The Army Corps of Engineers has trimmed a year off the timeline for its court-ordered environmental review of the 14 dams and reservoirs in the Columbia River system. The agency is now aiming to sign off on a decision for how to manage the system and its impacts on endangered salmon by the end of September 2020.
The environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Columbia River system is underway because of lawsuits filed by environmental groups, who say the facilities for hydropower, irrigation, navigation and flood control are harming endangered salmon and orcas.
“Even though the dams are in place, they can be operated in different ways. There are several of them that we think should be removed,” said Todd True, senior attorney at EarthJustice, who has represented fishing and conservation groups in the lawsuits. “So, those are the kinds of issues and alternatives that the court has ordered the agencies to look at in this EIS process.”
True says the agency has trimmed one month from its initial analysis, but eight months from public comment and review. He's worried this will prevent fair analysis of the ultimate goal for many environmental groups: dam removal. Four dams on the lower Snake River, which orca advocates have argued should be removed, are among those in question in the process. Removal of those dams has long been a goal of the fishing and conservation groups True represents.
“We can address the needs of communities, we can address the needs of fish. But we can’t do that if we have a foreshortened, check-the-box EIS process that basically cuts the public out of the effort," he said.
The Army Corps says it had to streamline the process because of a directive from the Trump administration, and that they are working on ways to make the public comment period more effective.
“Our goal is to ensure the integrity of the analysis,” said Matt Rabe, regional director of public affairs for the Army Corps. “That’s the period that we’re in now. And the schedule that we have come up with only reduced the analysis portion of the review by about a month.”
Rabe said that the Army Corps is looking at ways to provide additional information, in response to the shorter public comment period, to ensure faster understanding by the public and a more efficient exchange of ideas and concerns.