By MATTHEW WEAVER
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to dredge the lower Snake River this winter to clear sediment from navigation channels.
The corps is wrapping up its work studying sources and ways to control sediment in the lower Snake, said Kristin Meira, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association executive director. The Corps operates the lock and dam system on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
Meira said the channel requires maintenance dredging every three to four years.
"Maintaining the river system is critical to allowing Northwest farmers and producers to continue sending their goods down to the lower Columbia River for export," Meira said.
The Columbia-Snake River system also allows petroleum and other goods to come up river by barge at a lower cost than other modes of transportation, she said.
If dredging isn't done, sand will continue to accumulate, making it more difficult and less safe for towboats and barges to transit parts of the river, Meira said.
"It means we have a less reliable, less efficient navigation channel," she said. "It would be the same as letting a road go or not maintaining a bridge. You slowly lose the ability to use that piece of infrastructure safely and efficiently."
Towboats load barges to a draft of about 14 feet, the authorized depth of the channel and navigation locks. They expect the channel to be maintained to that depth every step of the way, Meira said.
Funding for dredging has been included in the administration's proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, Meira said.
Dredging will not require a closure of the system. The Corps and its contractors work around navigation schedules during that time and dredge only when their activities will have minimum impact on fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, Meira said.
Historically, a "vocal minority" in the Northwest focused on dam breaching has also opposed dredging. It remains to be seen whether the activity will be held up by their efforts again, Meira said.
Meira is advising those who rely on the river system to let their congressional delegations know of its importance.
"They need to be reminding folks this is how they ship their goods and compete in a worldwide market," she said.