Corps, Ports Pact Allowsby CBB Staff
The last administrative hurdle was cleared this week for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin a controversial project to deepen the Columbia River navigation channel by three feet.
The Corps and five lower Columbia River sponsoring ports signed a project cooperation agreement Wednesday, June 23, that outlines the expectations and responsibilities for each participant in the $150.5 million channel improvement project. The project proposes to deepen the lower 103 miles of the Columbia River navigation channel from 40 feet to 43 feet.
"This is the last administrative step in the process," said Matt Rabe of the Corps. "If we had all the funding in place, we could initiate actions immediately to begin construction."
The Corps said it needs $15 million for the project in fiscal year 2005. However, what Congress will fund for FY 2005 is still unknown. President Bush had not included any money for the project in his FY 2005 budget and likely won't until the Office of Management and Budget completes its project review, said Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition. But the House Appropriations Committee in its Energy and Water bill passed last week appropriated $3 million to the deepening project and the Senate has yet to act.
The $3 million is far less than is needed in FY 2005 in order for the Corps to get a good start on dredging, said Hunt. He added that in past appropriations, the "Senate has always done the heavy lifting for the channel project. Each year, its appropriation has been higher than the House." He said he's confident the Senate will include more money for the project than the House, pointing to staunch proponents of the project on the Senate Appropriations Committee -- Patti Murray of Washington and Larry Craig of Idaho. "We're still optimistic we'll get the $15 million," Hunt said.
Prior to FY 2005, Congress had appropriated a total of $10 million to the project and there is $3.6 million of that money still available for work on ecosystem restoration projects this summer, Rabe said. Actual dredging wouldn't begin until the summer of 2005, depending on the amount budgeted by Congress. The Corps already has spent $6.4 million on reconsultation for the biological opinion, studies, plans and specifications, the Record of Decision and for the agreement approved this week, he said.
The agreement also signifies the commitment of the states of Oregon and Washington to the project, which will contribute $27 million each or a total of about 36 percent of the project's cost. While the Washington appropriation comes from the state's Transportation budget, Hunt said, this agreement allows the State of Oregon to issue the lottery bonds in August it will need to pay its part.
"We have reached a major milestone," said Lt. Col. Charles Markham, the Corps' acting Portland District engineer. "It took us 14 years to get to this day. But through those years, we have gained a better understanding of the Columbia River, of the natural environment, and of the socio-economic makeup of this region."
Hunt said the agreement is full of standard contract language, but it also is unique among Corps projects because it includes far more monitoring and evaluation and it has an adaptive management component as additional environmental safeguards.
While the Corps and ports have ticked off all the administrative requirements to move ahead, the project still could be stopped on legal grounds. Last week Northwest Environmental Advocates amended its original lawsuit challenging NOAA Fisheries' biological opinions of the Corps dredging operations in the lower Columbia River and at the river's mouth to include the Corps and the channel deepening project.
Lower Columbia River ports have said that deepening the channel from Portland to Astoria is needed to stay competitive with other West Coast ports and that it would allow international shippers to more fully load deep-draft grain and container ships.
NWEA sees the project as one that further degrades the Columbia River estuary after years of dredging and erosion, according to Nina Bell, the environmental group's executive director. She contends that NOAA and the Corps have not considered the cumulative effects of the dredging operations, nor has the Corps included the cost of fixing all the problems caused by past dredging in its NEPA documentation for the channel deepening project. Fixing the problem, she said, could cost "hundreds of millions of dollars."
The agreement was signed by the Corps, the Washington ports of Kalama, Longview, Vancouver and Woodland, and the Port of Portland, which also signed for the Port of St. Helens. Both are in Oregon.
Channel Deepening project documents: www.nwp.usace.army.mil/issues/crcip/cms/home.asp
Northwest Environmental Advocates: www.northwestenvironmentaladvocates.org
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: www.nwp.usace.army.mil
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