In a victory for clean water, salmon, and taxpayers, a federal court today ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the second time in as many years to delay a risky $2.7 million project to dredge the lower Snake River. The court found the Corps' plan posed serious risks to imperiled salmon and steelhead. The ruling precludes the Corps from dredging during the winter of 2004-05 as planned.
"Dredging could have devastating impacts on what little salmon habitat remains in the Snake River," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations. "There is no such thing as salmon-friendly dredging, and tearing up the riverbed is not recovery." Spain contends the Corps seems determined to press ahead with this project without a thought for the thousands of commercial fishermen who have lost their jobs as a result of the Corps' mismanagement of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. "The sooner we can move ahead with real salmon recovery in the Columbia, the sooner those jobs will be restored."
"Dredging in the lower Snake River is environmentally risky and economically unsound," said Jan Hasselman, Seattle counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, another plaintiff in the case. "There are better ways to manage this river that would save money and give salmon and steelhead a fighting chance to recover."
The decision represents the second time in two years that the Corps has failed to adopt a dredging plan in the lower Snake River that can pass legal muster. In 2002, the same court halted dredging until the Corps corrected serious problems in its long-term sediment management plan for the Snake River. Today's court ruling sends the Corps of Engineers back to the drawing board to come up with a plan that complies with the law. Conservation and fishing groups, along with the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, had asked for a hearing on the plan, and hailed the ruling.
"The court's ruling today is part of a larger pattern in the past two or three years where courts have repeatedly stepped in to protect our wild salmon by holding government agencies accountable," said Earthjustice attorney Todd True. Last summer, a federal court in Oregon blocked a government plan to take away water flows that salmon need to survive. Before that, the courts threw out an inadequate government plan for managing federal dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers because of the potential harm to salmon. "This repeated disregard for the law hurts all of us in this region and needs to stop," True said.
The court ruled that the Corps had violated the law by failing to prepare an adequate Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal. And the court agreed with plaintiffs that salmon and steelhead in the Snake River could not afford yet another insult to their already degraded habitat, characterizing the harm to these species as "irreparable."
The injunction issued by the court prevents the Corps from dredging this winter, as currently planned. The delay in dredging adds to mounting questions about the long-term viability of the Snake River barge transportation network, which is encountering competition from Puget Sound ports that are attracting an increasing share of the region's business.
"Improved rail infrastructure to meet the needs of shippers should be a priority for the region," said Bert Bowler of Idaho Rivers United. "Washington is working diligently to preserve shortline railroads in the eastern part of the state that will add certainty to the transportation system in the long run. Idaho should be doing the same."
The plaintiffs 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 case is being handled by attorneys Jan Hasselman at NWF and Todd True at Earthjustice.