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Columbia Channel Improvement Funding Approved

by Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Capital Press, February 21, 2003

Overriding the wishes of the Bush administration and an appropriations vote by the U.S. House of Representatives in January, Congress agreed to spend $2 million this year to begin the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project.

The appropriation was included in the Omnibus FY 2003 Appropriations Bill, approved by the House-Senate Conference Committee on Feb. 13 and forwarded to President George W. Bush for his signature.

The final amount is less than half of the $5 million sought by the U.S. Senate, but supporters of the channel improvement project say this is less important that its symbolic value, because it marks a beginning for the long-awaited multi-year, $134 million project, which will in increase the depth of the navigation channel from a minimum of 40 feet to 43 feet, between Portland and Astoria.

Glenn Vanselow, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said, "This represents incremental funding to keep the project moving forward during 2003." PNWA has lobbied Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the Port of Portland, Port of Vancouver, Port of Longview, Port of Kalama, Port of St. Helens and the Port of Woodland, which are supporting the deeper channel.

"The amount was less than we wanted, but the fact that it was funded means the project is more likely to be funded again next year."

This, he said, is of crucial importance, since the proposed fiscal 2004 budget, submitted by the president after the State of the Union Address, includes no allocation for the channel improvement project.

"We're dealing with a different Congress than last year. We don't know how the appropriations process will go," he said, but the fiscal 2003 vote is a good sign. "The question wasn't about the amount, it was funding versus no funding, and now it looks more likely that there will be funding."

Elisa Dozonon, spokesman for the Port of Portland, cautioned that, "this is just an initial pot of money to get environmental measures started sooner, rather than later." The ability to spend the $2 million depends on approval of water quality and coastal zone management act compliance permits by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Washington's Department of Environment.

How easy this process will be depends on whether the states believe that environmental concerns have been addressed.

Theeme Holznagel, spokesman for the Columbia River Channel Coalition, said project supporters are counting on the results of a two-year reconciliation process between the corps, the NOAA Fisheries Service and the ports.

"The environmentalists participated in the workshops and testified before the independent scientific panel," she said, which either found there was no impact or made changes to answer environmental concerns. These changes were incorporated into the supplemental integrated feasibility report and environmental impact statement, published on Jan. 28. "This process has made a better plan," Holzangel said.

Environmental groups remain unconvinced, as well as committ4ed to bring their concerns before the state environmental agencies.

Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director for the Sierra Club, said, "The corps promised to restore habitat in the lower Columbia estuary. It is hard to reconcile restoring the ecosystem with dredging up big chunks of toxic soil from the bottom of the river."

The Lower Columbia River Coordinator for American Rivers, David Morye, said, "Our concerns remain the same, and are echoed by others in the region. There is a lack of understanding about the impacts on sturgeon, salmon and other species."

He also rejects the plan's habitat restoration projects as, "just another way for the corps to dispose of dredge spoils. There might be a use for dredge sand in habitat restoration work, but not on the scale they are proposing."

If Oregon and Washington environmental agencies agree to the revised channel improvement plan, their rulings will constitute a final stage before issue of a record of decision, said Laura Hicks, channel improvements project manager for the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The National Environmental Policy Act documentation process will close on March 3, "then we'll wait to hear from the states on March 7," Hicks said, "After that, we'll need a cooperation agreement with the sponsoring ports, primarily the Port of Portland and Port of Vancouver."

When work begins, it will first involve fish passage improvements and predator control. "Throughout this process, we have been working in areas that concern the (NOAA Fisheries Service)," she said. "That process of assessment and restoration will continue."

Along with the money provided for the channel improvement project, the Congressional conference committee allocated $16.3 million for maintenance dredging on the Columbia mainstem, $9.2 million for maintenance dredging at the mouth of the river, near Astoria, and $2 million for ecosystem restoration along the Columbia River.

Additional funding was provided for maintenance dredging at Oregon coastal ports, also deleted from the president's proposed budget, as well as %4.4 million for operation and repair of lock gates at John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.

Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Columbia Channel Improvement Funding Approved
Capital Press, February 21, 2003

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