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Corps to Move Forward on Columbia Dredging Project

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 10, 2004

After President Bush signed into law this week the $388 billion Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2005, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would begin planning to start the $150.5 million Columbia River navigation channel dredging project next summer.

The Corps said it will award the contract next spring to dredge 15 miles of channel from river mile 3 in the lower Columbia River estuary.

At the same time, the sponsoring ports said they would begin dredging work on the upper 10 miles of the project near the ports of Portland and Vancouver, using non-federal funds. They would use a Port of Portland dredge to complete that work.

The appropriations bill for domestic spending includes $9 million to start a project that is intended to deepen by three feet 103 miles of the Columbia River shipping channel from Astoria to Portland. The bill falls short of the $15 million promised earlier this year by Bush and the lower amount will reduce proportionally what the states of Oregon and Washington can contribute to the project this year.

"The decision to start dredging work this summer demonstrates their commitment to this vital project," Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, said of the Corps. "Thousands of businesses and jobs rely on the Columbia River's ability to accommodate modern ships with deeper drafts. I'm looking forward to working with my congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle to secure the additional funding required in Fiscal Year 2006 to keep this project on track."

The actual appropriation will be between $8 and $8.5 million, said the Corps' Matt Rabe. That's due to a provision Congress uses when appropriating money called savings and slippage in which a portion -- up to 10 percent -- is held back.

Still, Rabe estimates the Corps could begin the project with $10 to $12 million of congressionally appropriated money, which includes some money appropriated in previous years. The Corps can also take a disbursement off of the states' contribution in proportion to what the Corps spends.

The states are contributing $54 million to the project. The proportion is 25 percent of the Corps expenditure for work in the navigation channel, adding another $2.5 million to $3 million to the Corps' money. That would bring the total amount of money available to the project in FY 2005 to about $15 million.

"We won't do as much as we had first planned," Rabe said, referring to the reduced amount of money available for FY 2005. If it had received a $15 million federal appropriation along with a larger state contribution, the Corps had hoped about $20 million would be available to start the project.

With that amount the Corpst had planned to complete 25 miles in the lower river. "At this point, we'll focus on 15 miles," he said.

The Corps will seek some efficiency and cost savings in the project by combining the deepening work with the Corps' routine maintenance work on the navigation channel. Sand dredged to deepen the river will be placed at approved ocean and upland disposal sites and at in-water locations, according to the Corps.

In addition, the Corps may have to postpone an ecosystem restoration project it had scheduled for next summer at Webb Island near the Oregon town of Westport. It completed the first ecosystem project in September when it returned Walker and Lord islands, located north of Rainier, Ore., on the Columbia River, to their natural state. The islands had been connected by dredged spoils left from previous dredging operations.

The Corps is accustomed to beginning projects without the full complement of money, Rabe said. Congress rarely appropriates the entire cost of a multi-year project at one time and it usually only gives the amount of money the Corps could expend in one year. "Each year we express our capability and Congress has an expectation that we will need to complete the project," Rabe said. "We work with whatever they give us."

Dave Hunt of the Columbia River Channel Coalition said that to ensure completion of the project in FY2007, it would seek $40 million in the federal Energy and Water Appropriations bill for FY2006.

Supporters of the project, including the Channel Coalition, say the deeper channel will provide easier passage for deeper draft ships and keep Columbia River ports competitive.

"This is fantastic news," said Jeff McEwen, shipping company Hanjin's regional manager. "Hanjin's new Portland container service uses larger Post-Panamax ships which can use every bit of a deeper channel to import and export more of the region's containers."

A study by the Corps in 2002 found that the economic benefit of the project to the United States would amount to $18.8 million each year.

Earlier this year Northwest Environmental Advocates filed a lawsuit challenging NOAA Fisheries' biological opinions of the Corps' dredging operations in the lower Columbia River and at the river's mouth. In mid-June NWEA amended its complaint to include the Corps in the lawsuit, challenging its environmental processes under the National Environmental Policy Act. It particularly challenged the Corps' Columbia River channel improvement project. That lawsuit is still in progress.

NWEA also sued NOAA Fisheries in 2000 to stop the project. That lawsuit, although not finalized in court, was a factor in the federal fishery agency's decision to withdraw its BiOp for the initial project, which threw the process into 1.5 years of further scientific study. The Corps submitted a new project proposal in 2002.

Even in the face of litigation, the Corps must continue to work on the project, Rabe said. "It takes months to put a contract (for the dredging work) in place and we can't stop now," he said. "There is no injunction against the project at this time and that allows us to keep our options open."

Along with the Corps, project sponsors in the Columbia River channel improvement project are 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.

Related Sites:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District:
Columbia River Channel Coalition:
Northwest Environmental Advocates:

Corps to Move Forward on Columbia Dredging Project
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 10, 2004

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