Idaho historian Keith Petersen asked the question in his 1995 book, “River of Life, Channel of Death”: “Will the government continue to pour money” into maintaining the four lower Snake Dams in Washington?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released for public comment a plan to dredge the channel during the next 50 years. The Lower Snake River sediment management plan and draft environmental impact statement looks at several alternatives, but the preferred alternative is to dredge the channel for the first time since 1995.
The Corps has extended the comment period from Feb. 8 to March 26.
“The draft environmental impact statement is fairly lengthy and complex because we took a very broad look at sediment management options,” said District Commander Lt. Col. Andrew Kelly. “This is about potential long-term options beyond just dredging.”
That’s because the environmental impacts of dredging will always be a challenge, a pinch point for activists who prefer removal of the four dams.
The Corps under law is supposed to maintain the lower Snake River navigation channel at 14 feet deep and 250 feet wide. The Corps is proposing a long-term plan to manage, and prevent if possible, river sediment being deposited behind Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite locks and dams.
The plan also examines the possibility of dredging next winter, from Dec. 15 to March 1.
Peterson reported that the Corps knew that 2 million cubic yards of sediment would collect behind Lower Granite Dam at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers at Lewiston. But when the dams were authorized, another dam was planned upstream of Asotin, a little Washington town on the Snake. The Asotin Dam was expected to collect 80 percent of that sediment.
Asotin was never built, and the sediment has grown into an expensive problem that adds to the costs and the subsidies necessary for keeping the dams open for navigation, power production and, around Lewiston, flood control. Simply raising the levees has been loudly rejected by Lewiston residents who see them as a barrier between them and the river.
So this EIS is going to be the immediate legal center of the fight over salmon and dams.
Enter Linwood Laughy, a Kooskia resident who with his partner Karen “Borg” Hendrickson stood against the megaloads of ExxonMobil mining equipment that had been scheduled to be shipped through the Port of Lewiston to the tar sands region of Canada.
Their legal fight helped force the oil company to look for another route, foiling long-term plans of the Port of Lewiston to cash in on a new customer for its underused facilities.
Now Laughy is opposing the Corps dredging plans, sounding like a Tea Party activist. He calls the Corps EIS a $16 million big-government plan for another $30 million in dredging costs over the next decade.
Adding these costs together with inflation and interest, he estimates the 10-year cost for the “taxpayer subsidy” to keep the Port of Lewiston open at $39 million. And sedimentation would continue to increase, he said.
Using the same math that libertarian salmon restoration critics use when they say it costs $400 a fish, Laughy says taxpayers pay about $19,000 for each fully loaded barge leaving the Port of Lewiston for dredging and sediment management planning.
“The fact of the matter is that while people altered nature along the lower Snake, it is impossible, despite sophisticated technology and engineering capability, to control it,” Peterson wrote nearly 20 years ago.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484