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Commentaries and editorials

Congress Pumps Salmon Recovery Money
into Columbia Dredging

by Larry Swisher
Lewiston Tribune - November 17, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Congress has cut President Bush's budget for Columbia Basin salmon recovery next year but boosted funds to improve the Columbia River shipping channel.

Key Northwest members of the spending committees earlier this year sought $20 million to begin construction on the deeper-draft channel after Oregon and Washington approved environmental permits.

The House and Senate this week are expected to approve $3.5 million as part of the final fiscal year 2004 energy and water development appropriations bill and send it to Bush.

The small start-up installment on the $133 million project -- a regional economic development priority -- reflects the lateness of the Northwest budget request and a tight budget for the Army Corps of Engineers civil works program.

Bush did not fund the project in his proposed budget, partly because it had not received final approval and partly because of the administration's opposition to congressional "pork-barreling."

The $133 million Columbia River shipping project, which is partly funded by Oregon and Washington, will deepen the channel by three feet to 43 feet to accommodate larger cargo ships. The project will benefit agricultural and other shippers and the ports of Vancouver, Longview, Woodland, Kalama and St. Helens, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., an appropriations committee member, earlier won Senate approval for $5 million in FY2004, while the House provided $2 million.

"Improving the Columbia River will mean more jobs and economic development for our region. I am proud to have led the fight for this critical funding in the Senate and continue to hope that dredging will become a priority for the administration, as well," Murray said.

The president's FY2004 request cut the Corps of Engineers' civil works budget by $445 million below this year. Congress restored $288 million, making possible many Northwest funding priorities that were not in the administration's budget, Murray said.

The channel project includes over $2 million for ecosystem restoration in the lower Columbia as mitigation for the environmental damage caused by dredging.

Under a separate program, Congress approved another $2 million for lower Columbia estuary habitat restoration to enhance habitat for both fish and wildlife.

As mitigation for the decline of salmon caused by the eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, the bill provides $85 million to the Corps of Engineers for fish passage and other measures. That is the same as this year but $10 million less than Bush sought in his FY2004 budget. The program pays for fish screens, collectors, ladders and passage improvements, including the downstream migrant juvenile fish bypass at Bonneville Dam.

The reduced mitigation budget could prompt some changes in priorities but "will allow us to continue to improve the hydrosystem for the benefit of salmon," Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Corps' Portland office, said.

Much of the money actually goes to studies to determine whether salmon recovery is working. More than half of the $85 million will be spent on to study survival rates, delayed mortality and other measures of the effectiveness of surface bypass, spillway improvements and fish-friendly turbines.

Congress also reduced funding for the Bureau of Reclamation's implementation of the 2000 Columbia Basin salmon recovery plan. The energy and water spending bill provides $15 million, a $4 million reduction below the budget request but the same as this year's amount. The change reflects Congress' failure to pass separate legislation authorizing the bureau to construct or fund fish screens and passage improvements at non-federal irrigation facilities in Oregon and Washington.

The agency leases water, primarily from southern Idaho irrigators, to enhance flows and spills for migrating salmon downriver at Snake and Columbia dams.

The recovery plan, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and salmon advocates urged increased spending on salmon. The changes made by Congress to Bush's budget demonstrate how Northwest members must jockey with other regions for the limited amount of money available for domestic programs. That, along with the pressure of higher defense and homeland security spending, makes it difficult to find additional resources for both economic development and environmental priorities.

Larry Swisher, Freelance Writer
Congress Pumps Salmon Recovery Money into Columbia Dredging
Lewiston Tribune, November 17, 2003

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