The Army Corps of Engineers is writing its 50-year plan for managing Snake River sediment. The period for people to comment on the environmental impact statement ended Sunday.
Environmentalists arguing to return to a pristine past before humans arrived in the Northwest make a bankrupt case in the face of climate change, because conditions are changing so dramatically that we can't go back.
The Corps appears to be making the same kind of futile argument.
Under law, the Corps is supposed to maintain the lower Snake River navigation channel at 14 feet deep and 250 feet wide. In the draft EIS, the Corps is proposing a long-term plan to manage - and prevent if possible - river sediment from being deposited behind Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite Locks dams.
As I reported earlier, groups seeking removal of the four lower Snake Dams are using this process to push their point that dam removal is better not only for salmon, but also for the region's economy. That issue has hung more on the power production from the dams than the economic value of the ports, which have always been heavily subsidized.
The latest proof is an excellent story by Forbes reporter Christopher Helman, "On The Mississippi, An Industry Is Floating On Taxpayer Money." He calls the barge companies and their customers beneficiaries of "corporate welfare" - an assessment that is just as applicable to the Snake River as it is the Mississippi.
"Washington picks up more of the cost of riverborne shipping than any other type of logistics enterprise in the U.S. except, perhaps, resupplying the International Space Station," Helman writes.
When the Idaho Statesman wrote its editorials in 1997 calling for the breaching of the four dams, it pointed to these and other subsidies as part of the reason removing the dams would be a net gain for the Idaho and Pacific Northwest economy. The Corps economists in 2000 disagreed, saying the four dams' benefits outweigh their costs.
It did no such analysis for the dredging EIS.
The Corps plan looks at several alternatives, but the preferred alternative is to dredge the channel for the first time since 1995. It bases its case on sedimentation estimates from the past.
Beyond dredging, the Corps hopes that a series of management projects throughout the watershed can reduce the amount of sediment and, thereby, reduce the cost and need for dredging. Buried deep in the report, but dug out by opponents, is an appendix from scientists Jaime R. Goode, Charles H. Luce, and John H. Buffington of the U.S. Forest Service arguing that sedimentation is only going to get worse.
"Climate-modulated interactions among vegetation, wildfire and hydrology suggest that sediment yields will likely increase in response to climate change," they wrote. "Within central Idaho, recent climate-driven increases in wildfire-burn severity and extent have the potential to produce sediment yields roughly 10 times greater than those observed during the 20th century."
This gives groups like Idaho Rivers United strong evidence in court if the agency ignores this data and proposes dredging anyway.
But what is the alternative?
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter last year as the Obama Administration announced an additional $3 million in federal funding for the Port of Lewiston. That's along with the $1.3 million in federal grant funds for a $2.9 million dock-expansion project.
Right now, the federal and state government are in support of the dams and the Port, despite the costs and risks of them growing even costlier. Until a more attractive alternative emerges, the subsidies for both will continue.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484