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Challenge Seeks to Halt Snake River Dredging

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, November 13, 2002

The lower Snake River once again is a battlefield for environmental groups and the Army Corps of Engineers, which are locked in a tussle over dredging of the shipping channel between Pasco and Lewiston.

Corps officials planned to start maintenance dredging of the river Dec. 15. However, the National Wildlife Foundation, Earthjustice and other groups are challenging the plans as environmentally unsound and are asking a federal judge in Seattle to halt dredging.

The Corps plans to file court papers before the end of the month opposing the slowdown. "Our goal is to continue dredging this winter," said Fred Disheroon, spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Still, the suit has dampened spirits in the Northwest. "It doesn't bode well for this year," said Steve Frasher, president of Vancouver, Wash.-based Tidewater Barge Lines, the dominant shipping company on the Columbia-Snake system.

Frasher said barges should be able to make it down the lower Snake in 2003, even if the Corps is prevented from dredging. However, he's concerned about what could be substantial economic penalties if his barges have to start loading lighter so they don't sit as deep in the water. He said each inch of draft that grain barges must give up represents $3,200 in product they can't carry.

"I think I would be concerned about the continual attempt to erode the benefits that people can derive from this area," Frasher said. "Management of the water systems of the Pacific Northwest ... allows this area to produce products for the world that the world can afford."

Environmental groups, however, charge the Corps is "ignoring federal law, sound science and common sense economics by dismissing alternatives to dredging that would protect the Snake River, save taxpayers money and meet local economic needs."

Among their contentions are that the Corps failed to look at a wide variety of options to dredging and levee construction.

The groups want the Corps to consider alternatives that would reduce the need for dredging, for example, by promoting healthier streamside habitat to control erosion. Also, they suggest using heavy spring runoff flows to flush sediment downstream "naturally."

They also charge the Corps with overstating the benefits of dredging and understating its costs.

"This is typical Corps -- its analysis is a charade and it's hoping no one will notice," said Bert Bowler of Idaho Rivers United, one of the litigants. "The Corps is simply pushing its way forward without regard to science or economics."

One Corps document addressed challenges posted by environmental groups, some of which support long-running efforts to breach the four lower Snake dams, which would eliminate barging on the river.

"The range of alternatives meets the project purpose and need," the Corps said. "Nondredging and reduced dredging alternatives were considered. The Corps was unable to identify any nondredging alternatives that would preclude the need for dredging."

In late September, the Corps announced plans to perform routine maintenance dredging this winter on the lower Snake River and McNary reservoir on the Columbia River.

The announcement followed completion of the Corps Walla Walla District's 20-year plan for managing dredged material. The study, which took four years and cost $3.5 million, includes a recommended alternative that combines maintenance dredging and raising levees in some areas.

Some dredge materials would be used to create shallow water sandbars along shorelines of Lower Granite reservoir.

"The creation of this habitat has the potential to restore some of the conditions of the lower Snake River prior to dam construction and is expected to provide benefits to some of the salmon species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act by providing resting and rearing habitat for juvenile salmon prior to their downstream migration to the ocean," said Jack Sands, a Corps official.

Attorney Todd True of Earthjustice, however, was not impressed by the Corps' effort to create artificial salmon habitat. "Saying dredging and dumping the spoils back into the river will be helpful for fish is like saying clear-cutting is good for trees," he said.

Mike Lee
Challenge Seeks to Halt Snake River Dredging
Tri-City Herald, November 13, 2002

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