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Corps Releases Final Channel Deepening Report

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 31, 2003

The final report on the costs and impacts of deepening the Columbia River navigation channel from 40 feet to 43 feet, released this week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, lowers the project's cost and raises its benefits.

And although the Corps made some concessions to critics, lower river communities say the project still does not adequately address their concerns and they are continuing to oppose the project.

Since the original report was released in 1999, the Corps said it has reduced its estimates of the amount of sand and rock to be removed from the river's bottom, reduced impacts to riparian lands and wetlands, added five ecosystem restoration projects and delay for 20 years dumping of sands collected from the deepening over deepwater crab beds off the coast.

It has also dropped the project's cost from a $188 million estimate in 1999 to $156.2 million in July 2002, and now it has set the price to dredge the Columbia River from Portland to the river's mouth at $133.6 million. That includes the cost to carve out a portion of the channel to ensure a depth of at least 43 feet along the project's 103-mile course and the cost of five ecosystem restoration projects. It also has recalculated the benefits of a deeper channel on the economy, saying that the project will return $1.71 in benefits for every dollar spent, an increase from the $1.46 it had estimated in July 2002.

But representatives of lower river communities continue to say that the project will further degrade the Columbia River estuary and harm both endangered salmon and the livelihood of people who live and work in the lower river. They say that the Corps' proposals to correct the problems caused by dredging the river don't go far enough.

"The proposal is so outrageous that it is time for our elected officials, many of whom have gone along with this charade in good faith, to insist that the Corps protect the public trust," said Peter Huhtala, Executive Director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group. "The Columbia River deepening is now a clear embarrassment to any politician who cares about the environment and the sustainable economies of the rural Northwest."

"This document patronizes our counties, agencies, fishing groups and others who have offered honest suggestions," Huhtala continued. "The authors, who often refer to themselves as the Federal Government, ignore our legitimate concerns and are prepared to steamroll over our interests."

The sponsoring ports of Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Woodland, Kalama and Longview in Washington, believe a deeper channel will allow larger ships to traverse the Columbia River. That would lower shipping costs and making the ports more competitive with other West Coast ports and the Corps' economic study bears out that assertion.

The Corps said it has made recent concessions in the plan -- known as the Final Supplemental Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement -- that address many of the concerns brought forward by lower river residents. It has set back for twenty years the use of a deepwater dumpsite over crab beds that crab fishermen said would harm their industry.

In addition, it cut back by nearly half the acreage affected by an ecosystem restoration project at Lois Island embayment, which should reduce the impact to the select fishery at Tongue Point and reduce the "footprint" of the project, according to Matt Rabe of the Corps. Instead of creating shallow water habitat, the Corps will create intertidal marsh lands, which allows the dredged material to be stacked higher and takes up less room. Rabe said that is a direct response to comments the Corps heard from critics during the draft stage of its report.

The Corps also changed the footprint at Miller-Pillar, an area of the river that currently supports 17 fishing families, by changing the designation of created habitat from shallow water habitat to intertidal marsh, allowing that ecosystem restoration feature to also be smaller. Instead of five pile dikes, the project will install only three.

In a nod to the river's boating community, the Corps cut the amount of fill it had planned at Martin Island near Kalama, Wash. by half. The Corps had intended to fill the lagoon at the island where boaters seek refuge, but instead will fill just 16 of the 32 acres.

"Not only would the revised plan protect the existing ecosystem, it would actually improve conditions in some areas and provide additional habitat for threatened and endangered salmon species," said Laura Hicks, project manager.

Although his organization has just begun to review the huge document, Matt Van Ness, director of the Columbia River Estuary Study Task Force in Astoria, said he is still concerned about the Corps' plans and how they affect the estuary. The task force represents lower Columbia River governments in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon. His list of complaints includes increasing the use of new in-water estuary disposal sites, the failure to adequately address ocean disposal and a proposal for dredging that is based on "inadequate sediment characterization and questionable volume calculations."

Overall, the plan "continues degradation to estuarine habitat and impacts ESA species, emphasizes ESA approvals based on relatively low priority 'ecosystem restoration' projects, provides no beneficial uses of dredged material in the estuary, counters overall dredged material management policies, and uses an uncertain 'adaptive management' scenario for project approval," Van Ness said.

"Taken as a whole, the project continues to result in negative environmental and economic impacts to estuary communities," Van Ness said.

Both Van Ness and Huhtala, who says it is a rhetorical trick to call some disposal sites "ecosystem restoration," continue to be concerned about disposal at Lois Island and Miller-Pillar. Van Ness said neither is an approved dredged disposal site in regional estuary plans and that means they are not consistent with local comprehensive, shoreline or estuary plan requirements under the Coastal Zone Management Act. Whether the project is consistent with CZMA requirements is currently being decided by the Washington Department of Ecology and the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Department.

Also, still under consideration are water quality certifications from each state. Saying that the changes in the Lois Island embayment ecosystem restoration project are substantial, Huhtala is calling on the states to reopen public comment on the project for both CZMA and water quality reviews.

"State agencies should correctly point out that what the Corps and Port of Portland plan is illegal under the laws of Oregon and Washington," Huhtala said. "I don't believe that they have a choice."

He also doubts that the change made by the Corps to the Lois Island ecosystem restoration project from a shallow water site to intertidal marsh would substantially help the fishing families that rely on the terminal fishery, which is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration.

At a public meeting in Astoria earlier this month, Todd Jones, the project manager of the terminal hatchery, said that the 192 fishermen that support their families in the fishery would likely be reduced to a dozen fishermen after Lois Island is filled.

CREST indicates that the Corps' latest plan will result in increased water quality impacts, "largely from increasing the overall footprint of disposal sites in the estuary and increasing the re-handling and re-dredging of construction and maintenance materials," Van Ness said. "There remains a serious disposal problem in the estuary and lower river."

Van Ness did the math, saying that seven of the 10 million cubic yards (mcy) of dredged material necessary to maintain the mouth of the river and the navigation channel every year occur from River Mile 46 to the ocean and that the channel deepening project would add 11 mcy of disposal to this area (the entire channel deepening project would remove about 14.5 mcy).

"Environmentally and economically acceptable disposal sites in the estuary are simply reaching capacity and deepening based on the Final SEIS exacerbate this problem," Van Ness said. He said CREST continues to urge the Corps to look at beneficial uses of the dredged sand, which are possible as is suggested by a recent experiment where the Corps dumped sand directly onto Benson Beach in Washington to help curb beach erosion.

Huhtala said that some in-water disposal sites proposed by the Corps are in water deeper than 65 feet, which would likely affect sturgeon habitat. Van Ness said one of those deep disposal sites is downstream of river mile 5. That material will ultimately end up at the mouth of the Columbia River and be redredged under the Corps' Mouth of Columbia dredging guidelines.

This is the second time around for the Corps, which has been working with the ports since the late 1980s to deepen the channel. It received approvals for the project from NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999. However, NOAA Fisheries rescinded its ruling in August 2000, citing new information that the project could have detrimental effects on salmon and steelhead species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the agency was concerned how contaminants from the dredging operation would affect endangered species, and it was concerned about a lawsuit brought against NOAA Fisheries by Northwest Environmental Advocates. About the same time, the states denied the project both water quality permits and CZMA approval.

Since NOAA Fisheries rescinded its no jeopardy BiOp in 2000, the Corps worked through a prolonged and public scientific review, an independent economic review and made a number of revisions to the deepening plan. It completed in 2002 a draft supplemental EIS and revised its economic report.

The Corps again received favorable biological opinions for its second proposal from NOAA Fisheries and USF&W in May 2002, and is awaiting the final water quality certifications and the assurance that the dredging plan conforms to CZMA rules. Although it still must sign a project cooperation agreements that would commit the ports to paying 35 percent of the project's cost, the only regulatory hurdles remaining before the Corps sends its plan to Congress for a budget appropriation are the water quality certifications and CZMA rulings. If approvals move smoothly and the project is funded, dredging could begin as early as 2004.

Related Sites:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:
SEIS and other channel deepening documents:

Mike O'Bryant
Corps Releases Final Channel Deepening Report
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 31, 2003

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