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Groups want more time to comment on Columbia River plan

In this May 15, 2019 photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax, Washington Farmers, environmentalists, tribal leaders and public utility officials are eagerly awaiting a federal report due Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, that could decide the fate of four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
In this May 15, 2019 photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax, Washington Farmers, environmentalists, tribal leaders and public utility officials are eagerly awaiting a federal report due Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, that could decide the fate of four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – A little more than a week after the federal government unveiled its massive draft environmental impact statement on the Columbia River Hydropower System and its effects on salmon and steelhead, some interest groups are asking for more time to formulate their public comments and questioning if public hearings should be delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Others are asking that public hearings be added in communities like Boise and Salmon.

The draft document, which is more than 7,500 pages long, recommends against breaching the four lower Snake River dams as a measure to help the fish, and instead focuses largely on spilling more water over dams to help juvenile fish reach the ocean more quickly and safely.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration are giving people 45 days to comment and digest the highly technical tome. The comment deadline is April 13, and a series of public hearings on the draft document is set to kick off Tuesday in Lewiston.

One of the public meetings is scheduled for Seattle, which is the national epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and where many large businesses and public institutions have taken steps to reduce unnecessary social contact. For example, the University of Washington has moved to online classes only through March 20. Some large tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon are directing many of their employees in the Seattle area to work from home. And the Emerald City Comic Con has been postponed.

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Seattle-based Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said attendance at the Seattle meeting and perhaps others is likely to suffer because people are avoiding large public gatherings.

“There has been a lot of interest over time to participate in the hearings and show up and speak up,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I think that enthusiasm has cooled quite a bit. At this point, unless something changes for the better, I think it’s going to be hard for folks to ask their members to come out and be part of a big public crowd.”

Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency is monitoring the coronavirus situation in Seattle and other cities and considering adjustments.

“We will likely reach out to the county public health agencies and seek their input about if and where and how we hold public comment meetings,” he said. “We will probably have to make some decisions next week, since the meetings are the following week.”

Bogaard’s organization is part of a coalition of environmental and fishing groups that wrote a letter to executives of the three federal agencies, asking them to extend the public comment period to 120 days or more, regardless of coronavirus concerns. They say the document is simply too long for such a short public comment period.

“Forty-five days just seems terribly inadequate for such an important set of issues that concern and affects so many people across our region,” Bogaard said.

In the letter, the groups noted that the federal government asked federal Judge Michael Simon in 2016 to give them five years to prepare the environmental impact statement and that it cited a similar EIS that wrapped up in 2002, which included a five-month public comment period. That study, while large, covered only the lower Snake River. This one covers both the Snake and Columbia rivers.

In addition, the corps told Simon in 2016 it would need a year to analyze the public comments and incorporate them into the final version. Now, the federal agencies intend to analyze the public comments by the end of June and finish the document by September.

Simon granted the federal agencies the five years they requested in 2016. But in October 2018, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to expedite permitting and other required documentation for water projects in the West. Included in that order was a demand to complete the court-ordered EIS on Snake and Columbia rivers by 2020.

“The truncated schedule is at odds with your agencies’ sworn statement to the court, with the public interest in this issue, and the health and well-being of our salmon, steelhead, orcas, farming and fishing communities, tribes and Northwest energy system,” the groups wrote in their letter.

Five former Idaho Fish and Game commissioners also want the public comment period extended, and for more public hearings on the EIS to be held in Idaho. Fred Trevey, Keith Carlson, Keith Stonebraker and Will Godfrey, of Lewiston, and Gary Powers, of Salmon, sent a letter to Idaho Gov. Brad Little asking him to petition the federal government for an additional 45 days of public comment. They also want Little to advocate for public hearings to be held at Boise and Salmon.

“Travel time and expense makes it impractical for citizens from either of these locations to access the Lewiston-Clarkston meeting,” they wrote.

Rabe, the spokesman for the corps, said the agencies would evaluate any requests for additional meetings and meeting locations.

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