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Snake River Channel Maintenance Canceled

by Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Capital Press, January 10, 2003

Grain transport will continue to suffer

With the Dec. 30 cancellation of the channel maintenance contract for the lower Snake River by the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Eastern Washington and Idaho marine terminals will endure a fourth year without needed silt removal.

The corps terminated the $2.4 million contract with Dutra Dredging Company Inc., on San Raphael, Calif., just days before dredging work was scheduled to begin on the navigation channel and adjacent ports between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston.

The announcement followed a Dec. 24 decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to not seek a stay of a preliminary injunction granted Dec. 12 by Federal District Judge Rover Lasnik.

The federal judge granted the injunction as part of a suit, filed by the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups, alleging that maintenance dredging would harm salmon eggs in the main channel of the Snake River.

The environmental groups want the court to order a new dredged material management plan and environmental impact statement from the corps and National Marine Fisheries Service, incorporating analysis of the use of 10-15 foot reservoir drawdowns to flush the channel, techniques to reduce silt runoff into the river and the possibility of reducing channel and marine terminal depth from the federally mandated 14 feet to 13 feet or less during part of the year.

Fred Disheroon, special litigation counsel for the Justice Department, said they chose not appeal Lasnik's decision because there wasn't enough time.

Channel maintenance work needed to begin by the first of the year to be completed in time to avoid interfering with spring salmon and steelhead migration.

Instead, the Justice Department may ask for a summary judgement on the merits of the case, Disheroon said.

"There's no specific timetable, but it's likely a decision (on the request for summary judgement) will be made in the next couple of weeks."

As a result of the injunction, Lower Snake River ports will continue to deal with shoaling in the channel and at barge berths, and shippers and growers will cope with the increased cost and difficulty of transporting goods on the Columbia-Snake River System.

The Snake River is used to transport 120 million bushels of wheat and barley from 16 upriver terminals to export elevators on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers. Inland navigation companies also supply upriver ports with petroleum products and general cargo, transported upriver from Portland area terminals.

Marine terminals at the ports of Lewiston, Idaho, and others in Whitman, Franklin, Garfield, Asotin, Columbia and Walla Walla counties are already light-loading barges, said Jim Toomey, executive director of the Port of Pasco and chairman of the Inland Ports and Navigation Group, which filed affidavits in support of the channel maintenance plan with Judge Lasnik.

"There's continued degradation of navigation on the river system, and continued increases in cost," Toomey said.

Since every inch of draft represents approximately $3,200 in cargo value, a foot less draft due to light-loading means $38,400 in grain not loaded on each barge, which reduces the efficiency of inland navigation. "This is not a situation where one morning you get up and you can't get upriver. It is a series of long-term impacts, a continued erosion of the river system."

Meanwhile, Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said the ports and communities remain "disappointed" by Lasnik's decision and at least another year before channel maintenance can resume.

"People thought the Corps had a good (channel maintenance) plan," he said.

"It was carefully worked out with the National Marine Fisheries Service to be environmentally responsible, and even included environmental use of dredge material to enhance fish habitat," said Vanselow. "It was a win-win situation for fish and for river users."

Jonathan Schlueter, executive vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association, is both concerned by the continued problems on the Snake River and by their implications for grain shipment on the entire Columbia-Snake system.

His association, which represents the farmers and grain exporters served by the river system, foresees far-reaching impacts on navigation, if the federal court decides in favor of the dredging opponents. "This is a threat to the future of the river system, although not particularly a surprise.

"It's one thing to worry about the 14-foot channel between Pasco and Lewiston, but there is the additional concern as to what this means for channel maintenance, anywhere," Schluter said. "If maintenance dredging is a concern on the "Snake, how come it isn't on the Columbia?

"How long will it be before (Judge Lasnik's) logic is extended to the lower channel, between Portland and Astoria?" said Schlueter. "No channel maintenance can be considered a given, and that makes it difficult for shippers of any sort to make decisions about rivers."

According to Dutch Meier, public information officer for the Walla Walla District, the Corps of Engineers will be left paying part or most of the cost of the scheduled channel maintenance contract, despite the cancellation.

"A preliminary plan for settlement will be presented with in the next 30 days," he said. "There are costs related to repositioning and setup which will have to be negotiated between the contractor and the government."

Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Snake River Channel Maintenance Canceled
Capital Press, January 10, 2003

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