The Salmon River is not the place for an industrial gravel mining operation. Under a federal law signed by President William McKinley in 1899, the Salmon River is soon to receive additional protections. The “navigable” designation of the Salmon River will correct a historical error and comes in response to a petition from the Idaho Conservation League.
This River Is a Special Place
Anyone who has spent time along the banks of the Salmon River knows it is a majestic place. From its headwaters near Galena Pass- where you can literally hop across the small stream-to the torrent that thunders through the canyons near Riggins, the Salmon River is one of the true gems of the gem state. That’s why the Idaho Conservation League works hard to ensure it has the protections it deserves.
One of the longest undammed rivers in the Lower 48, the Salmon River provides critical habitat for threatened species including steelhead trout, bull trout, Chinook salmon, sockeye salmon and others. In fact, the Salmon River and its network of tributaries contain 70% of the remaining spawning habitat for steelhead and salmon in the entire Columbia River basin. Salmon River steelhead and salmon are renowned for their 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to their spawning grounds at elevations of over 9,000 feet.
World-class rapids on the Middle Fork, South Fork and Main Salmon rivers attract over 15,000 floaters per year and fisheries contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economies of Lewiston, Grangeville, Riggins and other communities in the region.
So, What Happened?
Because it’s such a special place, ICL has long been concerned with the protection and restoration of the river. For decades, we’ve had concerns with in-stream mining.
Near the small town of White Bird, north of Riggins, the Camas Gravel Company has been dredging gravel from the bed of the Salmon River. Despite concerns from ICL, fisheries experts and hundreds of concerned Idahoans, in 2012 the state of Idaho issued a five-year lease for the continued operation of the mine.
Because only state permits were issued for the operation, no expert consultation with fisheries experts was required. A permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have been required if the river had been deemed navigable by the federal agency. Even though the river clearly meets the definition of a navigable stream, the Army Corps of Engineers determined in 1933 that the river was non-navigable.
Following a search of state and federal records, ICL concluded that the 1933 determination was clearly in error. So in 2014, ICL submitted a petition to the Army Corps of Engineers requesting reconsideration of the Salmon River’s navigability, including historical documentation and evidence demonstrating the river’s navigability.
After several years of deliberation, the Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to issue a decision establishing the Salmon River as navigable under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. The agency’s initial review agreed with ICL’s conclusion that the 1933 decision was in error and should be corrected. The designation will apply to 259 miles of the Salmon River between the town of Salmon and the river’s mouth near Lewiston.
In April, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers rolled out their plan to stakeholders and local governments. The response from some was less than enthusiastic and questioned the need for additional protections.
From ICL’s perspective, the navigability designation corrects a 83-year old error and will ensure that the same protections established for other area rivers such as the Snake, Clearwater and Kootenai are afforded to Idaho’s Salmon River.
So, What Will Happen?
Once a navigability determination is signed by Brigadier General Scott Spellmon, Commander of the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, permits will be required for any alteration or obstruction subject to Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, our nation’s first environmental law. In accordance with the law, permits will be required for mines, water diversions, dams, piers, or any other structure.
As noted above, because the Salmon River is critical habitat for fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act, special consideration will ensure that these species are protected. While some have expressed concern that the designation will affect jet boating, the reality is that a navigable determination actually prohibits any structure that would impede the navigability of the river by jet boats, rafts, kayaks or other watercraft.
For most activities, including road construction, bridge construction and other activities, the permitting process will not change, because the Army Corps of Engineers already has a joint application process in place with the state of Idaho to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, and the Idaho Stream Channel Alteration Act.
The Salmon River is an invaluable resource that belongs to all of us. This common sense regulation will correct a historical oversight and protect water quality and fisheries habitat in the Salmon River. After all, the Salmon River deserves no less.