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Corps Supplemental EIS to Look at Snake Dredging Options

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 27, 2003

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced that it intends to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement for a Snake River dredging plan it issued last year that drew fire from tribes, conservation and fishing groups and a federal judge.

The SEIS will take another look at options that might be available -- over the long term -- to reduce the amount of sediment that clogs the commercial navigation channel that the Corps has historically maintained by dredging.

The Corps also is at work on an analysis of dredging activities it would like to do this coming winter. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik last year issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting navigation channel dredging on the lower Snake River that was scheduled to begin last Dec. 15. The order, issued just days before the work was to begin, said the Corps had failed to resolve major legal, scientific and environmental issues in developing the long-term strategy and EIS.

"The court still has the authority over dredging in the Snake River," said Jack Sands, Corps project manager. The Corps' "record of decision" on the long-term dredging strategy was withdrawn as a result of the judge's decision and the parties agreed to stay court proceedings pending resolution of the issues Lasnik identified.

Sands said the completed analysis of the proposed dredging activities for the coming winter would be offered for the court's consideration.

That one-year plan was to dredge, between Dec. 15 and Feb. 15, the navigation channel at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, several port facilities in the Lewiston-Clarkston area, several recreation facilities in Lower Granite and Little Goose reservoirs, navigation lock approaches to Lower Granite and Lower Monumental Dams, and other areas.

The July 2002 Final Dredged Material Management Plan (DMMP) EIS issued by the Corps' Walla Walla District addressed the programmatic approach the Corps planned to use over the next 20 years to maintain the navigation channel within the Walla Walla District in the McNary Reservoir on the Columbia River and lower Snake River Reservoirs, Sands said.

"This supplement will reorganize and clarify information already included in the DMMP/EIS, expand the discussions and evaluations of measures considered in the DMMP/EIS, incorporate new information and data collected subsequent to the issuance of the DMMP/EIS, and modify alternatives, as needed, including the preferred alternative," Sands said.

The EPA's Region 10 office, which was a cooperating agency for the original DMMP/EIS, will also be a cooperating agency for the supplemental effort.

"The SEIS will address measures, alternatives, and impacts on a programmatic level, but will not address site-specific actions. However, the SEIS will present the coordination and environmental review steps the Corps will take after its completion with regard to site-specific actions which could follow. The SEIS will also continue to include input from a local, interagency sediment management group formed under the Northwest Regional Dredging Team. After public review of the final SEIS, the Corps intends to sign a new Record of Decision for the programmatic plan," Sands said.

The Corps wants input on the scope of the SEIS but does not plan to conduct public scooping meetings for the DMMP-SEIS. However, the Corps has invited federal, state, and local agencies, Indian tribes, and other interested organizations and parties to provide input by July 7, 2003.

The other document now being prepared by the district is a "Supplemental Analyses and Information Report" to the July 2002 final DMMP/EIS. The SAIR will help the Corps determine whether it is appropriate to conduct maintenance dredging next winter. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is assisting in the effort, according to Sands.

"The SAIR will include a biological assessment and any other documentation and analysis related to dredging proposed for winter 2003-2004. The areas proposed for dredging in 2003-2004 are the same as the areas proposed for dredging in 2002-2003 and are described in the July 2002 DMMP/EIS," Sands said. "We'll distribute the SAIR for a 30-day public review this summer and will be able to provide interested parties with a copy either on paper, CD or through our web site."

The motion filed in the lawsuit in November of last year says that the Corps' original EIS included four options that are virtually identical, except that the agency varies the location for the dredge spoil deposits. All four alternatives include 20 years of dredging and substantial increases in the levees in Lewiston, Idaho, the lawsuit says.

The court agreed that the Corps' EIS does not consider alternatives to dredging and levee construction that could potentially achieve its barge navigation goals on the Snake River.

Federal and state agencies, including the EPA, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as several tribes and conservation groups, had urged the Corps to consider alternatives that would have reduced the need for dredging.

The plaintiffs in the case said, for example, the Corps could reduce the amount of sediment flowing into the Snake River by promoting healthier streamside habitat that would naturally control erosion. A recent study indicated that implementing existing programs could reduce the amount of sediment flowing into Lower Granite reservoir by 37 percent, the groups say.

Similarly, the Corps was urged to consider using high spring flows to "flush" sediments and juvenile salmon downstream naturally.

The court said that serious legal questions were raised by the Corps' failure to consider such alternatives in the EIS.

The court also found deficiencies in the favorable "biological opinion" offered on the project by 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 SEIS is intended to "respond to concerns in the region," Sands said. That includes the consideration of streamside restoration and dam operational measures that could result in a reduced need for dredging. The district has requested the authorization to do a study to identify major sources of sedimentation.

The district hopes to complete a draft SEIS by the end of the calendar year that can be released for public comment. It is possible that a final document would be approved and endorsed with a record of decision by next spring, Sands said.

The SAIR now being developed will, for one thing, explain "why some of those alternatives would not work as a short-term solution" for current navigation woes and potentially make a case for maintenance dredging, Sands said.

"Our position all along is that you don't have to complete a long-term plan to do maintenance dredging," said Fred Disheroon, special litigation counsel for the U.S. Justice Department.

Legal counsel for the National Wildlife Federation's Seattle office say they are confused by the Corps' announced strategy. It appears that the agency will do the judge's basic bidding via the SEIS, which Jan Hasselman said is pleasing.

"We hope they will do a thorough evaluation of the options we have proposed," he said. Hasselman said, however, he is leery of the SAIR process and apparent goal of dredging this winter before the SEIS is complete.

"They're going to take the harmful action before evaluating all of the options," Hasselman said. He faulted the Corps for ignoring the options suggested by the conservation groups and others during a process that began in 1998.

"If they had done it right the first time we wouldn't be in this box," he said.

Hasselman said that it is likely that the court would be asked to intervene again if the Corps decides to dredge before the SEIS is complete.

Corps officials in late July of last year released its final report on the 20-year plan. Brig. Gen. David A. Fastabend, the Corps' Northwestern Division commander, signed the Record of Decision Sept. 27.

The ROD completed the four-year, $3.5 million study with a recommended alternative that combines maintenance dredging, "beneficial use" of dredged materials, and raising levees.

Among the beneficial uses would be the creation of fish habitat, the Corps says. That shallow-water habitat would be accomplished by using bottom-dump barges to transport and deposit the dredged material. Finer sands and silts will be used for a base and coarser sands, gravels and cobble would be placed over that base to provide a favorable substrate for juvenile salmonid rearing and resting.

The Corps attempts to maintain a 14-foot deep and 250-foot wide navigation channel through the reservoirs. These reservoirs are part of an inland navigation system that provides slackwater navigation from the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore., to port facilities on the Snake and Clearwater rivers in Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho.

The Corps has not been able to dredge the channel since the winter of 1997-98. The Corps has in recent times kept the reservoir levels about a foot higher than is considered optimal to allow the draft needed by the barges carrying farm produce and other products up and down the river.

The Corps put together an interim dredging plan in 2000. But the National Marine Fisheries Service did not agree with the Corps' findings that the interim dredging would have insignificant impacts to listed fish. A NMFS letter requesting further consultation expressed concerns about potential loss and disturbance of habitat from dredging and dredge disposal and water quality impacts caused by the "remobilization of sediments."

The NMFS last year issued a "no jeopardy" biological opinion regarding the 20-year plan's potential impact on salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Port officials and others dependent on the channel to transport wood and agricultural products and other goods down river have said that the mounting sediment in the navigation channel threatens inland economies. Barge loads were becoming limited as more and more high spots emerged along the channel, reducing the amount of draft for the vessels. Port officials have also said that recreational opportunities were also becoming hampered because of silted in ports, marinas and recreation areas.

The request for a preliminary conjunction was filed by the National Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho filed papers with the Court supporting the coalition.

Related Sites:
Walla Walla District:

Barry Espenson
Corps Supplemental EIS to Look at Snake Dredging Options
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 27, 2003

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