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Dredging plans hold up bypass

Plans to dredge Sand Creek to build a highway bypass through Sandpoint have led to delays in getting permits for the project.

The Idaho Department of Transportation must resubmit its application for dredging and filling part of the creek to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and consult again with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the possible impact on bull trout and bald eagles.

The new review under the Endangered Species Act also may lead to a temporary stay of the lawsuit filed last summer against state and federal agencies by the North Idaho Community Action Network, which opposes the location of the bypass.

So far, the state has not received permits from either the Army Corps or the Idaho Department of Lands for placing fill in the creek to extend the shoreline or for dredging, officials said.

Because of new developments – the plans to dredge and the discovery of small amounts of hydrocarbon contaminants in the bed of Sand Creek – the state must essentially begin the approval process again, putting off soliciting bids for construction for several months.

The Idaho Department of Lands approved the permit for the fill earlier this year, but never actually issued it, said Jim Brady, the department’s navigable waters manager.

“We probably will not issue the permit, because the project has changed enough that we’ll have to re-evaluate the whole thing,” Brady said.

The project was supposed to go to bid by now.

“We’ve got a couple hoops still,” said ITD’s project manager Mike Fitzgerald. In addition to the permits and consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency is negotiating some final property purchases and tying up “loose ends on the design,” he said.

The Sand Creek bypass route has divided the citizenry of Sandpoint for decades.

Half a century ago, downtown business owners objected to plans to route the highway west of town, but now many are concerned that the bypass will take business out of downtown and move it to the north and south of town.

Others are concerned that the highway project will ruin the aesthetics of Sand Creek, which runs between downtown’s First Avenue and City Beach.

Most Sandpoint residents agree, however, that something needs to be done to alleviate downtown traffic and relocate the noisy and dangerous through-traffic of cattle trucks and other tractor-trailer rigs.

Transportation officials have tried to make the project more aesthetically appealing by lowering its profile, growing vegetation along the retaining walls, and adding bike paths and other amenities.

But in order to do that, they needed to extend the shoreline into Sand Creek, taking up about 2.7 acres of creek bed.

Because the fill would displace water from the winter channel, concerns were raised that the water would cut a new channel and move sediment downstream, depositing it in Waterfront Properties’ marina and the lake.

That prompted plans to dredge a new channel during low water.

The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with previous Department of Transportation opinions that the project was unlikely to harm bull trout and bald eagles.

But the dredging and other changes prompted the need to look at the entire project again from the standpoint of endangered species, said Mark Robertson, a Wildlife Service biologist and program manager.

Dredging plans are further complicated by the discovery of small amounts of contaminants, possibly from old, leaky underground fuel tanks, in the area of the proposed dredging.

Because the transportation agency did not provide additional information on the extent of the contamination by a Nov. 4 deadline set by the Army Corps of Engineers, the state must resubmit its application for the federal dredging and fill permits.

While Fitzgerald said the amount of contamination is below any level of concern, it still has critics calling for a thorough review.

“They’re not huge amounts,” acknowledged Liz Sedler, executive director of North Idaho Community Action Network. However, she added, “they need to do more testing… If there is anything there at all, to disturb it by dredging it could release those toxics” into Lake Pend Oreille.