to live and pointed to the 1992 experimental drawdown of the Snake River as an example.

“We had a stinking mud hole back then, and that is what you are looking at,” Doeringsfeld said.

Barker may be contacted at [email protected] or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.