Court Orders Army Corps to Halt Lower Snake Dredging

Conservation groups hail opportunity to consider alternatives to dredging


Todd True, Earthjustice 206-343-7340 x30


Jan Hasselman, NWF 206-285-8707 x 105


Bert Bowler, Idaho Rivers United 208-343-7481


Glen Spain, PCFFA 541-689-2000

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

“The Corps tried to tell the Court a fish story about the big one that got away when it argued that dredging wouldn’t harm the Snake River,” said Todd True an attorney at Earthjustice which represented the plaintiffs. “The Court didn’t bite and as a result everyone in the Northwest will benefit. We will have a chance to take another look at this project, including alternatives to dredging that will protect the environment and save taxpayers money.”

“It took a lawsuit to affirm what we’ve been saying all along about this project,” said Jan Hasselman, counsel at the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Northwestern Natural Resource Center in Seattle. “Plans to dredge the Snake cannot proceed until the agency answers legal and scientific questions and considers cost-effective alternatives that will better protect the environment.”

The plaintiffs had charged that the U.S. 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 Association, 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 steelhead in the Snake.

“The Corps has ‘cooked the books’ to justify 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,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations. “The sooner we can move ahead with real salmon recovery in the Columbia, the sooner that those family wage jobs will be restored.”

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. “This injunction gives us the ‘time out’ we need to resolve the legal and scientific problems that the Corps has created, and prevents further destruction of important habitat and water quality in the meantime,” added Hasselman.

The case is being handled by attorneys Todd True at Earthjustice and Jan Hasselman at NWF.

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