Corps Again Nixes Lower Snake Dredging:
by Bill Rudolph
Northwest towboat operators have begun a fresh round of complaints that lower Snake River ports will soon be too silted up to keep grain barges or their companies afloat, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quietly announced that it will not dredge the navigation channel again this year.
Environmentalists citing concerns for fish health won an injunction last year in Seattle District Court to keep the Corps from implementing a 20-year dredging plan for the lower Snake, even though the National Marine Fisheries Service had approved the strategy. The judge in the case ruled that the Corps did not spend enough effort investigating alternatives to dredging.
Since then, the Corps has completed a supplemental environmental impact statement to deal with short-term dredging issues and called for public comment until Aug. 28, one day after the agency solicited a contract for the $1 million to $5 million project, which involved dredging the channel at nine sites. But the Corps has now cancelled the contract because it doesn't have enough time to settle administrative issues before December, when dredging was scheduled to begin, according to the Corps' EIS project manager Jack Sands.
Dixon Shaver, vice president of Shaver Transportation, a Portland-based towboat company that hauls grain barges from lower Snake ports, said he thinks the Corps received so many negative comments about the plan that it has decided to kill it for the time being. Shaver said it's a huge issue, since over 40 percent of U.S. export grain is shipped from Columbia River ports.
Sands agreed that responding to all the comments on the supplemental EIS before starting the project was part of the administrative burden, but was not the only reason for canceling the dredging contract this year. He said there were "other boxes that had to be checked as well," and it didn't seem feasible that requirements would be completed in time to start the dredging this winter.
Towboaters are also concerned that the Corps plans to operate the reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam at minimum operating pool (MOP) by next April, in accordance with mandates from the hydro BiOp. The minimum operating pool would lower water levels behind the dam by one foot. Shaver said that would put barges dangerously close to the channel's bottom, which is supposed to be maintained at 14 feet below the surface water level.
"At MOP, the channel would be less than 14 feet in some places," Shaver said. Sediment has built up so quickly that unless something is done about it, the channel will only be six feet deep at Lewiston in five years, he added.
Port of Lewiston Manager Dave Doeringsfeld said that may be a bit of an overstatement. But if the Corps waits another three or four years to dredge the channel, then "we can begin foreclosing navigation on the lower Snake."
At sister port Clarkston, in eastern Washington, officials are concerned that large tourist boats will be unable to dock unless dredging starts soon. For now, sawdust barges cannot be fully loaded for fear of hitting bottom.
But Sands said the MOP question hasn't yet been decided. "The Corps does not take an advocacy role about MOP," he said, noting that it could be more of a problem this year with the BiOp in remand. But he said the transportation industry has the right to take the reservoir elevation issue to the Technical Management Team that decides many operational questions about the hydro system during the fish migration season. Last year, the TMT approved the MOP-plus-one-foot operation to keep the barges floating.
Though his company has not yet resorted to "light loading" to get barges downstream, Shaver expected that would happen if the Corps lowered Lower Granite pool to minimum operating elevation. Light loading would evaporate the profit margin for moving the barges, which typically are towed downstream four at a time.
Every inch of grain barge cargo space given up to light loading equates to $3,200 worth of grain (707 bushels) that isn't shipped, according to a 2002 Coast Guard notice. In contrast, the Corps' economic analysis said the region saved $43 million annually by using barges instead of trucking the grain to downriver ports.
In its original 2002 lawsuit, the environmental coalition Save Our Wild Salmon said the Corps' dredging plan needlessly threatened to harm "imperiled salmon and steelhead and failed to study alternatives such as breaching the lower Snake dams or sluicing sediment downstream with partial reservoir drawdowns and boosted flows."
The court granted an injunction in December 2002, ruling that the NMFS biological opinion on the Corps proposal was "arbitrary and capricious" because it failed to ensure that the action would not adversely affect critical habitat of the ESA-listed fish.
The Corps has said it would dredge during the winter to keep from impacting migrating salmon stocks. But District Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that it had not sufficiently investigated a 10- to 20-foot drawdown to rule it out as an alternative to dredging.
Meanwhile, the Corps is continuing to develop its 20-year dredging plan, said project manager Sands. It is the document in which the agency will address many of the alternatives questioned by the court.
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