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Commentaries and editorials

Judge Orders Another Delay
in Army Corps Dredging Plans

by John K. Wiley, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - November 4, 2004

SPOKANE, Wash. -- A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to delay implementing a $2.7 million plan to dredge parts of the lower Snake River this winter.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle granted a temporary restraining order against the corps, ruling opponents likely would prevail in court arguments alleging that the dredging violates environmental laws.

It was the second time in as many years the corps was prevented from carrying out plans for winter maintenance dredging of approaches to Snake River dams, ports and marinas.

The corps and the U.S. Justice Department were reviewing the ruling Thursday to see if an appeal is warranted, spokeswoman Nola Conway said.

Environmental groups, which contended dredging would damage already degraded salmon spawning habitat, said Washington and Idaho should be"Dredging in the lower Snake River is environmentally risky and economically unsound. There are better ways to manage this river that would save money and give salmon and steelhead a fighting chance to recover," Jan Hasselman, Seattle counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, the lead plaintiff, said in a release.

The corps wants to dredge a 14-foot-deep, 250-foot-wide navigation channel at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers near Clarkston, the ports of Clarkston and Lewiston, Idaho, and the approaches to navigation locks at the Lower Granite and Lower Monumental dams.

The channel is filling with silt, making it difficult for barges carrying grain from inland ports downstream to Portland, Ore.

The corps' plan to dredge the river to maintain a shipping channel from the Pacific Ocean to the port of Lewiston, Idaho, was previously blocked by Lasnik in December 2002.

Lasnik said then the government failed to consider other alternatives to dredging, such as water surges to naturally flush away sediment and using barges with shallower drafts.

In Monday's ruling and injunction, Lasnik said it was likely the corps violated national environmental policy by failing to prepare an environmental study and failing to consider the cumulative impacts of proposed winter dredging.

"Dredging could have devastating impacts on what little salmon habitat remains in the Snake River," said Glenn Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations, one of seven wildlife or conservation groups that joined the lawsuit. "There is no such thing as salmon-friendly dredging."

The lower Snake is typically used by barges carrying grain and other products to the Columbia River and the port of Portland, Ore.

Port managers say those barges have taken lighter loads to get through some of the shallower parts of the river. Farmers who ship their grain by barge face higher shipping costs because barges are able to carry less.

The corps contends barge transportation on the lower Snake River saves an estimated $44.5 million a year (shipping 4 million tons of commodities, see snaketon.htm), compared to other transportation methods.

( makes a correction, the estimated savings does not compare to other transportation options which would amount to $1 to $3 per ton savings. Rather the economic analyses "compares the cost of light loading to the cost of dredging." Light loading occurs as the reservoirs become shallower, thereby reducing the load that a barge can float.)

The lower Snake River waterway is 141 miles from the confluence with the Columbia River near Pasco to Lewiston, Idaho.

In 2003, 5.3 million tons of cargo was transported on the waterway. The majority of the cargo shipped was agricultural products and petroleum.

Before 1998, the corps dredged every three to five years. The agency has not performed navigation maintenance dredging in the lower Snake or Clearwater rivers since the winter of 1998-99.

Related Sites:
Cost Benefit Analysis Overview, Army Corps of Engineers
Shipping Wheat: Truck or Barge? Transportation Report 1995, Ken Casavant
Snake River Freight Government Report, Army Corps of Engineers
Snake River Commodity Tonnage Data from 1990-2002, Army Corps of Engineers
Lewiston Container Shipping Fact Sheet, 1997 Port of Lewiston

John K. Wiley, Associated Press
Judge Orders Another Delay in Army Corps Dredging Plans
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 4, 2004

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