Environmentalists Win On Lower Snake River

Published online: Dec 07, 2004
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Even though potato shipments do not go through the lower Snake River from Lewiston, ID, and Clarkston, WA, a ruling this week by a District Court Judge scuttled a plan to dredge the river at Idaho's only seaport to keep it open for barge traffic.

Barges are loaded with grain at the port and floated downstream to meet up with ocean transport to the Far East. The business saves grain growers over $40 million a year. 

"The environmental groups are slowly but surely asphyxiating the navigation industry," said Dixon Shaver president of Shaver Transportation, a towboat company that operates on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The channel at Lewiston, where the Snake and Clearwater rivers merge, is silting. This makes it very difficult for barges to be fully loaded to avoid grounding. They carry 24 million bushels of wheat downstream every year.

In some spots the channel is only eight- to-10-feet deep when it supposed to be 14 feet deep, barely enough to handle the 13-foot, six-inch draft of fully loaded grain barges.

But Judge Robert Lasnik said the Corps of Engineers failed to comply with federal law by not filing a National Environmental Policy Act document for dredging proposed for this winter.

Justice Department lawyers had argued that it wasn't necessary for the one-time action, since the agency is expected to complete an environmental study next spring that looks at the next 20-year channel maintenance plan for the lower Snake River. However, the Corps did complete a supplemental analysis for the proposed operation to dredge nearly 300,000 cubic yards of sediment from the channel. That wasn't good enough for the judge.

The environmental groups want to scuttle all barge trafficking on both river systems. But at the back of all their plans is one to breach all the dams along the Snake and Columbia rivers. Potato shippers have been looking at transporting more potato/potato product by barge but most is now handled by trucks to the Washington ports. 

The environmental groups said the ruling "adds to mounting questions about the longterm viability of Snake River barge transportation." They want the rail infrastructure improved in the region. But using barges instead of shipping by rail saves growers $40 million a year, Shaver stated.

Shaver says he doubts the railroads, which are currently facing large shortages of railcars, would spend the money to compete for the 40 percent of the grain now shipped by barge.

The ruling means barges will have to continue to "light load" at Lewiston to avoid going aground and then top off further downstream, a process that adds $3 million annually to shipping costs. 

Lasnik ruled that NOAA Fisheries' biological opinion was insufficient because it had failed to establish a permissable level of "take" of ESA-listed fall chinook salmon.