Tugboat Operators Seekby Mike O'Bryant
Citing an increase in dangerous shoaling in lower Snake River navigation channel, operators of commercial tugboats asked the Technical Management Team this week to allow pool levels at lower Snake River dams to remain one foot higher than minimum operating pool (MOP).
That foot would give barges and the tugboat operators the additional depth they need to safely navigate that section of river upstream to Idaho ports and to safely enter and leave locks at Snake River dams.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn't dredged the lower Snake River navigation channel since the winter of 1997-98. A Seattle-based U.S. District Court judge in December 2002 issued an injunction prohibiting the dredging.
This is the second year running the Columbia River Towboat Association (CRTA) has asked TMT to approve retaining the reservoirs at MOP plus one foot. They asked and received approval in 2003. TMT is likely to make its decision at its next meeting the morning of March 17.
"Since the last time we met the Snake River has not been dredged," said John Pigott, chairman of the CRTA, which represents nine tug and barge companies operating along the Columbia and Snake rivers. "We still have been unable to reach an agreement with all the parties for responsible dredging of the river."
He said in a letter to TMT that shoaling is most prevalent near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers (at Lewiston, Idaho). However, significant shoaling is also occurring in the approaches to each dam and particularly in the upper reaches of the Lower Granite reservoir where a passenger vessel recently grounded near Clarkston, Wash. Due to that incident, the CRTA may ask for MOP plus 1.5 feet in the Lower Granite Dam reservoir.
The 14 million tons of agricultural products (4 million tons on the Snake) the inland barge industry carries down that channel provides a significant boost to the Northwest economy, he added. The industry supports 49,000 family-waged jobs. The permanent loss of one foot of depth equates to a loss of 1,000 jobs and a two-foot loss "would likely eliminate the most cost-competitive transportation alternative available," the letter said.
"All we can do from our side is to maintain this trade corridor as it was intended to be used," Pigott said. "But, the reality is we're running out of water."
He said the situation is analogous to an environmental imperative causing the shortening of an airport runway. Everything is still done to serve the public, but the safety margin continues to be eroded.
"There is continuing siltation in the river and one day a river pilot will need more runway than is available," Pigott said.
Up to that point, problems wouldn't show. "But, don't view the fact we operate safely as representing a diminished threat. Everyday the channel isn't dredged, our risk factor goes up."
Although it was contrary to the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion of the Federal Columbia River Power System, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kept the reservoir elevations at least at MOP plus one foot through the summer in 2003, anticipating that it would dredge the navigation channel later in the year. However, an agreement with all parties wasn't reached last year and the dredging, which must occur in the work window from Dec. 15 to March 1, didn't occur.
"If this situation is not resolved, we in the CRTA fear that the result could be devastating to the environment," Pigott wrote. "Further, we respectfully caution policy makers that if the system is allowed to continue to degrade, the welfare of 49,000 families will likely suffer. We also feel strongly that the lack of maintenance dredging is unfairly increasing the risk to the lives and safety of our crews."
The original lawsuit was filed against the Corps 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.
It charged that the Corps' Environmental Impact Statement on its long-term dredging strategy includes 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.
Technical Management Team: www.nwd-wc.usace.army.mil/TMT/index.html
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