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LCREP Ranks Corps' Estuary Restoration Projects

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 18, 2002

The Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership's comments on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel by three feet provides constructive information about the Corps' plans for nine habitat restoration projects, but stops short of taking a stand on whether the Corps should deepen the channel.

Rather than saying whether deepening the Columbia River channel would impact, either positively or negatively, the health of the lower Columbia River estuary, scientists working with LCREP instead provided a technical review of the Corps' proposed habitat restoration projects. Those are the projects the Corps has said will enhance the lower river's health, some of which will provide more shallow water habitat.

However, as others like the Columbia River Deepening Opposition Group (CDOG) and the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce (CREST), a local bi-state council of governments in the estuary, has previously pointed out, LCREP scientists judged that the projects do not add to the lower river the types of habitat most needed, nor do the projects help LCREP meet its goals of restoring 15,000 acres of lower river habitat.

"The projects are certainly separate from our program," said Bruce Sutherland, program scientist with LCREP. His organization's goals are to restore 3,000 acres of tidal wetlands in the lower 46 miles of the river, particularly tidal spruce swamps, the hardest hit of habitat types (75 percent of this habitat has been lost to settlement and altered by more than 150 years of population growth). In addition, LCREP wants to restore 10,000 additional acres of wetlands and 3,000 acres of upland habitat.

"These projects do restore habitat," he said, referring to the Corps' proposed habitat restoration projects. "But, I don't believe these projects help us to meet our goals."

Sutherland did say that the Corps has made substantial improvements in identifying projects that enhance the lower river from what it suggested in its 1999 proposal. At that time, the Corps said it would restore about 5,000 acres of habitat, but failed to identify where much of the work would be done. "We'd like to work with the Corps to identify better projects," he said.

The Corps and the six Columbia River ports of Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Kalama, Woodland and Longview in Washington, are proposing to deepen the existing Columbia River navigation channel from near the river's mouth to river mile 106.5 and the lower 12 miles of the Willamette River by three feet, from 40 to 43 feet.

This is the second proposal by the Corps to deepen the channel. It completed a draft report and environmental impact statement in 1998 and a final EIS in August 1999. The project received the blessings of Oregon, Washington, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service by December 1999, just in time for the Corps to send the study off to Congress for authorization. However, USFW and NFMS rescinded their approval when new information regarding the project's impacts on the estuary came to light. The second EIS, released in July for public comment, contains the nine habitat restoration projects that LCREP reviewed.

At the request of its board, LCREP called on its 40-member science work group to review the Corps' habitat projects with the understanding the group would review the projects based solely on their technical merit in relation to LCREP's two-year old Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the estuary. However, because the board consists of representatives from groups with diverse opinions, including the Corps and CDOG, it was not supportive of coming out in favor or against any project or channel deepening, Sutherland said. However, he said the Corps was interested in the technical validity and usefulness of its proposed habitat projects and the LCREP was responding to that with unbiased information.

The science group ranked the nine habitat projects according to six evaluation criteria. Among those criteria are habitat connectivity, historic habitat loss, passive habitat restoration over habitat creation and community support. Connectivity, according to LCREP's comments to the Corps, is a "broad landscape concept. It emphasizes linkages between habitat areas that provide a variety of functions for species at various points of their life cycle."

Passive habitat restoration doesn't require engineering or mechanical efforts, Sutherland said. He added that mechanical efforts, such as the Corps' proposals to build pile dikes at Miller Pillar Sands and then to fill the area with dredged spoils, have never been as successful as allowing natural forces to have their way.

The group didn't rank the Shillapoo Lake project, which largely aids waterfowl and migratory birds, not endangered fish. That project, located near Vancouver Lake in Washington, did not include an evaluation of whether it could provide fish habitat, even though it has the potential to provide seasonal habitat for juvenile salmon, according to LCREP's report.

It said the benefits to fish of the Bachelor Slough project, located near the Richfield, Wash., wildlife refuge, are uncertain. Because of the uncertainties with the project, the group ranked connectivity and making up for habitat loss tentative to medium, and low for passivity because it involves dredging.

Miller Pillar Sands restoration was ranked low for connectivity and making up for habitat loss because it restores habitat that has actually increased over the years, so the project doesn't address the loss of historic habitat. The Lois Island/Mott Island embayment was highly rated for connectivity to nearby productive shallow water habitat. Neither project is passive and neither has good public support as they both adversely affect economic development in the lower river economies and commercial and sport fishing opportunities. In fact, the group said the addition of pile dikes at Miller Pillar is "intrusive, costly and may not provide the expected results." It suggested that a pilot project was needed to test the concept before it is implemented.

Projects at Hump, Lord and Wallace islands near Longview, Wash., would not provide the flushing to backwater areas it promised. "Although the actions would improve water quality and sediment flushing, it was unclear how much it would benefit salmonids," the report said. While the projects could improve connectivity and provide some fish benefits, the group found it did nothing to replace historic habitat.

Tenasillahe Island is a two-phase project that could take more than ten years to accomplish. However, the group rated the project fairly high in all categories. The project would essentially return much of the island to wetland habitat, including some highly valued spruce marsh. "The project would add 1700-plus acres to the string of protected marsh habitats along the lower river that are a part of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Refuge and the White Tailed Deer Refuge," the report said. One drawback is that it requires the relocation of deer, which are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to Cottonwood and Howard islands so it would be some time before benefits are realized.

The Corps is suggesting a number of tide-gate retrofits to open more wetland areas, but the group rated these projects of low benefit because of the lack of information. "The tide retrofits would improve flows and thus fish passage would likely be improved but the changes in flow could also result in the loss of some wetlands and fringe marshes depending on the situation."

The Corps' Matt Rabe said the federal agency is considering LCREP's comments, but it will treat those comments similar to all the other comments it has received regarding its Supplemental Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement. The deadline for comments was Sept. 15. He said the Corps is drafting responses to the comments now and it could make changes to the EIS based on its response, although he declined to say what those changes could be. The changes may impact the cost to benefit analysis, which initially found the project would accrue $1.5 of benefits for every $1 spent. He anticipates the Corps will release a final report in December for a 30-day public review. Public comments are available at the Corps' Portland District web site.

Related Sites:
Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Mike O'Bryant
LCREP Ranks Corps' Estuary Restoration Projects
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 18, 2002

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