Feds Want 5 Years to Study
by Laura Berg
A comprehensive, systemwide EIS on Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) operations and fish recovery will take at least five years to complete, according to a June 3 court filing.
The U.S. Department of Justice proposed the five-year timeline in response to a May 4, 2016, federal court order requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, BuREC and BPA -- the so-called "action agencies" -- to conduct a new EIS that doesn't preclude consideration of breaching the Snake River dams.
Federal defendants, including NOAA Fisheries, may ask the court to adjust U.S. District Judge Michael Simon's March 1, 2018, deadline for a new biological opinion, according to the brief.
The 2014 supplemental BiOp was struck down by the May 4 ruling in National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. [3:01-cv-00640], which dates from 1993.
The agencies may need more time to "develop a longer-term strategy for the FCRPS that synchronizes the Endangered Species Act consultation with the information developed through the National Environmental Policy Act process," a footnote in the filing says.
The EIS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
If the proposed schedule is accepted, a new environmental analysis could be available by 2021. The first EIS on the FCRPS was completed in 1995.
The Department of Justice brief says that the first phase of the environmental analysis -- proposing the scope of issues to address -- will take about one year, which means the public could potentially see it sometime in 2017.
"At this point -- prior to initiating scoping -- the Action Agencies are contemplating approaches for analyzing an array of alternatives for different system operations for all fourteen FCRPS dams and structural modifications that have the potential to improve fish passage, including the breaching of one or more of the federal dams that currently provide for adult and juvenile fish passage," the June 3 brief states.
The federal agencies are also looking at habitat, predation management and hatchery actions as potential mitigation measures.
In addition to the scoping process, developing a NEPA impact statement involves writing a draft EIS, taking and responding to public comment, issuing a final EIS, and preparing a record of decision.
The proposed five-year timetable is based on four recent BuRec and Corps experiences. An EIS for the Central Valley Project in California took almost four years, and the Klamath Facilities Removal EIS took nearly three years to be finalized although the associated record of decision is still pending.
The two other EIS processes -- the 1995 FCRPS operation review EIS and the 2002 Lower Snake River EIS -- took six and half and seven years, respectively.
The brief noted that the two studies outside the Columbia River Basin covered smaller geographic areas and involved fewer projects and issues than will an EIS for the FCRPS.
Conservation groups, fishing businesses, the State of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe -- the plaintiffs in the litigation that triggered the new EIS requirement -- have until June 17 to respond to the federal defendants' proposed schedule.
It's anticipated that Judge Simon will tell the parties in July how much time the agencies have to complete a new impact statement.
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