LEWISTON, Idaho – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking public testimony on a plan to dredge the lower Snake River this coming winter, a proposal criticized by environmentalists but praised by regional industry as key to keeping the waterway open to commerce.
The river has not been dredged since the winter of 1998-1999 and is becoming increasingly shallow – at least two barges got stuck in port areas this year.
The comment period ends in mid-July.
The corps plans to remove 450,000 cubic yards of silt and sand from the river bottom next winter when fewer salmon and steelhead move through the system. Agency officials say the work is needed to make sure barges loaded with regional products such as wheat can continue to reach ports downstream.
Port officials say the dredging is being opposed by activists who ultimately want to breach dams – and are trying to bolster their arguments that river shipping is becoming obsolete by allowing the Snake and Clearwater rivers – which meet at Lewiston and nearby Clarkston – to become choked with silt that washes downriver.
“What they are trying to do is stop the dredging so it will stop the use of the river and the river will fill up with silt and we will not be able to get our products in and out of here,” said Rick Davis, manager of the Port of Clarkston.
On Wednesday, in a similar battle, a federal judge in Seattle rejected arguments from environmentalists opposed to dredging of a 103-mile stretch of the Columbia River – an Army Corps of Engineers project scheduled to begin within days.
Still, environmentalists fighting dredging on the Snake maintain the Army Corps hasn’t done enough to explore alternatives to dredging as a means of keeping the river deep enough for boats.
Other methods could include limiting the amount of sediment that reaches the river or using drawdowns to flush sediment away.
Jan Hasselman, of the National Wildlife Federation in Seattle, said Friday the agency still hasn’t seriously considered these alternatives.
“They have been promising for 20 years to take a hard look at other ways of maintaining the system and they still haven’t done it,” Hasselman said.
The dredging battle is set against the backdrop of a larger court fight over salmon.
U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland, Ore., has rejected a Bush administration plan to restore salmon runs, and earlier this month ordered federal officials to spill more water through the four Snake River dams and McNary Dam on the Columbia River to help keep juvenile salmon from dying in the dams’ turbines.
On the Snake River, the silting effect is most pronounced in Lower Granite Reservoir, the first slack water pool on the lower Snake River, with some areas as shallow as 8.5 feet. The federal agency that oversees the river is charged with maintaining a shipping channel depth of 14 feet.
“We are very fortunate we didn’t have a high water year because that would have brought down more sediment,” said Nola Leyde, a spokeswoman for the corps’ Walla Walla district.
The corps’ plan calls for the dredge spoils – the material taken from the bottom of the river – to be used to create shallow water habitat for juvenile chinook salmon.
“This will provide a resting area for them,” said Leyde. “They need areas where they can keep away from predators.”
The plan is very similar to one the corps has approved in the past, but has been stopped by lawsuits from salmon groups. A judge stopped the previous plan, ruling the agency didn’t consider other alternatives, such as using drawdowns.
In its latest study, the corps did consider that and seven alternatives – but ultimately dismissed all but dredging, saying the others wouldn’t solve the immediate problem faced by ports and barge companies.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.