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Corps of Engineers May Not Dredge Lower Snake

In a victory for clean water, wildlife, and taxpayers, a coalition of conservation and fishing organizations won a major court ruling December 13 that halts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plans to dredge the lower Snake River this winter. A district court judge in Seattle, Washington, prohibited the dredging, slated to begin on December 15, because the Corps had failed to resolve major legal,

The plaintiffs (see below) had charged that the Army Corps of Engineers violated federal law and ignored sound science and economics by dismissing alternatives to dredging that would protect the Snake River, save taxpayers money, and meet local economic needs. The groups include the National Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, and the Sierra Club. The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho filed papers with the court supporting the coalition.

The court agreed that the Corps' EIS ignores alternatives to dredging and levee construction that would achieve its barge navigation goals on the Snake River and better safeguard the environment and taxpayers. 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 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 court agreed that serious legal questions were raised by the Corps' failure to consider these viable alternatives in the EIS.

The court also found serious deficiencies in the green light given to this project by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for ensuring that federal projects like this don't set back salmon recovery. The court agreed with plaintiffs that NMFS had failed to ensure that dredging would not destroy critical habitat for fall chinook salmon, as required by the law. The court also found that NMFS had failed to adhere to the law's requirement to ensure that the project would not harm more salmon than anticipated. Finally, the court agreed that proceeding with dredging this winter could irreparably harm salmon and

The injunction issued by the Court prevents the Corps from dredging this winter, as currently planned. The injunction is not expected to significantly interfere with ongoing barge navigation or have noticeable economic impacts. The case is being handled by attorneys Todd True at Earthjustice and Jan Hasselman at the National Wildlife Federation.