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Lower River Counties
Reject Channel Deepening Plan

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 6, 2003

Three lower Columbia River counties ruled that much of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer plan to deepen the Columbia River navigation channel by three feet is not consistent with county comprehensive and coastal management plans.

While the rulings do not automatically reject the Corps' project out of hand, both Oregon and Washington said the county decisions carry great weight when making judgments on the Clean Water Act certification and Coastal Zone Management Act consistency determination they must make by June 23.

Clatsop County in Oregon, and Wahkiakum and Pacific counties in Washington said the channel deepening plan conflicts with parts of existing local plans. And the counties, as well as nearly every speaker at a recent hearing in Astoria, Ore. oppose the Corps' intention to dump dredged spoils at a disposal site four miles off the coast that would affect a known crab bed if the states nix its plan to dump spoils at ecosystem restoration projects in the estuary.

Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Land Conservation and Development, along with the Washington Department of Ecology, held a joint hearing in Astoria May 29, where county officials and local citizens spoke out about the Corps' $133.6 million plan to deepen the Columbia River navigation channel by three feet. Generally, upriver ports, represented at the meeting by the ports of Kalama and Vancouver, Columbia River bar pilots and Longshoremen favored the Corps' channel improvement project, saying it is needed if six lower Columbia River ports are to continue to be competitive.

Those who live in the estuary opposed the project due to its potential impacts on local salmon and crab fisheries. The project, they said, sets up a conflict between upriver interests and people who live and work in the lower estuary, and, with the recent addition by the Corps of an ocean site for dumping dredged materials, a potential conflict between salmon and crab fishermen. However, despite the negative ruling by the counties, state agencies still have leeway to approve the project while setting conditions on its implementation.

"Clatsop County is one of the local jurisdictions we consider a partner in the state's coastal management program," said Christine Valentine of DLCD. "Yes, DLCD will consider the input from Clatsop and we will give great weight to and consider all their comments."

She said that local land use jurisdictions, such as Clatsop County, are one leg of a three-legged stool, which also includes Oregon statutes and goals, and Oregon governmental agencies overseeing coastal management. "All of this is pieced together to create an Oregon coastal management program," Valentine said.

She added that the state will work with federal agencies and try to resolve conflicts where they arise. Although the state can still approve the channel deepening project, it also has the option to place conditions on the Corps' implementation of its plan.

Sandy Howard, a spokeswoman for WDOE, said that if the project doesn't meet county shoreline guidelines, the state would make the final determination for the CZMA consistency determination. "However, if they (the counties) raise a red flag, it raises a red flag for us, too," she said.

Two of the lower Columbia River counties -- Clatsop and Wahkiakum -- were represented at the Astoria hearing, ostensibly the last hearing to be held before the states make their final determinations on a 401 clean water certification and CZMA consistency for the channel deepening project.

"We reviewed the project for consistency and concluded it is inconsistent with our comprehensive plan," said Veronica Smith, senior planner with Clatsop County. Among other discrepancies, she cited a lack of timing windows in the deepening project's plan that other projects must adhere to in order to avoid jeopardizing endangered salmon and steelhead migrations, and a lack of coordination between the Corps and local governments.

Clatsop County, she said, rejected both of the Corps' proposed ecosystem restoration projects. One of those projects is proposed at Miller-Pillar, which Smith said would destroy a historic fishing drift. The other is at Lois Island near Tongue Point, which would impact a terminal fishery in the area that is operated by the Clatsop County Economic Development Council. The restoration project would require the state to relocate the fishery, a relocation the state of Oregon proposed in April as a way to salvage the channel deepening project. Finally, the county opposed the Corps' use of the deepwater site for dumping dredged materials due to the activity's impact on existing crab beds, Smith said.

"We've had to say no to this because it doesn't meet the rules. That's what this is about," said David Vick, a landowner on Puget Island near Cathlamet, Wash., and also a Wahkiakum County Commissioner. "Yes, it's not just a lower river issue, but there was a day that Astoria was the second largest city in Oregon. The economic driver was the heart of silver that came back up the river. Now the fishery is ruined. It is zero sum economics when one wins and one loses."

Washington Ecology reopened its comment period after the Corps asked it May 15 to consider the deepwater site in its application for water quality certification and a CZMA consistency determination. Ecology said it considered the request to include the ocean dumping site an amendment and so had to reopen the process to public comment. The original application had not anticipated the use of such a site for dredged spoils from deepening the channel for 20 years, but instead had planned to dump material dredged from the river's estuary in two habitat restoration sites, also located in the Columbia River estuary. The Corps said it would use the deepwater dumpsite only if it is unable to use the in-river ecosystem restoration sites for dumping the spoils.

Proponents of deepening the navigation channel said the Corps' new plan includes significant favorable environmental actions and is an improvement over a previous plan that was withdrawn two years ago when NOAA Fisheries under pressure of a lawsuit by the Northwest Environmental Advocates withdrew its favorable biological opinion of the project. After working closely with the Corps, the fisheries agency again gave a favorable approval to the project in January 2003, but with the condition that the Corps develop six ecosystem restoration projects.

"In addition to the environmental necessity of restoring the Columbia River estuary and ecosystem there is a significant economic necessity to ensure that jobs are retained and that significant current and future international trade, via the Columbia River, continues to be sustained in this region," said Theeme Holznagel, office manager for the Columbia River Channel Coalition.

Holznagel said the project is much greater than originally proposed 14 years ago at its inception. "The proposed ecosystem restoration features are a major benefit to restoring parts of the estuary and providing additional habitat for threatened and endangered salmon species," she said.

She said, for example, that the Lois Island ecosystem restoration project had been changed and now affects 191 acres, down from the 357 acres originally proposed by the Corps, leaving plenty of room in the area to operate the CEDC select area fishery, she said.

However, Tod Jones, manager of the CEDC select area fisheries project, said he is dismayed at the definition of restoration used by NOAA Fisheries and the Corps. Jones said the shallow water created at Lois Island would actually be a haven for birds preying on the juvenile salmon released by the select area fishery, not a rearing area as the Corps claims.

The Lois Island fill would also impact a commercial development at Tongue Point, according to John Crowley, President of the Washington Development Company, which has been developing an old U.S. Navy site at North Tongue Point. He said his company already has spent millions of dollars to enhance the site, including $800,000 in dredging expenses.

"The size and location make this a valuable resource for the entire region," Crowley said. "I had previously said I was not opposed to the channel project as long as there was no impact at North Tongue Point. My public support has changed and its seems that the only way to protect our investment now is to oppose the entire project. I don't want to hear that our economy has become a victim of the upriver economy."

Speaking about the Miller Sands drift fishing site (Miller-Pillar ecosystem restoration project) where the Corps plans to dump dredged spoils, Holznagel said the impact of the project on commercial salmon fishing would be minimal, affecting only 14 percent of the area that supports up to 17 fishing families. "This is clearly a minimal impact compared to the environmental benefits that would be gained by restoring this part of the ecosystem by providing rearing habitat for ocean-type salmonids," Holznagel said.

However, Jones said that the Corps' plan to dump dredged spoils at Miller-Pillar may not physically fill the entire drift used by fishermen, but the design ruins the entire drift, effectively leaving 17 fishermen out of work.

James Wells, president of Salmon for All and a member of the Altuna Snag Union, which has had rights to fish the Miller-Pillar drift since the 1800s, agreed with Jones. He said that the Corps' plan would destroy the traditional drift and that throughout the development of its plan, the Corps had not once contacted his Union.

"We have allowed too many things to happen to this great river of ours," said John Westerholm of the Columbia River Fishermen's Union. "At some point we need to say enough, Mother Nature needs a break."

DeBruyler said the Corps has never really assessed the cumulative impacts of its dredging projects. "Before you can do a decision of this type, you must do a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) so you know the (pollution) loading to the system and the impact to the ecosystem," DeBruyler said. He added that there would be legal challenges to the project due to this and other inadequacies.

Russell Harding of DEQ said the Columbia River is on the state's 303(d) list of impaired water bodies for the presence of a number of toxins, including DDT, DDE, PCBs, among others.

"We're not meeting water quality standards for those," Harding said. "Also, we don't know where they come from and we are unsure of the veracity of the data." Giving a hint as to what Oregon will do with its water quality certification, he said DEQ will take this into account and it will impose conditions for monitoring while the dredging is in progress. "We know that sediments will be dredged in such a way that they could be dispersed in the river," Harding said.

But, he added, the channel deepening project is not the mechanism to clean up the river. That is a TMDL process, which is in progress, but won't be completed before the states complete their review of the Corps' channel deepening project.

"Please remember that you cannot sacrifice our society," said Dr. Sunny Park, an Astoria-based medical internist. "This area has the highest cancer risk in Oregon."

He said his research is showing a direct correlation between the Corps' dredging activities and that higher risk of cancer.

Virtually no one at the meeting, including salmon fishermen and ports, supported the Corps' use of the deepwater site off the Columbia River mouth as a dump site for dredged spoils that come from the channel deepening project.

"The primary concern for us is the health of the crab fishery," said Dale Beasley of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman's Association. His organization has criticized the Corps' dumping of dredged spoils over crab beds and at locations near the North Jetty that they say contributes to dangerous conditions on the Columbia River Bar.

Beasley said that a study by crab fishermen at one offshore site found the crab fishery immediately dropped 90-95 percent after the Corps dumped dredged spoils on the site, and that six years later the crab fishery was still impaired by 50 percent.

Others said the issue is about more than lower river communities.

"It would be a mistake for us to leave this room thinking this is an Astoria or local issue," said Jonathan Schleuter, past vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association. "Indeed, it is a regional and a national issue. It is probably the only issue that unifies such a broad base of our states politically."

He said river commerce is responsible for 10,000 family wage jobs (for grain shipping only) and another 59,000 jobs associated indirectly with that commerce.

While the comment period has closed for Oregon agencies (June 2), Washington Ecology will accept comments through June 9.

Related Sites:
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality:
Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development:
Washington Department of Ecology:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District:

Mike O'Bryant
Lower River Counties Reject Channel Deepening Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 6, 2003

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