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States, with Conditions, Give Approval to Channel Deepening

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 27, 2003

The states of Oregon and Washington this week issued the approvals, albeit conditional, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to proceed with a $133.6 million project to deepen 103 miles of the Columbia River navigation channel from the Pacific Ocean to Portland.

Both states issued conditional water quality certifications and conditional Coastal Zone Management Consistency concurrences required by federal law. The approvals were the final regulatory hurdles the Corps faced before issuing a Record of Decision and proceeding with the project.

"We are pleased to have received the states' concurrence for the Channel Improvement Project," said Laura Hicks, project manager with the Corps. "We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but each positive step gets us that much closer. We will continue to work with local, state and federal officials to ensure the construction does not adversely effect the environment or fish and wildlife."

By receiving conditional approval, the Corps must now look at the project again to understand the impact the conditions place on the agency's construction activities. The evaluation will take several weeks.

"After a thorough review of the certifications, we will evaluate if there are any changes to the project and determine if there are any resulting shifts in the costs of the project, and the Benefit-to-Cost Ratio," said Hicks. "We are confident that the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project will remain economically justified and will provide significant benefits to the national and regional economies."

The approvals put off limits some sites that the Corps project had depended on to dispose of the material it dredges from the 600-foot-wide channel.

The project would deepen the shipping channel by 3 feet -- from 40 feet to 43 feet -- to allow passage for the deeper draft commercial vessels that have become more common in ocean fleets. The six ports that have sponsored the project, along with the Corps, say the project is needed so they can remain competitive with other West Coast ports. The sponsoring ports are Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Woodland, Kalama and Longview in Washington.

The Corps has estimated the benefits of a deeper channel to the economy, saying that the project will return $1.71 in benefits for every dollar spent.

The conditions set by the state will require alterations in the Corps' dredge disposal plans. The federal agency has estimated that 14.5 million cubic yards of sand and 50,500 cubic yards of basalt rock would be removed from the river during the channel deepening.

The agency plan has been to put the material into beneficial use at Lois Island and Miller-Pillar for ecosystem restoration projects and to fill in half of the manmade lagoon at Martin Island near Woodland, Wash, to create wildlife mitigation acreage.

Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development would not authorize the disposal of dredged material at the Miller-Pillar site located just inside Oregon waters near the Washington shore about 15 miles northeast of Astoria, because of conflicts with traditional fishing areas and a determination that the Corps' proposed "ecosystem restoration" project there does not qualify as estuarine restoration work. The Corps had proposed to use dredged material to create inter-tidal habitats.

The DLCD also will not allow the proposed Lois Island "ecosystem restoration" project to proceed unless the Corps complies with an extensive series of conditions to meet environmental and economic concerns raised by Clatsop County and various state agencies.

The Corps' plan to dispose of dredged material at Lois Island, located just east of Tongue Point about five miles east of Astoria, would affect an area of commercial fishing and future water-dependent development. That state has asked that the Corps pay to replace the "select area fishery" if it is affected by the dredge disposal.

In addition, the permits approved by Washington's Department of Ecology will not allow filling in the bay at Martin Island. Recreational boaters voiced strong opposition to losing this popular mooring location. Instead, the state will require that a dense barrier of shrub vegetation be planted to help keep people off the island.

The Corps will turn to alternate sites to make up for disposal options lost because of the state permit conditions, which will likely drive up the cost of the dredging project, Hicks said.

"This was our least-cost plan," Hicks said. The Corps had not intended to utilize a deep-water disposal site four miles into the ocean for 20 years but plans may change. Coastal county governments, and residents, have opposed the Corps' use of the deepwater site for dumping dredged materials due to the activity's potential impact on existing crab beds.

"If necessary, we will use ocean disposal," Hicks said, calling it the least preferred option. Work could begin next year if the necessary funds are appropriated by Congress. The states of Oregon and Washington have pledged to spend as much as $27 million apiece to match federal spending on the project.

Oregon's DLCD is not excluding the Corps from disposing of dredged material in the ocean, but is requiring the Corps to meet the agency's deepwater ocean disposal conditions that have been used previously to regulate deepwater ocean disposal for maintenance dredging at the mouth of the Columbia River.

DLCD and Clatsop County agree that the Corps must pursue regional sand management to develop additional dredged material site options associated with the channel deepening. The Corps should consider a variety of inland and near-shore dredge disposal sites and give inland sites priority over disposal sites in the estuary or ocean, according to the DLCD.

"We have looked hard at what the Corps proposed and listened carefully to local concerns," said Nan Evans, DLCD director. "We understand the potential for environmental harm if the project is not done properly. We believe our conditions will enable the Corps to proceed with a project that is clearly important to Oregon's economy and trade position on the Pacific Rim while protecting the environment and economy of the Columbia River estuary."

Permit conditions by both states require the Corps to take detailed steps to lessen environmental effects of the project.

"We have reasonable assurances with these requirements that the project will not harm our vital Columbia River resources," said Gordon White, manager of Ecology's shorelands program. "The Corps has successfully worked with us to resolve the many concerns that led to our original denial of the permits in September of 2000."

White said the state's conditions will provide overall benefits for all river dredging, not just deepening. Yearly maintenance dredging of the navigation channel has been ongoing for decades.

Washington's approvals require that dredged sand is used for maximum public and environmental benefits. The sand must be placed in a combination of locations, including beaches, river flow lanes, environmental restoration sites and upland areas. Ocean disposal of sand may only be used as a last resort.

"Washington's commitment is to work with the Corps, the state of Oregon, the ports and the federal agencies to use all of the dredged sand in a beneficial way," White said.

The states will require the Corps to monitor what effects dredging may have on crab, fish (sturgeon and smelt), sand and water quality. Monitoring information will be used to develop solutions under an "adaptive management" plan.

"The conditions in this certification will assure that the project will meet water quality standards," Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Stephanie Hallock said of the state's water quality approval.

"Through the requirements placed on the Corps, the state will stay intimately involved in the project to ensure that water quality standards are met and beneficial uses are protected."

Because the project will extend over many years, the three participating state agencies, along with the Corps of Engineers, will establish a process to oversee dredging and disposal of dredged material and to make changes if problems arise. The process will involve local governments and the public, and will include technical staff, managers and directors from the agencies. The states would retain ultimate authority to determine operations. The Corps also is required to establish a public Web site for data about the channel deepening to ensure that the public has updated, detailed information about the project.

The Columbia Deepening Opposition Group said Tuesday that the state approvals lack the comprehensive criticism the project deserves, but predicted that the many conditions would halt the project.

"After a decade and a half the Corps has not been able to find a legal and responsible way to deepen this channel," said CDOG executive director Peter Huhtala. "It's past time to hang this up. Abandoning the project will begin healing the wounds of derision caused by the unfortunate attempt to muscle approval. It would insult the public trust to inflict additional destruction on our degraded estuary."

CDOG has actively challenged the deepening plans for the past five years. The Astoria-based group has complained that the dredging, blasting and dumping would damage the estuary ecosystem and the economies of lower river communities. CDOG has raised concerns about harm to salmon, sturgeon, smelt, lamprey, crab and other aquatic life.

"We are confident that the Corps will ultimately take the proper and sensible approach and recommend against proceeding," said Huhtala, "But it is very troubling that the states did not take a stronger stand to protect the Columbia River estuary and plume from unnecessary harm."

Oregon's water quality approval requires that the Corps meet several conditions in order to complete the project. Key issues identified by DEQ are:

The Columbia River Channel Improvement Project has gone through many changes due to input from a multitude of agencies and stakeholders. The original project involved deepening the federal navigation channel by three feet, along with some required mitigation work to make up for wetlands and wildlife habitat impacts, and three restoration projects. The project has since evolved to include several ecosystem restoration features designed to aid in the recovery of threatened and endangered species - both fish and wildlife.

"This is not the same project the states of Oregon and Washington denied approval on in September 2000," Hicks said. "Since that time, we have worked to clarify requirements and seek answers to questions and issues raised by the states."

The Corps must now go back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA-Fisheries to discuss how the states' conditions on the project could affect the Corps' ability to meet requirements laid out by the two federal fisheries agencies in their 2001 biological opinions. At the same time the Corps will evaluate the effects any changes will have on the cost of completing the project.

Any changes to the project, to include updated costs, will be included in the final Record of Decision due out in August.

The Corps has been working with the ports since the late 1980s to deepen the channel. Approvals from NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were received in 1999, but NOAA Fisheries rescinded its ruling in August 2000. It cited new information that the project could have detrimental effects on ESA listed salmon and steelhead species. Specifically, the agency was concerned how contaminants from the dredging operation would affect endangered species, and it was concerned about a lawsuit brought against NOAA Fisheries by Northwest Environmental Advocates. About the same time, the states denied the project both water quality permits and CZMA approval.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
States, with Conditions, Give Approval to Channel Deepening
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 27, 2003

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