EDITORIAL: Suit over Snake River dredging masks green elite's intent

Tri-City Herald
Published Nov. 14, 2002

It's too bad environmental policy is written by lawyers instead of scientists, but that's reality today.

Environmental studies to determine the effects of big projects on habitat and wildlife are practically irrelevant. If the findings don't match the preconceived notions of a self-appointed green elite, the issue is going to court.

The grim truth of that observation was verified again last week, when a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop the Corps of Engineers from dredging silt from the shipping channel in the lower Snake River.

The practice had been routine up until 1997-98, the last time the lane between Lewiston and the Columbia River was cleared of sediment.

The Corps was ready to do the work again two years ago, but put the process on hold because of pressure from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Indian tribes and environmental groups that feared dredging would harm salmon.

Instead of forging ahead, Corps officials agreed to first complete a comprehensive 20-year plan that makes sense for fish and barges.

It was the right thing to do. The economic future of the Mid-Columbia cannot be separated from the fate of endangered species in our rivers. If fish aren't protected, dams and water are in jeopardy.

The 20-year-plan, which took four years and cost $3.5 million to complete, recommends a combination of maintenance dredging and raising levees in some areas.

While the National Marine Fisheries Service was satisfied by the plan's provisions for fish, no one could have been surprised when the coalition of environmental groups sued last week, contending the Corps failed to fully consider alternatives to dredging.

Some of their ideas are worth exploring, such as improving habitat along the river banks to control erosion. The effort might even be cost effective if it can significantly reduce the need for dredging.

But exploration of alternatives shouldn't stop the dredging maintenance program that is vital to the Mid-Columbia's economy.

With each inch of draft on grain barges translating to about $3,200 worth of product, any lost clearance in the shipping channel is significant to farmers competing in a world economy.

Besides, it's highly suspect that any of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are interested in new ideas for maintaining barge traffic to Lewiston.

Just the opposite seems true.

The litigation isn't so much aimed at finding alternatives to dredging, as it is at furthering the case for breaching the Snake River dams.

The solutions shouldn't come from a courtroom, but through good-faith efforts to balance the needs of fish with the benefits reaped from the dams. Those include not just navigational channels, but irrigation reserves, flood protection, recreational uses and hydroelectricity, too.

Unfortunately, for too many environmentalists, it's an article of faith that only the destruction of the Snake River dams is acceptable.


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