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News / Clark County News

EIS for system of Columbia, Snake dams sped up

White House order will result in shorter comment period

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 17, 2019, 6:05am

The schedule to develop a long-term environmental review of regional dam and reservoir projects has been shortened in response to a streamlining push from the White House.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration must complete their Environmental Impact Statement of the 14 federal sites along the Columbia and Snake rivers no later than September 2020. This is a year earlier than the agencies had previously planned.

The shortened timeline is doable, officials say, but it will require condensing the public comment period and limiting communication between the involved agencies.

“It’s not ideal,” said Amy Echols, deputy chief of public affairs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland. “We can maintain the integrity of the analysis, but it needs to stay disciplined.”

What is an EIS?

Environmental impact statements began in the 1970s as part of the National Environmental Policy Act as a way to predict and measure the effects of major projects that use federal funding.

“It requires us to assess the potential impacts (and) know with full awareness when we’re going into something,” Echols said.

A cornerstone of the process is the solicitation of public input, she added, because it’s the locals who know what’s really going on in a community.

“The local involvement component is the key … because it sets out a process for getting those who are impacted by or benefit from a decision in the decision-making process,” Echols said. “What are the benefits or implications of what we’re going to do?”

The 14 dam and reservoir sites along the Columbia and Snake rivers — from Grand Coulee to Bonneville dams — form a massively intricate system, and each site along that route serves multiple purposes. A change in the way any one of them operates could cause a domino effect through the rest of the system.

For example, Bonneville Dam was built primarily to help commercial ships navigate the Columbia River. But it was built with features to serve other purposes, too, like hydroelectric power generation and a fish ladder to assist with salmon migration. Any change in practices to the dam’s operations, made with the intention of improving the outcome of one objective, could hurt the other objectives and in turn affect the rest of the dams in the river system.

Knowing what changes to make and how requires a hugely complicated analysis, Echols said.

“There’s very little that goes untouched throughout this system,” she said. “It’s complex. There are very important functions that these dams serve in the Northwest.”

Lately, steelhead and chinook salmon — and the ecological and economic web they support — have driven the conversation around river management in the Pacific Northwest.

Last month, governor and potential presidential hopeful Jay Inslee announced a plan to revive the southern resident orca population that included reviving salmon runs in the lower Columbia River. The plan would allow more water to be spilled over dams, making it easier for salmon to reach the ocean.

The timeline

It’s been 26 years since an environmental impact statement was last completed for the full network of dams and reservoirs in the Snake and Columbia rivers, said John Tyler, public affairs specialist at Bonneville Power Administration.

In May 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ordered a full analysis of the system. Three months later, the agencies issued a notice of intent to conduct an environmental review, kicking off what was intended to be a five-year process concluding in September 2021.

Two years into that process, President Donald Trump announced a faster timeline as part of a series of red-tape rollbacks for water access in Washington, Oregon and California. The move came three weeks before the midterm elections and was regarded by political commentators as a way to curry favor for Republicans in water-starved California.

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“Decades of uncoordinated, piecemeal regulatory actions have diminished the ability of our federal infrastructure,” the presidential memorandum stated. “Unless addressed, fragmented regulation of water infrastructure will continue to produce inefficiencies, unnecessary burdens, and conflict among the federal government, states, tribes, and local public agencies that deliver water to their citizenry.”

As the announcement came nearly halfway through the scheduled environmental review, the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration condensed the final steps of the process to meet the bumped deadline. The updated timeline was released by the Corps last week.

The ongoing “analysis” portion of the process will conclude just a month earlier than previously scheduled. In February 2020, the agencies will present a draft environmental impact statement, laying out a range of alternatives for long-term operations, evaluating the potential impacts of each on several levels including flood risk, irrigation, hydroelectric power, navigation, conservation, cultural resources, water quality and recreation.

But the public comment period, which under the original schedule would have lasted a year, has been cut to four months. A course of action will be selected in June 2020 and signed in September.

Tyler said the federal agencies prioritized “maintaining time to do the level of analysis that’s needed. So the compression of the schedule happens more on the public comment period, the time between the issuance of the draft EIS and the issuance of the final EIS.”

Shaving a year off the environmental study means that all the different state and federal agencies that deal in water management — the three leading groups, but also the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, and tribal communities that border the rivers, among others — have less time to communicate.

“The original schedule allowed more collaboration,” Echols said. “We’re drilling down to how long the discussions can go with the federal and state agencies.”

However, there’s an upside to the accelerated timeline, Echols added. All parties are working to uncover the best water management practices. And the faster they look, the sooner those practices can be implemented.

“The longer you take, the longer it takes,” Echols said. The sooner the (study) is completed, “the faster we can move toward actions that improve our operations.”

Columbian staff writer