City of Lewiston officials are concerned that the Army Corps of Engineers failed to address the local impact of dam breaching in its monumental study of salmon and dams in the Columbia River drainage.

The city is joining a growing chorus asking for the Corps to extend the public comment period past the Monday deadline on the Columbia River Systems Operation Review Draft Environmental Impact Statement. And while removal of the four lower Snake River dams isn’t the study’s preferred alternative to help fish, Lewiston Community Development Department Director Laura Von Tersch said the document is lacking assessment and remediation of the impacts on Lewiston if the dams do go.

“Unfortunately, the Corps views many of these issues as localized and not of their concern, so they haven’t identified the true impact and maybe the cost of these impacts,” Von Tersch told members of the Lewiston City Council earlier this week. “To just sort of brush your hands and say, ‘Well, these are minor impacts, or they’re impacts that we don’t have a responsibility to mitigate,’ that just leaves us in an untenable position. So it’s really not a question about whether the dams stay or go. It’s about making sure that Lewiston survives the transition.”

For instance, the city has stormwater discharge points and intake points for the water treatment plant along the rivers that would have to be moved at great expense if the dams are removed, she said. Dam removal would also harm companies that use the rivers, like Clearwater Paper, with its multimillion-dollar impact on the region’s economy.

The draft study also omits potential impacts that were considered in previous studies, like changes in air quality, Von Tersch said. She reviewed those studies and discovered that the Corps documented that blowing dust from drier conditions could be a problem to land users and recreationists.

Older studies also considered that fish would get stranded and die in pools as slackwater recedes, stinking up the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, she added. That point caught the attention of Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Schroeder, who hosts tours of cruise boat passengers at her historic Normal Hill home. She recalled smells generated by past drawdowns of the rivers.

“It’s ugly. It’s disgusting,” Schroeder said. “And if that was a full-time thing here, we would not have any people coming here as visitors for a long time.”

But City Councilor John Bradbury saw the issue from a completely different point of view. The study recommends fine-tuning existing efforts to help salmon and steelhead by spilling water at the dams, but dismisses dam breaching as too costly. Bradbury said breaching is the only way to revive the economic vitality that tourism and sport fishing can bring to the region.

He looked back on his 15 years living in Alaska, which attracted huge economic stimulation from its wild and scenic fisheries.

“Millions and millions and millions of dollars were spent from people traveling from all over the world to catch a salmon,” Bradbury said, asking his fellow councilors to imagine a Lewiston not walled off by levies from its two rivers. “You can’t imagine the hotels that would be filled, or restaurants that would be filled, the sporting goods stores. Imagine what it would be like for the guides.”

He agreed with Von Tersch and other members of the council that the Corps should extend the Monday comment deadline, especially in light of the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Von Tersch spent several weeks analyzing the 8,000-page draft study and prepared 10 pages of comments to submit to the Corps today. Councilor John Pernsteiner asked her to include a request for support to help market the local fishing industry if dams are breached because it would take four or five years for fish to fully return.

Former Army Corps engineer Gregg Teasdale helped Von Tersch analyze the study. Von Tersch said she asked Teasdale why the Corps paid scant attention to the potential harm done to Lewiston from dam breaching, and he said it was simply because breaching isn’t the preferred alternative.

But she said Lewiston should be preparing anyway.

“I think it would be pretty risky of us to say, ‘Well, it’s not the preferred alternative, so we don’t need to be worried,’ ” she said. “I think we need to position ourselves so that if this does go forward that our concerns are addressed.”

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

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