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Groups Sue to Stop Snake River Dredging Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 15, 2002

A coalition of conservation and fishing organizations asked a federal court Nov. 7 to halt a dredging plan in lower Snake River barging channels until a variety of legal and scientific issues can be resolved.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dismisses alternatives to dredging that the plaintiffs say would better protect the Snake River. That goes contrary to federal law, sound science, and common sense economics, the groups say. The coalition also argues that other alternatives would better use taxpayer money and meet local economic needs, according to court papers.

The lawsuit was filed 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.

The parties asked a Seattle federal judge to enforce a time out on dredging until the issues can be resolved. The groups have asked the court for a hearing on their motion before dredging begins on Dec. 15.

"Congress charges the Corps with maintaining the lower Snake River navigation channels in a way that makes sense for the environment and taxpayers," said Jan Hasselman, counsel at NWF's Northwestern Natural Resource Center in Seattle. "The agency owes it to Americans to look at every possible way to get that job done."

Corps officials in late July released a "Dredged Material Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement" for lower Snake River and McNary reservoirs. Brig. Gen. David A. Fastabend, the Corps' Northwestern Division commander, signed the Record of Decision Sept. 27, triggering the long-term strategy managing dredged material removed from the four reservoirs on the lower Snake River and McNary reservoir on the Columbia River.

The Record of Decision completes the four-year, $3.5 million study with a recommended alternative that combines maintenance dredging, "beneficial use" of dredged materials, and raising levees. The Corps developed the plan for the navigation channel maintenance in cooperation with the EPA.

Among those beneficial uses will likely be the creation of fish habitat, the Corps says. That shallow-water habitat would be accomplished by using bottom-dump barges to transport and deposit the dredged material. Finer sands and silts will be used for a base and coarser sands, gravels and cobble would be placed over that base to provide a favorable substrate for juvenile salmonid rearing and resting.

"Saying that dredging and dumping the spoils back in the river will be helpful for fish is like saying that clear-cutting is good for trees," said Todd True of Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "The Corps and the public know better."

"The best that could be said about this theory is that it is speculative," Hasselman said of the plan to create shallow water habitat with the dredge spoils.

The Corps' first dredging activity under the plan is proposed for this winter during a Dec. 15-Feb. 15 work window. The Corps plans to dredge the navigation channel at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, several port facilities in the Lewiston-Clarkston area, several recreation facilities in Lower Granite and Little Goose reservoirs, navigation lock approaches to Lower Granite and Lower Monumental Dams, and other areas.

The lawsuit charges that the Corps' EIS 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 says.

"There's a catalogue of horrors that are likely to occur," Hasselman said of the dredging plan.

"There's a certainty that fish will be killed" by the dredging activity itself, he said of juvenile Chinook overwintering in the reservoirs, as well as adult steelhead. Hasselman also said that the disturbance of benthic organisms could break a link in the food chain that takes nature a long time to repair. And the activity will likely remobilize toxic elements that have settled into the soil.

The groups claim the Corps' EIS ignores alternatives to dredging and levee construction that would achieve its barge navigation goals in the Snake River and also provide better environmental and taxpayer safeguards.

"This is typical Corps -- its analysis is a charade and it's hoping no one will notice," said Bert Bowler of Idaho Rivers United. "Instead of taking the good advice of other state and federal agencies, the Corps is simply pushing its way forward without regard to science or economics."

Federal and state agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as several tribes and conservation groups, had urged the Corps to consider alternatives that would have reduced the need for dredging.

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 -- which was cited in the Corps' EIS for the project -- indicated that implementing existing programs could reduce the amount of sediment flowing into Lower Granite reservoir by 37 percent.

Similarly, the Corps was urged to consider using high spring flows to flush sediments and juvenile salmon downstream naturally. The Corps also ignored those recommendations, the groups say.

"It's not a bunch of wingnuts that are coming up with these theories," Hasselman said.

Such activities could, at the very least, "reduce the extent and the frequency of the dredging," Hasselman said.

He said some have speculated that the lawsuit is a step toward another goal long held by the groups -- the breaching of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington. The Corps this year also issued its final decision regarding the need to improve juvenile salmon passage, and survival, though that part of the federal hydrosystem. It will focus on mechanical means of improving fish passage.

Likewise a NMFS 2000 biological opinion aims to improve survival via hydro operations and capital improvements -- and "off-site" improvements to habitat, hatchery practices and harvest. Both processes opted against dam breaching.

Hasselman said the federal agencies "promised to do absolutely everything else" to improve fish survival.

"What we're trying to do is to get them to keep their word." Hasselman said. "We're not trying to hit a home run."

The Corps, and the U.S. Department of Justice, this week began their review of the coalition lawsuit. The federal government's response to the lawsuit it due later this month.

"We don't think there's much merit to it," said Fred Disheroon, Justice Department special litigation counsel. "We think we have good answers for everything they said."

"They took this out of context," Disheroon said of the lawsuit. He called the 20-year plan and associated environmental impact statement "programmatic" documents intended to guide planning.

"All they (the Corps) are proposing to do is dredge under this one contract" this winter, Disheroon said. He said additional NEPA consultation and documentation would be required for activities in future years.

Dredging in the area has been stalled since the winter of 1997-98. The Corps attempts to maintain a 14-foot deep and 250-foot wide navigation channel through the reservoirs. These reservoirs are part of an inland navigation system that provides slackwater navigation from the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore., to port facilities on the Snake and Clearwater rivers in Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho.

The Corps put together an interim dredging plan in 2000. But the National Marine Fisheries Service did not agree with the Corps' findings that the interim dredging would have insignificant impacts to listed fish. A NMFS letter requesting further consultation expressed concerns about potential loss and disturbance of habitat from dredging and dredge disposal and water quality impacts caused by the "remobilization of sediments."

The Corps decided last year to forgo an interim plan and concentrate on completing the 20-year EIS -- more comprehensive analysis than had been conducted for the interim process.

The NMFS this year issued a "no jeopardy" biological opinion regarding the plan's potential impact on salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The court papers also say that the Corps dramatically overstates the benefits and underestimates the costs of this project.

"Given the significant environmental and economic concerns surrounding this project, we are asking the Corps to hold off on this winter's dredging plan until more research is available," said Hasselman. "It simply doesn't make sense to dredge until these questions are resolved."

The EIS judged that actual dredging activity would have "indirect, minor, short-term effects on the aquatic ecosystems by disturbing sediments and removing macroinvertebrate species" that are prey for resident and migratory fish.

"However, re-colonization of macroinvertebrates would occur relatively rapidly within both the dredging area and at the in-water shallow and mid-depth disposal areas," according to the report. The draft plan and EIS were released a year ago and was followed by a 45-day public comment period.

The final report's appendix O includes includes Corps responses to comments filed by 23 federal, state, local and tribal entities and three individuals.

Port officials and others dependent on the channel to transport wood and agricultural products and other goods down river complained that their economic viability was being challenged as each year passed and sediment accumulated in the channel. Barge loads were becoming limited as more and more high spots emerged along the channel, reducing the amount of draft for the vessels. Port officials said last year that recreational opportunities were also becoming hampered because of silted in ports, marinas and recreation areas.

The Corps for the past year had kept the reservoir levels about a foot higher that is considered optimal to allow the draft needed by the barges.

The parties filed their motion for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Link information:
Dredging plan

Barry Espenson
Groups Sue to Stop Snake River Dredging Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 15, 2002

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