A coalition of conservation and fishing organizations asked a federal court today to halt a dredging plan in lower Snake River barging channels until a variety of legal and scientific issues can be resolved.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ignoring federal law, sound science, and common sense economics by dismissing alternatives to dredging that would protect the Snake River according to the suit. The Corps’ plan also fails to save taxpayers’ money and meet local economic needs, according to court papers filed by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Washington Wildlife Federation, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. The parties asked a Seattle federal judge to enforce a time out on dredging until the issues can be resolved.
“Congress charges the Corps with maintaining the lower Snake River navigation channels in a way that makes sense for the environment and taxpayers,” said Jan Hasselman, counsel at NWF’s Northwestern Natural Resource Center in Seattle. “The agency owes it to Americans to look at every possible way to get that job done.”
The lawsuit charges that the Corps’ Environmental Impact Statement on dredging the lower Snake River includes four options that are virtually identical, except that the agency varies the location for the dredge spoil deposits. All four alternatives include 20 years of dredging and substantial increases in the levees in Lewiston, Idaho. The Corps’ EIS ignores alternatives to dredging and levee construction that would achieve its barge navigation goals in the Snake River and also provide better environmental and taxpayer safeguards.
“This is typical Corps– its analysis is a charade and it’s hoping no one will notice,” said Bert Bowler of Idaho Rivers United. “Instead of taking the good advice of other state and federal agencies, the Corps is simply pushing its way forward without regard to science or economics.”
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 Corps ignored these recommendations.
The groups have also raised serious concerns about 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. Not only will this project be harmful for salmon and steelhead, according to the groups, but the Corps is also using money earmarked for fish habitat restoration to pay for part of it.
“Saying that dredging and dumping the spoils back in the river will be helpful for fish is like saying that clear-cutting is good for trees,” said Todd True of Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “The Corps and the public know better.”
Finally, the court papers show how the Corps dramatically overstates the benefits and underestimates the costs of this project, thus falsely portraying a beneficial economic picture of the project. The Corps uses the same economic analysis it used in the lower Columbia River, for example, which it recently retracted.
“Given the significant environmental and economic concerns surrounding this project, we are asking the Corps to hold off on this winter’s dredging plan until more research is available,” concluded Hasselman. “It simply doesn’t make sense to dredge until these questions are resolved.”
The case is being handled by attorneys Jan Hasselman at NWF and Todd True at Earthjustice. The parties filed their motion for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Seattle. The groups have asked the court for a hearing on their motion before dredging begins on December 15.