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Federal agencies start massive environmental study of Columbia River Basin

Federalagencies on Sept. 30 launched an enormous environmental impact statementprocess that will intensely examine 14 of the Columbia River System's largesthydroelectric power dams and could determine future operations.

The EIS is inresponse to a U.S. District Court judge's decision of May 4 admonishing theBonneville Power Administration,U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Land Management for failing toimprove conditions that threaten salmon and steelhead despite billions ofdollars in expenditures on minimizing impact of hydropower operations andrestoring habitat.

"Theseefforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing. Manypopulations of the listed species continue to be in a perilous state,"Judge Michael Simon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregonwrote. "One of the benefits of a comprehensive environmental impactstatement, which requires that all reasonable alternatives be analyzed andevaluated, is that it may be able to break through any logjam that simplymaintains the precarious status quo. A comprehensive environmental impactstatement may allow, even encourage, new and innovative solutions to bedeveloped."

For thatreason the three agencies issued a Sept. 30 EIS scoping stating their intent to "evaluateand update the agencies' approach for long-term system operations andconfiguration through the analysis of different alternatives to current operationsand maintenance; including changes to flood risk management, navigation,hydropower, irrigation, fish and wildlife conservation, recreation andmunicipal and industrial water supply."

The EIS willfocus on 14 federal multiple purpose dams and related facilities, operated as acoordinated system in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The Corpsconstructed and operates 12 of these facilities and the U.S. Bureau ofReclamation built and operates the GrandCoulee and HungryHorse projects. BPA is responsible for marketing and transmittingpower generated by the dams.

An array ofalternatives will be developed through the scoping period based on public inputand the agencies' expertise, and will likely include proposals for differentsystem operations and additional structural modifications to existing projectsto improve fish passage, including breaching one or more dams, the scopingletter said.

A said the threeagencies will present a "reasonable range of alternatives for long-termsystem operations" after studying environmental and socioeconomic impactsof flood risk management, irrigation, power generation, navigation, fish andwildlife, cultural resources and recreation.

BPA spokesmanDavid Wilson said the process started with a Sept. 30 of intent published in theFederal Register and that a scoping process for the EIS will be conducted with15 scheduled public meetings across the four states, beginning with a meetingon Oct. 24 in Wenatchee, Wash.

"We wanta robust, public, open, honest process where everybody can come in and give ustheir insights," Wilson said.

He said thestudy will take about five years to complete and review.