Breaching the lower Snake River dams and restoring the river would not come cheap. The cost could exceed a billion dollars. (The value of wild salmon make that expense worthwhile, I argued in the first article of this series.) But making whole the irrigators and grain barging companies that are the principal beneficiaries of the dams would be surprisingly affordable. In some cases, paying them for their losses would cost less than continuing to operate the dams as at present.
You would not guess it from the words of conservative political leaders along the Snake, though. When in late July, the consulting firm ECONorthwest (ECONW) released its study on the economic tradeoffs of removing the dams on the lower Snake River, US Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both Republicans from Eastern Washington, immediately branded the report “a slap in the face of our state’s agricultural economy” adding that “billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements that would be needed for irrigation and transportation hardly come across as a ‘public benefit.’”
The ECONW study took a bean counter’s approach to weighing the pros and cons of dam removal. In the case of agriculture, it showed that the increased costs to irrigators and grain growers are surprisingly modest. Let’s take them in turn.