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Dredging Gets a Boost

by Staff
Capital Press, December 17, 2004

A tight budget and political reality have combined to leave funding for dredging the Columbia River Channel short of the $15 million in federal funds needed to continue the project at full speed next year.

But the project is alive and well, say its supporters. Barring any major setbacks as the result of a pending legal challenge, they say the dredging could be finished as soon as the year 2007.

Though the U.S. Senate last month authorized $15 million, the full amount President George W. Bush announced he would request during a campaign stop last summer at the Port of Portland, the previously passed House version of the dredging budget came in at only $3 million. A House-Senate conference committee then split the difference and appropriated $9 million.

The result is a much larger reduction in funding for the dredging than to most of the other projects included in the $388 billion appropriations bill, but that, as they say, is political reality. Most other projects sustained a 1 percent across-the-board cut as conference committee members grappled with a growing federal deficit.

Though disappointing, the appropriation leaves open the door for further work in the channel next summer and for Congress to up the ante next year.

Supporters of the dredging, which would deepen the 600-foot-wide, 103-mile-long channel by three feet, say they hope the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can issue an approximately $15 million contract this spring or summer.

Though the contract will be smaller than the $23 million to $24 million originally envisioned by project managers, it would provide for dredging about 25 miles of the lower Columbia River channel and about 10 miles at the upper end of the channel, said Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, a group of 203 shippers, farmers, civic organizations, businesses, ports, unions and cities that depend on the Columbia River as a means of transporting goods and commodities throughout the region.

The money for next summer’s effort will come from the $9 million recently appropriated by Congress, about $2 million left over from the previous federal appropriation for the project and about $2 million each from Oregon and Washington state, said Hunt.

In 2001 the two states each appropriated $27.7 million as their 35 percent combined contribution toward the $150 million project, Hunt said. The appropriations are to be matched by the federal government, which will provide 65 percent of the cost.

The coalition and the region’s governors and congressional delegations are already working with the White House to procure $40 million in each of the fiscal years 2006 and 2007 to complete the dredging. The governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, the four states’ U.S. senators and their representatives to the U.S. House all recently sent letters of support to the White House urging that the dredging be fully funded, Hunt said.

“If we get the $40 million in 2006 and 2007 we’ll be done,” he said on Dec. 13.

If that occurs, it will cap an effort to deepen the channel that began in 1987.

The project does, however, face a legal challenge in U.S. District Court brought by Earthjustice and Northwest Environmental Advocates, which allege all dredging damages the river’s ecosystem, including the fish and wildlife, Hunt said. Litigation challenging other aspects of the project has already been settled, he said, adding that he hopes the lawsuit can be resolved in a timely manner that won’t delay next year’s work.

Dredging the Columbia is nothing new. In 1860, the channel was deepened to 25 feet. Since then, it has been repeatedly deepened over the years until the current 40-foot channel depth was reached in the early 1970s.

The need for a deeper channel is even greater now than it was when the project was first considered, Hunt said.

The region will continue to grow, meaning that the market for more imports from Asia and elsewhere will continue to grow and that alternative ports in the Northwest and California will become even more congested. At the same time, the high value of imports will help drive the economic arguments supporting a deeper channel.

Hanjin, the major container shipper using the Port of Portland, uses ships that “can use every bit of a deeper channel to import and export more of the region’s containers,” said Hanjin Regional Manager Jeff McEwen in a press release.

This in turn will open the door wider for agricultural exporters, which ship their commodities and products to Japan, South Korea and other parts of the Far East and beyond in containers. Besides the container traffic, approximately 25 percent of all U.S. grain is shipped down the Columbia River.

By any measure, this project is long overdue, as larger ships require a deeper channel to use the Port of Portland and to keep agricultural exports flowing to the Pacific Rim and the rest of the world. Barring any delays at the hands of the remaining environmental challenge, importers and exporters throughout the region will soon benefit from the project.

Dredging Gets a Boost
Capital Press, December 17, 2004

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