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Corps Submits Documents
to Get Lower Snake Dredging Going

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 25, 2004

With the documents now in hand that Corps of Engineers officials feel will validate a winter 2004/2005 Snake River dredging plan, federal attorneys are set to again approach the judge whose injunction has prohibited the shipping channel cleaning for the past two years on environmental grounds.

Federal agencies say the one-year, stop-gap plan has the potential to benefit, in the long term, salmon that use the river with minimal short-term harm. The Corps says dredging the lower Snake River navigation channel and inland ports is necessary to address safety and economic concerns.

"The Corps is committed to care for the survival of the protected species, serve the congressionally authorized purposes of the navigation system and provide predictability of water resources," Brig. Gen. William T. Grisoli, Northwestern Division commander, said this week as the Corps announced its "record of decision" to proceed with the dredging. The next step will be for the Corps to submit its decision documents to the U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington, in Seattle.

The Corps says it recognizes, and has addressed, environmental concerns associated with sediment removal. A biological opinion issued in March by the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the one-year dredging action would not jeopardize species listed under the Endangered Species Act or destroy or adversely modify their critical habitat. Those species endangered Snake River sockeye and threatened Snake River steelhead, spring/summer chinook and fall chinook.

The Corps also got a letter dated June 15, 2004, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stating that its 2001 determination remains valid -- that the planned dredging "may affect but not likely to adversely affect" listed bull trout and bald eagles.

"We'll be drafting some kind a motion to file with the court asking that the judge either dissolve the injunction or tell us it doesn't apply," Fred Disheroon, U.S. Justice Department attorney, said Thursday.

Disheroon said the injunction may not apply to the one-year plan. The December 2002 order by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik stopped implementation of the Corps' newly issued 20-year Dredged Material Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement.

"The injunction was issued in conjunction with a different proposal," Disheroon said. The Corps had hoped to launch dredging in 2002-2003 following a first-year strategy contained in the 20-year DMMP but the court injunction ordered the agency to cure legal, scientific and environmental flaws in the long-term strategy and its Environmental Impact Statement. That work is still under way.

Opponents of the dredging operation say, however, that the 2004-2005 plan is essentially, the same as the 2002-2003 dredging proposal.

"It's exactly that first year of the 20-year plan that they are proposing to move ahead," said Jan Hasselman of the National Wildlife Federation.

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 20-year plan. The plaintiffs filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief to halt the dredging and on Dec. 12, 2002, the court granted the plaintiffs' motion.

Lasnik also found deficiencies in a favorable NMFS "biological opinion" on the project. 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 past 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 continues work on the long-term plan.

The November 2002 motion filed by the conservation and fishing groups claimed 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 said.

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.

The plaintiffs 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 showed that implementing existing programs could reduce the amount of sediment flowing into Lower Granite reservoir by 37 percent, the groups said.

The Corps was also urged to consider using high spring flows to "flush" sediments and juvenile salmon downstream naturally.

Hasselman said that the Corps is again attempting implement the first-year strategy "without complying with what he (Lasnik) originally said. There's no reason they shouldn't have a new 20-year plan" that explores alternative actions.

The Corps says it is attempting to address serious and immediate problems with the 2004-2005 plan. The shipping channels have not been dredged to their approved 14-foot depth since the winter of 1998-1999.

"Our surveys show the sediment build-up continues to increase, especially in areas near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, resulting in impairments within the navigation system," according to the record of decision. "The area below Clearwater River mile 2 is filled in to the point that it is very difficult to turn barges or ships around without dragging on the river bottom. The navigation industry and the Coast Guard have documented grounding of vessels, in this area and others.

"Economic costs to the region are rising as the navigation industry tries to adapt to the current conditions. The increasing hazards are hindering the intended use of this Federal navigation system and this one-year maintenance dredging activity is necessary to alleviate safety concerns, possible risks to life and property, and economic impacts."

The proposal is to remove about 289,200 cubic yards of sediment from the navigation channel and from the ports of Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho. The lower Snake navigation channel cuts through the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite reservoirs. The Corps says the channel is as shallow as 8 feet deep in places. A typical four-barge carrying grain or other products drafts up to 13.5 feet.

The proposed dredging would take place between Dec. 15 and March 1, the time of the year when the fewest salmon or steelhead are present in the river.

The dredged materials would be disposed of in-water in the Lower Granite reservoir at Knoxway Canyon. The Corps says the sediment placement is designed to create "beneficial uses" for fish and wildlife by creating a bench that will be planted with vegetation to create riparian habitat and to create shallow and mid-depth habitat for juvenile salmon.

During an airing of the 2004-2005 proposal this past winter the Corps sent letters to the Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Yakama tribes inquiring whether there was an interest in government-to-government consultation. The Nez Perce Tribe said yes and consultations were held on March 9 and June 8, according to the Corps. The Colville tribes requested a briefing.

"Both tribes have indicated they still have concerns over aspects of the proposed project including such issues as sediment quality and potential contamination of the water column, and potential adverse impacts to ESA-Listed species and their habitat, according to a Corps summary of its decision. "In addition, the Nez Perce Tribe has voiced strong concern about the cumulative impacts of the proposed project when considered in combination with other planned or on-going projects or operations within the Snake River system."

The NOAA BiOp concludes that the dredging "would cause transient effects on Critical Habitat…. Turbidity and the resuspension of contaminants, will occur largely concurrent with and local to dredging and in-water disposal activities. The proposed action would also reduce the availability of food items during the spring and summer and following dredging. Longer term adverse effects are not anticipated. The COE proposes to create shallow water and riparian habitat that would be expected to improve food abundance, diversity, and distribution as early as the year following dredging."

"Overall, the direct and indirect effects attributable to the proposed action are not expected to degrade the environmental baseline to the extent that the survival and recovery of listed salmonids would be compromised," the BiOp says.

Related Sites:
Snake River dredging:

Barry Espenson
Corps Submits Documents to Get Lower Snake Dredging Going
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 25, 2004

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