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Astoria Channel Hearing Focuses on Estuary Impacts

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 13, 2002

Although less strident than in the past, local residents of the lower Columbia River estuary communities still say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' and Columbia River ports' plans to deepen the river by three feet will cause irreparable harm to both the estuary and their livelihoods, while proponents of the project are calling it both an economic boon and a project that will help restore the estuary.

The Corps' most contentious public meetings on channel deepening have occurred in Astoria, Ore., during the project's 13-year planning history. Residents of the estuary where many of the river's commercial salmon, sturgeon and crab fishermen live early on said the project would further damage their livelihood and have recently threatened lawsuits if the Corps proceeded with the project.

The hearing in Astoria this week was no less polarized than the other public meetings the Corps held on the topic in Portland and Vancouver and Longview, Wash. However, it was less contentious than in the past, largely due to the number of speakers from upstream urban areas that opponents say will gain the most if the channel deepening project is approved.

"Certainly the national economy will benefit, but so too will the Columbia and Willamette river urban communities up and down the river," said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland who also grew up in Astoria. He said that $14 billion worth of goods travel up and down the Columbia River in ships, supporting 40,000 jobs. "People demand that this project not put the environment at risk and this project doesn't," he added.

Also lining up in favor of the project at the public meeting were Longshore Local 8 from Portland, the ports of Vancouver, St. Helens and Willapa Harbor, Oregon's Economic and Community Development Department, the Oregon Wheat Growers League and the Columbia River Channel Coalition.

In the middle were two landowners who live on Puget Island near Cathlamet, Wash. While not opposing the project, they complained about how the wakes of larger and larger ships speeding past the island at up to 17 knots were eroding their land.

"There are 2,000 ship calls per year and they go both ways, so that's 4,000," he said. Some damage is catastrophic, some is just day to day erosion. He called the damage government subsidized hit and run. "I'm not really against the channel deepening and I don't need the ships to slow down. I just want you to fix the beach."

The Corps and the six Columbia River ports of Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Kalama, Woodland and Longview in Washington, are proposing to deepen the existing Columbia River navigation channel from near the river's mouth to river mile 106.5 and the lower 12 miles of the Willamette River by three feet, from 40 to 43 feet.

While many stress the economic benefits of the project, Dale Beasely of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association, a long-time opponent of the project, said "I'm here to remind you of the negative benefits and they are to my industry. My industry is facing government subsidized hit and run, too."

The states of Oregon and Washington have committed to pay matching funds of about 35 percent of the $156 million project. However, Beasely said a little known fact is that the state of Washington's money will go to the Corps only after it is assured the crab industry is protected. "I don't think we're protected," he said.

He said an Environmental Protection Agency review of the deepwater ocean disposal site, which the Corps until recently said it had removed from the proposal unless other disposal plans were disapproved, is incomplete, and the public health and safety at the Corps' disposal Site E has not been resolved.

In fact, as Laura Hicks, the Corps' project manager said this week, the deepwater disposal site continues to be a part of the channel deepening disposal plan, but it won't be used until 10 years after the channel is deepened.

Beyond those details, he said the adverse economic impacts to the estuary's commercial resources have not properly been evaluated and "the 'M' word for damages has not been addressed." 'M' is for mitigation.

There are some positives, he said. One is the beneficial use of dredged spoils on Benson Beach in Washington where erosion is removing big chunks of the beach.

Also in the camp opposing the project because of concerns it ignores the plight of lower river economies and may have long-term environmental consequences, was Robert Warren, executive director of Sea Resources in Chinook, Wash., Sea Resources is a non-profit watershed restoration and education center that that operates on the Chinook River, the western-most salmon bearing tributary of the Columbia River, according to Warren.

"I believe we have witnessed an approach by some federal agencies that has shown an apparent total disregard for the local communities it will likely affect," Warren told the audience of about 80 people. "One hears and reads words of the importance of public outreach, coordination, and cooperation. But often only get condescending attitudes, arrogance, and a sense that locals are simply an annoyance that need to be overcome. Often the greater effort is placed in finding a way around local issues rather than demonstrating a genuine attempt to find a mutually acceptable solution."

He said the estuary and river system is severely altered and "continues to be managed in a way that is not beneficial to efforts to protect and restore natural resources. Not until all responsible parties act in a way that is conducive to restoring some semblance of a natural system will we make any progress in salmon restoration."

As it opened the public session, the Corps concentrated mostly on its plans for nine ecosystem restoration projects, several of which would provide additional shallow water habitat in the estuary.

"This is a dual purpose project," Hicks said. "It's a navigation improvement project and an ecosystem restoration project."

Just getting to this point has taken about 13 years, according to Hicks. The agency began what it calls its reconnaissance phase and project study resolution in 1989. It began the feasibility study in 1994, completed a draft report and environmental impact statement in 1998 and a final EIS in August 1999. The project received the blessings of Oregon, Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service by December 1999, just in time for the Corps to send the study off to Congress for authorization. However, USFW and NFMS rescinded their approval when new information regarding the project's impacts on the estuary came to light. Since then, the Corps has worked collaboratively with NMFS to improve the project's environmental aspects.

"The Corps tried to take a more ecosystem approach and be as site specific for the restoration components as possible," Hicks said. While the first plan called for restoring up to 4,500 acres, the new plan doesn't focus on acreage, but rather on the projects.

In the initial plan dredged spoils from the estuary would have been hauled out to the deepwater ocean site, which Beasely opposes because the site is also prime crab breeding habitat. Now the Corps will store those spoils in a temporary sump and pump the spoils into an embayment in Lois Island during a November to March in-water work period, creating 400 acres of shallow water habitat. It will also begin a new dumpsite near Miller-Piller Islands, creating even more shallow water habitat. After ten years, these sites will be full, so the Corps would then revert to its original plan and dump spoils in the ocean.

However, the new shallow water habitat and other restoration actions planned by the Corps "does not leave the estuary ecosystem better than before," according to Christy McDonough, coastal planner at the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce. CREST is a local bi-state council of governments in the estuary. "The disposal plan presented in the supplemental EIS labels estuary dump sites as restoration and fails to address long-term protection of ocean resources, particularly Dungeness crab."

She said that the Corps' dredging already has created Rice Island, which over the past ten years has attracted huge amounts of Caspian terns that feed on juvenile salmon, and Site E, "the largest dredged disposal sites in the history of the Columbia River."

While CREST supports the notion of using dredged spoils to restore habitat, she said, in the process of creating more shallow water habitat the Corps is creating the one habitat type that has actually grown over the past century. "We have over 4,000 acres more shallow water habitat than we had historically in the estuary," she said. She recommends more beneficial use alternatives.

Others read the Corps' proposals differently. Dave Hunt, executive director of the Channel Deepening Coalition, said that the environmental restoration projects are clearly not mitigation. "These are measures that go beyond the impact," he said. "This project has a net environmental gain."

And others touted the economic benefits the project would gain for the region.

"The department believes that without deepening the channel, trade would likely diminish and that will have an impact on our economy," said Mike Burton, assistant director of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.

John Fratt of the Port of Vancouver, said a new grain ship called on his port Aug. 16 and took on nearly 57,000 tons of wheat, but it had to leave 6,000 tons on the dock because the channel was not deep enough.

"Our area and this magnificent river channel helped the USA in its balance of trade problems," Fratt said. "But it has mostly helped our farmers."

The meeting in Astoria was the final public meeting to discuss the Corps' Supplemental Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement. The agency extended its deadline for comment from Sept. 12 to Sept. 15.

Related Sites:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Mike O'Bryant
Astoria Channel Hearing Focuses on Estuary Impacts
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 13, 2002

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