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Oral Arguments in Federal Court Over
Lower Snake River Dredging Set for Feb. 2

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 29, 2016

The season for on-request lockage is fast approaching on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo) Oral arguments will be presented to a federal court on Feb. 2 regarding litigation over dredging operations on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington.

U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled in January 2015 that dredging of the Snake River could proceed as planned for the sake of navigation safety and economy. The court found that the benefits of dredging outweigh alleged harms that might result from disturbances to the river corridor. But the case proceeds, with the plaintiffs arguing that the dredging program, and the processes leading to it, violate federal laws.

A motion for summary judgement was filed last May in Robart's Western Washington District Court even though dredging work on the river was already completed. The plaintiffs include Idaho Rivers United, the Washington Wildlife Federation, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Clearwater and the Nez Perce Tribes. The plaintiffs contended that "after nine years of evaluation, the Corps has produced an (environmental impact statement and records of decision) that allow it to dredge immediately and into the foreseeable future, while again pushing an evaluation of alternatives into the future."

The National Environmental Policy Act, they say, requires the Corps to "objectively and rigorously explore a reasonable range of alternatives, to take a hard look at the effects of actions and the context in which they occur and to evaluate costs and benefits of its actions and alternatives."

The motion asserts that the Corps violated NEPA by failing to consider adequate alternatives to dredging, by failing to take a hard look at impacts to Pacific lamprey and by failing to consider impacts from climate change on the Snake River drainage.

"The heart of the problem is that the Corps concluded that dredging was the only measure to address accumulated sediment but did not list, let alone consider, any other sediment measure or combination of measures as an alternative for its 2015 action. Dredging is aimed at maintaining a 14-foot navigation channel, and the action agencies maintain dredging is necessary every three-to-five years at known problem sites.

The plaintiffs maintain that by the Corps' own admission, "it is entirely predictable that the Corps will find itself faced with at least one self-created 'immediate need' to address accumulated sediment in the next three-to-five years because the agency is not evaluating other long-term alternatives to dredging.

Another major claim in the motion is that the Corps presented an incomplete and misleading picture of the costs and benefits of continued dredging maintenance of the navigation channel.

"This requirement is especially important where, as here, economic benefits are the sole justification for the project and the agency's analysis of alternatives," the motion states

"While the Corps asserts that it had no obligation to provide an economic analysis, it provides a short and oversimplified calculation to rationalize its continued channel maintenance that dramatically overstates the benefits of maintaining the channel and understates the costs," it continues.

The plaintiffs say that the Corps used a 2002 estimate to conclude that shipping by barge results in a cost savings over $8.45 per ton over truck or rail transportation, and that figure was multiplied by about 3 million tons shipped annually on the lower Snake River. The Corps estimated the resulting economic benefit of maintaining the channel is about $25 million per year, compared to annual channel maintenance costs that average $1 million to $5 million a year.

The plaintiffs maintain that the costs of shipping by rail or truck were overestimated by the Corps, that the costs of maintaining the navigation lane are underestimated, and that the 2002 economic analysis is outdated and does not measure up to NEPA requirements.

The plaintiffs also contend that the economic analysis applied to freight shipping on the entire lower Snake River corridor, rather than to the limited, uppermost portion of Lower Granite Reservoir where most dredging occurs.

"That is, nearly all of the costs of dredging are due to maintaining the part of the river farthest inland, reached by the fewest vessels, resulting in a marked overstatement of benefits," the motion states.

The plaintiffs have said they expect the Corps and its supporters will assert that the legal challenge is moot because the Corps has already completed its 2015 "immediate need" dredging operations this year. But they say the court should dismiss that argument, because what is being challenged is an "indefinite framework" to maintain the Lower Snake River navigation channel.

"This program will, by definition, be used repeatedly and regularly to justify the Corps' actions for years to come," the motion for summary judgement states.

The Corps has filed documents in the court saying the complaint and preliminary injunction motion that was subsequently rejected wrongly accuse the federal agency of ignoring alternatives to dredging.

The Corps is obliged by congressional mandate to maintain at desired depths and widths the navigation channel created to facilitate commercial barge and ship traffic up the Columbia and Snake rivers from the Pacific Ocean to the Idaho-Washington border at Lewiston and Clarkston.

"With its purpose and need established, the Corps turned to its Programmatic Sediment Management Plan to identify reasonable alternatives for the Current Immediate Need Action. The plan identifies two management options when an immediate need action is triggered for navigation. The first is changes in reservoir operations. But those measures are only temporary – sediment continues to accumulate and the Corps can only raise the reservoir so high given design and structural limitations.

"Thus, the second option for a navigational immediate need action is to remove the impairing sediment," the federal filing says.

Related Sites:
Judge Rejects Preliminary Injunction To Halt 'Immediate Needs' Lower Snake Dredging by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 1/9/15
Six Week Lower Snake Dredging Starts Next Week, First Time Since 2006; Sediment To Be Used For Salmon Habitat by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 1/9/15
Lower Snake Dredging Opponents: Loss Of Revenues Does Not Out Weigh Irreparable Environmental Injury by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 12/13/14
Will Lower Snake Dredging Harm Lamprey? In Court Filings Feds, Ports Say Such Claims 'Speculative' by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 12/19/14
Groups File To Halt Lower Snake Dredging; Inland Ports Counter, 'Risk Serious Accident Could Occur' by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 12/5/14
Long-Term Sediment Management Plan For Lower Snake River Approved; Maintenance Dredging Set by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 11/21/14
Lack Of Dredging Behind Lower Granite Forces Balancing Act For Fish, Navigation, Flood Control by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 4/8/11
Information Meeting In Lewiston Highlights Views On Draft Lower Snake Sediment Management Plan by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 1/25/13

Oral Arguments in Federal Court Over Lower Snake River Dredging Set for Feb. 2
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 29, 2016

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