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From the Alamo to the Snake River

 


Most of the 2.5 million annual Alamo visitors focus on the epic 1836 battle in which a small band of brave Texans was eventually overrun by the Mexican army. Folk heroes like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis were among the Texans killed while fighting for independence from Mexico.

However, the Alamo is more than a small Spanish-style church, depicted on tourism brochures, which barely withstood a 13-day pummeling from Mexican cannons. It is a large complex built nearly a century before the siege where irrigated agriculture was introduced to arid south central Texas — an area which has topography and precipitation levels very similar to Washington east of the Cascades.

Just as Alamo visitors often overlook important parts of history, Washington can benefit from a more complete look at the benefits of irrigated agriculture.

The Alamo is the northernmost of the Franciscan missions establish between 1720 and 1750 along the San Antonio River. Four other missions downstream diverted river water to irrigate 3,500 acres on farmland where corn and vegetables were grown and cattle and other livestock foraged.

By 2007, irrigated agriculture in Texas grew to $4.7 billion. Today, Texas agriculture’s total economic impact reaches $115 billion annually, and one out of every seven Texans work in agriculture-related jobs.

In Washington, agriculture contributes $51 billion to our economy and our state is America’s third largest food and agricultural products exporter. At last count, the Washington Farm Bureau estimates our state has 1.8 million irrigated acres of farmland.

Washington’s largest fruit-tree crops are apples, cherries and pears, which annually bring in $2.5 billion. They require river water. The same is true for potato, hop and hay crops. Exportable food products provide jobs for 166,000 Washington workers.

Much of Washington’s irrigated farms and orchards are supplied water from federal dams on the Columbia, Yakima and Snake rivers.

The battle today is over whether to remove the four lower Snake River dams. While debate primarily focuses on salmon runs, breaching implications reach deeply into agriculture, hydropower and commercial navigation.

Early in discussions, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers zeroed in on irrigation impacts of Ice Harbor, the most down-river of the Snake River dams.

“For purposes of analyzing the economic effects to pump irrigators under dam (Ice Harbor) breach conditions, it is estimated that approximately 37,000 irrigated acres in Franklin and Walla Walla counties would be impacted,” the Corps reported.

Not only would dam removal hurt farmers, but it would end river barging from Lewiston, ID, to seaports in Portland, Vancouver and along the lower Columbia. The main crops barged through the locks at Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Ice Harbor dams are wheat, corn, soy and wood products.

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association estimates that 134 grain trucks and 35 jumbo hopper rail cars would be required to replace each barge.

Pacific Northwest families and businesses are spending billions of dollars through their electric bills to make the federal dams more fish-friendly and restore salmon habitat in the Columbia Basin. Salmon are returning, but there is work to be done and other issues to address. One is the impact of sea lion predation on salmon and steelhead in the lower Columbia.

Before we consider spending billions to rip down the lower Snake River dams, wouldn’t it be better to consider the progress already made to salmon-run enhancement and all of the factors threatening the salmon we all cherish?

It makes sense for our judges, lawmakers, and others we elect to public office to take a comprehensive look at the big picture of the Columbia River Basin and the benefits of the dams.

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