Supporters of river system equate it with growth; those opposed see wasted money
By ERIC BARKER of the Tribune
Friday, January 25, 2013
Concerns about the high cost of maintaining the shipping channel of the lower Snake River dominated an information meeting on a sediment management plan hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Thursday in Lewiston.
Many in the audience of about 50 hammered away at what they see as a huge expense to taxpayers to continually keep the shipping channel clear of sediment through dredging and other actions.
"Does it make sense to keep subsidizing barge transportation at a cost of many tens of millions of dollars when barge traffic is going down as I understand it?" John Fisher of Juliaetta asked. "We are facing multi-trillion dollar budget deficits in the country and you are talking about spending tens and tens of millions of dollars, that is not cost-effective."
The public debate over sediment management in the river has become a surrogate for the debate over the best way to save threatened and endangered runs of salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Snake River and its tributaries. Many fish advocates who favor dam breaching once hoped a possible call for higher levees as a sediment management action would sway local public opinion in favor of dam breaching. But the corps is not calling for higher levees in the near term, and fish advocates now appear intent on highlighting the huge costs of maintaining the shipping channel and attracting allies from people concerned with the nation's debt problems.
But supporters of the river system point to barging as an economic engine that fuels growth in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and the surrounding agricultural-oriented communities.
"We need the dredging that is all there is to it," said Port of Clarkston Commissioner Rick Davis. "We just need to get it dredged for the economics of the valley."
When normal river flows are slowed by the four lower Snake River dams, suspended sand and silt drops out of the Snake and Clearwater rivers and clogs shipping channels, port berthing areas and recreation sites. It also robs the rivers of their ability to contain floodwater.
The corps recently completed a $16 million draft environmental impact statement and 20-year plan to manage sediment in the river system. It calls for dredging the shipping channel to a depth of 14 feet and a width of 250 feet as soon as next year. It also outlines a menu of other actions that may be taken if future sediment accumulation threatens the shipping channel, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation sites or increases the risk of flooding at Lewiston.
The plan does not include an analysis of the cost of dredging versus any positive economic effects of barge transportation between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities or Portland, Ore. But Linwood Laughy, a Kamiah resident and critic of the Port of Lewiston, recently compiled his own numbers and estimated it could cost more than $30 million over the next decade to maintain the shipping channel. His analysis was reported in the Tribune Monday.
Corps spokesman Bruce Henrickson said the sediment management plan does not include cost estimates that he said would interfere with the competitive biding process should the dredging portion of the plan be carried out.
"We are aware of various media reports and editorials and so forth but I would caution that guessing at numbers based on past costs and extrapolating them into the future may or may not be accurate," he said.
He did say any long-term sediment management actions taken by the corps in the future, such as raising levees or installing underwater dikes, would include costs estimates.
Brett Haverstick, of the Moscow-based environmental group Friends of the Clearwater, asked if the corps considers the cost of work proposed for the Snake River versus other costs it is facing, such as the need to maintain jetties in the lower Columbia River.
Alan Fiestner, the top civilian manager at the corps' Walla Walla District, answered that funds are limited and the district competes against other districts in the Northwest and across the country for funding. He said there is also a need to maintain much older corps facilities on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
"I assure you there is an effort to prioritize the requirements and pay for those things that have the greatest positive impact on the American people and the economy," he said.
The draft Snake River plan is open to public comment through March 26 and is available to view or download at http://1.usa.gov/TRtk6p.