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Oregon Proposes Changes to Corps' Channel Dredging Plan

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 2, 2003

The state of Oregon is reopening public comment in its review of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' $133.6 million plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel by three feet.

At the same time, the state is floating a complicated new proposal that would alter the Corps' plan to restore shallow water habitat in the lower Columbia River estuary.

If approved, the proposal could allow the Corps to move ahead on its Columbia River channel improvement project as early as fiscal year 2005.

While the new proposal protects commercial fishing in one part of the estuary by prohibiting the Corps from dumping dredged spoils over an established fishing drift, it would have a severe impact on the terminal fishery operated by the Clatsop County Economic Development Council at Tongue Point, according to Tod Jones, manager of CEDC's fisheries project. The CEDC fishery releases smolts that return as adults to their release points strictly for commercial harvest.

"We could continue to raise or release smolts if the project doesn't cause too much turbidity," Jones said. "But all the fishing area would be gone, so why do it?"

The CEDC fishery project, which supports nearly 200 fishing families, encompasses three fishing areas, including Tongue Point, Blind Slough near Knappa and Youngs Bay southwest of Astoria.

However, even if the Tongue Point terminal fishery were to be moved to another site, Jones said, the total potential fishing area for the full CEDC terminal fishery would be reduced by 50 percent because it permanently removes the Tongue Point fishery.

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber strongly supported the channel improvement project proposed by the Corps and six lower Columbia shipping ports. The project would dredge 104 miles of the lower Columbia River shipping channel from 40 feet to 43 feet as a way to keep Columbia River ports competitive with other West Coast ports. But Kitzhaber insisted the project had to be environmentally sound.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski is seeking a similar balance, said Tom Byler, a natural resources advisor to the governor, and that's why the state is proposing an alternative to the Corps' project.

"Gov. Kulongoski sees the benefits of this project from an economic standpoint, but he wants it done in a responsible way," Byler said. "It must meet all the legal requirements and it definitely must pass muster."

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.

Oregon's proposal is now out for public review through June 2, as is the Corps' Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Land Conservation and Development, along with the Washington Department of Ecology, held joint hearings in January and provided a public comment period as the agencies reviewed the project for Clean Water Act water quality certification and for consistency with each state's Coastal Zone Management Act.

However, at that time the Oregon agencies and public were working from the Corps' draft EIS because that was the document submitted by the federal agency in its application to the state, not the final EIS. While Washington DOE was able to consider the final EIS in its CZMA and water quality certification review, Oregon by law was not allowed to consider the final EIS without also involving the public.

The Corps extended to the states enough time to complete the CZMA review and last week Oregon opened up the final EIS for public review.

Russell Harding at DEQ said Oregon also reopened the review of the channel deepening project because the public had asked that it be reopened if the project should change in any way. Oregon's proposal, which includes three cascading steps, is such a change.

Oregon put together the proposal after determining that some aspects of the channel deepening project may not meet state and local regulations.

First, the new proposal would deny the Corps permission to dump dredged spoils at the Miller-Pillar site, which the Corps designated in its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the project as a habitat restoration site. The denial will protect a productive commercial salmon fishery in the estuary that supported up to 17 fishing families. From a technical standpoint, said Laura Hicks, project manager for the channel improvement project, the Corps could still do the channel project if the Miller-Pillar site were eliminated.

But the Corps would need an area to dump the dredged spoils that it sucks from high spots in the river's channel and can no longer dump at Miller-Pillar. So the state is proposing to provide that additional dumping area by expanding the Lois Island habitat restoration site near Tongue Point. In its draft Supplemental EIS, the Corps proposed that dredged spoils at that restoration site would fill 357 acres, but then reduced the footprint of the site to 191 acres in the final EIS to accommodate the select fishery, said Geoff Dorsey, a Corps wildlife biologist.

However, the expanded footprint at Lois Island (back up to 357 acres), the state said, would impact a select area fishery worth as much as $2.5 million to the Clatsop County economy, so the net pen fishery at the Tongue Point would have to be moved and other modifications would be needed to mitigate for its loss.

Jones said the terminal fishery at Tongue Point supports as many as 100 fishermen at one time, but that after the Corps fills Lois Island, which is itself was made years ago from dredged spoils, only two fishing boats with nets could fit in the area.

"The Corps has an obligation to stop destroying habitat," Jones said. "This is called a restoration project when they (referring to the Miller-Pillar and Lois Island sites) are in fact disposal sites. To call it restoration is just folly." Jones would prefer that the state of Oregon use the dredge spoils for beneficial uses on land.

In addition, the loss of the Tongue Point fishery would reduce the number of Washington fishermen that could fish the entire select area fishery to zero, according to Jones. The only area open to Washington fishermen now -- and this is for a $500 fee -- is the Tongue Point site.

The Corps' Dorsey disagrees with Jones' dire predictions. With 1,029 acres of area in the Tongue Point net pen fishery now, he said the conversion of the 357 acres to tidal marshland would reduce the select area fishery by about 36 percent.

If the Tongue Point facilities have to be moved, Jones said CEDC would first have to expand the other two select area sites by adding piling, shore access, which is already available at Tongue Point, and basically replicate the facilities already at Tongue Point at the other two sites. His estimate of the cost to do that is about $600,000. In addition, the state is considering an additional 10 years of operating costs and an improved chinook fishery program, bringing the total move and mitigation costs to $2.2 million.

"If filling in Lois Island impacts the fishery, we want to make sure the impact is offset in some way," Byler said. "Who would pay? I don't know if the state cares who pays as long as the select area fishery remains intact." However, he clearly said it wouldn't be the state's responsibility to pay.

Hicks said she didn't know if the Corps would or could pay. She said there are some technical and legal issues the Corps must work through before it can make a decision.

"We need to assess the exact impact on the select area fishery," Hicks said. "In the final EIS we had worked to minimize the conflict with the fishery." She said the project as is probably wouldn't affect the ability to harvest fish near Tongue Point, although it may reduce the number of boats that will fit in the area.

Byler said the proposal is just that and will likely change over time as the public has a chance to weigh in. For now, DEQ and DLCD have set a public hearing in Astoria on May 29 and will take public comment until June 2.

Hicks said the Corps is looking forward to future discussions with the state on this proposal and also its Final Supplemental EIS. If Oregon proceeds with its proposal and includes it as a condition for its CZMA consistency review, the Corps likely would not have to reopen public comment on its Final Supplemental EIS. The Corps would add the changes to its final Record of Decision it sends to Congress. "It's at that point that we would be ripe for any type of litigation," she said.

If the Corps isn't happy with Oregon's plan, then it could appeal the decision to the federal Department of Commerce. Citizens in each of the states have similar appeals opportunities at the state level.

The Corps is in the process of preparing budget items for the President's FY2005 budget and will include the channel improvement project in that budget.

Related Sites:
Oregon Governor's Office:
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality:
Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District:

Mike O'Bryant
Oregon Proposes Changes to Corps' Channel Dredging Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 2, 2003

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