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Six Week Lower Snake Dredging Starts Next Week, First Time Since 2006;Sediment Used For Habitat
Posted on Friday, January 09, 2015 (PST)

An accelerated lower Snake River dredging schedule is expected to begin next week as a result of a federal court decision finalized Wednesday that turns back challenges to a plan to restore the desired depth and width of a navigation channel maintained for commercial barging.

(See “Judge Rejects Preliminary Injunction To Halt ‘Immediate Needs’ Lower Snake Dredging; Debate Continues On Corps’ Long-Term Plan”


The dredging prescribed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was initially scheduled to begin in early December and conclude by Feb. 28. The Corps owns and operates dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers and is charged by Congress with maintaining a navigation channel that stretches from the Pacific Ocean up to Lewiston-Clarkston at the Idaho-Washington border.


The Corps announced last year a plan to remove through dredging sediment that has accumulated in navigation channel and now hinders barge traffic. But that “immediate needs” decision was challenged in court by conservation groups and the Nez Perce Tribe, who say the in-river disruptions caused by dredging harm salmon and steelhead, and Pacific lamprey, which rear in and migrate up and down the river corridor.


This week’s decision will prompt accelerated dredging which will now occur for approximately six weeks during this same "in-water work window" -- the time of year biologists say is best because few salmon are migrating up or down the system. The sediment from the dredging will be used downstream on the Snake River near Knoxway Canyon to create resting and rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, primarily fall chinook.


Unlike most other navigation channels around the country, dredging is needed fairly infrequently on the lower Snake River, the Corps says. Small parts of the navigation channel were dredged in 1999, and not again until 2006. The federal navigation channel has been maintenance-free for nine years.


"This is clearly a win-win project for the region," said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. "This will not only benefit our environment, but it will also ensure that grain and other commodities continue to move efficiently through the region. Barging is a large part of the Northwest economy, and this dredging action is vital to keeping Northwest goods competitive in the global marketplace."


The Columbia-Snake river system is a significant national waterway, and plays a big role in ensuring that the region's farmers and manufacturers have the ability to export their goods to international markets. The Columbia-Snake river system is the top wheat export gateway in the nation, and second for soy, according to the PNWA. The inland system moves more than nine million tons of cargo annually that feed the Lower Columbia River export gateway.


Judge James L. Robart of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, this week declined to issue an injunction to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from dredging the lower Snake waterway this winter. The court is expected to consider the full merits of the case itself later this year.


Last November, non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice, representing Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Washington Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Friends of the Clearwater, joined with the Nez Perce Tribe to file a complaint challenging the Corps’ approval of a $6.7 million lower Snake River dredging project scheduled to begin this month.


Fishing businesses, conservation groups, and the Nez Perce Tribe say they challenged the Corps plan developed by the Walla Walla District because it puts salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey at serious risk, purposefully dodges any real look at alternatives to dredging, and in defiance of Corps’ policies ignores the shaky economic justification for the barge corridor created by the four lower Snake River dams. In addition the Corps’ Walla Walla District failed to consider impacts from climate change, the groups say.


“While we’re disappointed that the Corps will pursue harmful and expensive dredging this winter in salmon and lamprey habitat, we believe that we’ll prevail in the long run,” said Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda. “Business-as-usual just isn’t a viable option for this barging system. We’ll continue our efforts to ensure that the Corps’ Walla Walla District stops throwing good money after bad.”


Dredging is the centerpiece of the Walla Walla District plan for maintaining barging corridor between Pasco, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho. Though shipping on the Columbia River waterway remains steady, traffic on the lower Snake is so low that this waterway qualifies for the Corps’ own “negligible use” project category, according to the conservation groups. Over the past 15 years, the lower Snake waterway’s freight volume has declined 64 percent as shippers move their freight from barge to trucks or rail, according to tribal and coalition representatives. Meanwhile, maintenance expenses, shouldered by American taxpayers, have surged, the plaintiffs say.


“We look forward to the Corps’ dredging plan getting the full legal review it sorely needs,” said Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard.


The Corps will dredge this year in accordance with its recently completed comprehensive Programmatic Sediment Management Plan during the annual winter in-water work window.


"There is a current immediate need to reestablish the federal navigation channel at congressionally authorized dimensions," said Lt. Col. Timothy Vail, Walla Walla District commander. "After consideration of potential alternatives, we determined that dredging is the only effective short-term method available for doing so once sediment has accumulated to the point of interfering with navigation."


"We view the court's ruling as a positive step," Vail said. "It allows the Corps to move forward and meet its responsibilities to manage sediment accumulation to make navigation safer and to support the economy of this region."


Congress directed establishment of the navigation channel in the Lower Snake River at 250 feet wide by 14 feet deep at minimum operating pool. The Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining the channel at those dimensions.


"We take this responsibility to the public seriously, and we'll make every effort to fulfill this mission. Dredging this year is a necessary part of that," Vail said.


Maintenance dredging last occurred in the lower Snake River navigation channel in the winter of 2005-2006. Sediment accumulation has since encroached on certain areas of the federal navigation channel and port berthing areas. This year’s work will be concentrated in the navigation lock approach at the lower Snake’s Ice Harbor Dam and at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers


For more information about the PSMP, see the Walla Walla District website at


PNWA is a non-profit trade association that advocates for federal policies and funding in support of regional economic development. The PNWA represents more than 130 public and private sector member organizations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California. Members include public ports, navigation, transportation, trade, tourism, agriculture, forest products, energy and local government interests.


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