Corps Hopes to Go Forwardby Barry Espenson
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to make a decision by early April to move ahead with long-delayed plans for dredging lower the lower Snake River navigation channel and inland ports.
The signing of a Corps decision document will trigger a court appearance by the Corps and U.S. Justice Department attorneys. It is also likely to prompt a response from the fishing and conservation groups that sought and won an injunction that has stopped the dredging project last winter and this winter.
"Technically what we would have to do is go back and ask the judge to dissolve the injunction," said Fred Disheroon, Justice Department. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit will likely ask to reinstate the lawsuit, which was stayed by agreement of all parties while the Corps and fellow defendant NOAA Fisheries sought to address legal and scientific issues cited by the judge.
"I think that there's a decent chance that the court will be called on to consider these legal issues," Jan Hasselman, National Wildlife Federation, said if the Corps decides to move ahead.
The National Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Seattle, Wash., on Nov. 4, 2002 challenging the newly issued 20-year Dredged Material Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. The plaintiffs filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief to halt the dredging. On Dec. 12, the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction pending a full hearing on the merits of the case.
The Corps had hoped to launch dredging in 2002-2003 following a first-year prescription in the 20-year DMMP but the court injunction ordered a shoring up of legal, scientific and environmental flaws in the long-term strategy and its Environmental Impact Statement.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik also found deficiencies in the favorable "biological opinion" offered on the project by the NOAA Fisheries (then the National Marine Fisheries Service), the agency responsible for protecting salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. The court said that NMFS had failed to ensure that dredging would not destroy critical habitat for fall chinook salmon, as required by the law.
The Corps last year produced a supplemental environmental analysis it hoped would cover dredging this winter during a Dec. 15 to March 1 window but called off the plan last September. It cited inadequate time to address public comments and complete administrative steps necessary to implement the plan.
The 2004-2005 plan again attempts to implement a short-term fix for navigation problems while the Corps works on the long-term plan.
Navigation interests continue to ask for action, citing damages caused because sediment-filled channels have limited access to inland ports. The ports of Portland, Lewiston, Clarkton, the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association and the Idaho Grain Producers all submitted comments in January in support of the 2004-2005 plans.
The critics remain critics. Comments filed before the January deadline from the National Wildlife Federation, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission say the Corps has done nothing to address problems noted in two earlier manifestations.
"The tribe believes that the legal flaws identified in the National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service case must be resolved before the Corps can or should proceed with dredging the lower Snake River," wrote David Cummings, an attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe.
CRITFC said a more thorough technical review of non-dredging options such as sediment erosion control, drawdown and flushing of sediments, light loading of barges, and exploration of other means of transportation are needed.
"In addition there is a vital need for a thorough and quantitative examination of impact to ESA listed fall chinook, steelhead and their critical habitat from proposed dredging actions," CRITFC said. The tribal organization also said that Corps actions during the past year to operate Snake River reservoirs above minimum operating pool is a violation of the NOAA Fisheries hydrosystem biological opinion that is intended to protect listed fish.
Comments from the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association cited both safety and economic concerns in urging that the project move forward. The 14-foot channel has not been cleared since the winter of 1997-98.
"Of primary concern: the lack of channel maintenance could cause boats and tows to ground on sand bars and jeopardize the safety of their loads and crews," Glenn Vanselow, PNWA executive director, said.
Vanselow also said "the record should show that there is significant economic impact of the failure to maintain the navigation cannel at authorized depth. In a typical a year, a billion dollars worth of cargo moves on barges on the Snake River. The lack of channel maintenance in recent years and subsequent light-loading of barges has also put the region at an economic disadvantage in bringing goods to world markets. With each foot of draft on grain barges translating to over $38,000 worth of product, any lost clearance in the shipping channel is significant to farmers competing in a world economy."
The one-year dredging plan is intended to "get us back to the point that we're not having the problems with the navigation that we're having," said Jack Sands, the Corps' dredging study manager.
The Corps has judged that the dredging and disposal of dredge materials "may affect and would likely adversely effect" only individuals of the listed anadromous fish that come and go through the project areas. The dredging is planned at a time when few salmon or steelhead are in the river.
Those impacts "would not be enough to jeopardize the species," Sands said. NOAA Fisheries is expected to produce within the next few weeks a biological opinion making that determination. The Corps is also awaiting water quality certification from the state of Washington. Listed species that can be found in the area include Snake River sockeye, fall chinook, spring/summer chinook and steelhead, as well as bull trout.
Sands admitted that the Corps "has not made a lot of changes in the plan itself." But it is the Corps' intent to provide to the court with additional information to better explain the background in support of the agency's scientific arguments and decisions.
The Corps has already launched into analysis of proposed alternatives, such as those of the tribes, but options such as upstream land management to reduce sedimentation into the rivers "may have more relevance in the longer term," Sands said.
Corps planners held a public meeting Wednesday to present information on the proposed 2004-2005 plan.
The purpose of the maintenance dredging is to restore the authorized depth of the federal navigation channel, remove sediment from port areas and provide for recreational use. The Corps proposes to use the dredged material to provide a planting bench for the establishment of riparian habitat; and create shallow and mid-depth habitat for juvenile salmon.
The proposed dredged material disposal would provide about 1.3 acres to be used as a planting bench for riparian habitat and about four acres of shallow water habitat for juvenile salmon.
The Corps proposes maintenance dredging activities at nine locations in the Lower Granite and Little Goose reservoirs in Washington and Idaho. Topics covered during the meeting included in-river sediment transportation, effects of dredging on fish listed under the Endangered Species Act, water quality provisions and the status of the Programmatic Dredged Material Management Plan/Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.
Snake River dredging: www.nww.usace.army.mil/maintenance_dredging/#public
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