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Politicos Put Weight Behind Channel

by Mitch Lies, staff writer
Capital Press, December 23, 2005

Governors and congressional delegates from four Northwest states are leading an effort to secure funds to hasten the completion of the Columbia River channel deepening project.

The governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana in a letter sent earlier this month urged Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten to put $40 million into President Bush's fiscal year 2007 budget request to deepen the channel from 40 to 43 feet. The four-state congressional delegation is expected to follow with a similar request later this month.

The request is the start of a nearly yearlong process that project backers hope will result in a boost in federal funding over the 2006 appropriation of $15 million and hasten the completion of the project.

The project is expected to lower shipping costs for Northwest farmers, many of whom rely on the river to get products to Asian markets.

Securing a position in the president's budget request doesn't guarantee that a project will be funded, said Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, but it's a good start.

"If you don't have a strong presence in the first stage, it's very challenging to make that up in later stages of the process," he said.

The coalition, which also asked for $40 million in federal funds in 2006, believes it has a better shot of obtaining its full funding request in the 2007 budget.

"The difference is a year ago we didn't have the favorable court decision and the project hadn't begun," Hunt said.

The project began this summer after U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez dismissed a lawsuit filed by an environmental organization contending that dredging was contributing to erosion on Oregon and Washington beaches and leading to the release of contaminated sediment from the river bottom. That ruling has been appealed by Northwest Environmental Advocates to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under a best-case scenario, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could complete the deepening of the 103-mile shipping channel from Astoria to Portland in as little as three years, Hunt said.

The coalition estimates the Corps will need $65 million in federal funds to complete the project. Oregon and Washington already have dedicated $55.4 million to the project - enough to cover their share of the project costs through to completion.

About one-fourth of the project - 25 miles - was completed this summer, and the Corps of Engineers expects to deepen an additional 18 to 20 miles next year. Dredging will start no earlier than May. If more funds were available, Hunt said, dredging could be conducted year-round.

Hunt said that hastening the completion of the project will provide a huge benefit for Northwest farmers.

"Growers in the Northwest need this economic benefit today," he said. "They can't afford to wait an additional two years, three years or four years."

Federal economists have estimated Northwest industries will receive nearly $20 million in annual benefits from a deeper channel. By lowering the channel bottom, more container carriers will be attracted to ports in the Columbia River system, he said, and ships will be able to carry an additional 6,000 tons of grain per load - an increase in capacity that is expected to lower shipping costs.

"With the great support of the governors and the Northwest congressional delegation, we're very optimistic that we will get at least an increase in the funding we got in 2006, if not the whole $40 million," said Eric Hedaa, a spokesman for the Port of Portland.

Mitch Lies
Politicos Put Weight Behind Channel
Capital Press, December 23, 2005

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