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Corps Reviews Annual Columbia River Mouth Dredging

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - February 14, 2003

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for decades has dredged a six-mile stretch of navigation channel at the Columbia River's mouth to make it safer for ships to cross the dangerous Columbia River Bar.

Upriver ports, the bar pilots and shipping company's need the Corps to maintain a deep and clear channel so that large ships can pass over the bar safely. But some believe that, not the dredging, but the Corps' dumping practices make the bar less safe for smaller boats and they're concerned that an offshore dumpsite would impact the area's crab fishery.

The Corps' "Mouth of Columbia" maintenance dredging plan that is up for public review this month was the topic of a public meeting in Ilwaco, Wash., last week. At the same time the Corps is seeking a water quality permit and Coastal Zone Management Act certification from the Washington Department of Ecology and approval by the federal Environmental Protection Agency of a deepwater dump site the Corps has yet to use.

"Our number one concern with this is that the Corps has been unsuccessful in addressing small boat safety," said Dale Beasely, president of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman's Association. He said there were 11 victims and five drownings on the bar in 2001 alone and blames wave amplification caused by mounding dredged spoils at a site, known as Site E, within the north jetty.

While a subsequent Coast Guard review of the incidents, particularly the Miss Brittany incident in which fishermen lost their lives, absolved the Corps of any wrongdoing in the way they deposit dredged spoils, Beasely said the review was wrong on several counts. They were wrong in where the accidents occurred and they didn't look at how mounding of dredged spoils created wave amplification.

"Instead they found the captain of the Miss Brittany negligent," Beasely said. "Now anyone navigating outside of the ship channel is negligent and the Corps continues the mounding." He said all the dumping sites up for review, with the exception of the deep-water site and Benson Beach, are hazardous to navigation.

However, the Corps said the Coast Guard review found no conclusive evidence linking the site (Site E) or the Corps' dumping practices with accidents from the past.

"We manage the MCR dredging in a manner so we create the least amount of impact on the biological environment and for wave conditions," said Matt Rabe of the Corps. He added that Site E is a highly erosive site and that dumping sand in near shore areas eventually feeds beaches up and down the coast.

As another example, the North Jetty site helps keep sand at the base of the jetty so its structure isn't undermined by erosion. He also pointed to the Benson Beach site, a new dumping site tested last year that requires the Corps to pump dredged sand up on the Pacific County beach near Ilwaco. That helps to counteract beach erosion that has occurred since the jetties were put in place.

"The ultimate goal is to keep as much sand in the near shore area as possible to feed beaches and reduce erosive conditions," Rabe said.

Still, Beasely wants the Corps to find other alternatives that don't create safety hazards for fishermen and other small boaters.

Addressing the proposed deepwater site, which encompasses prime crab breeding habitat, Beasely said it is much larger than the Corps has demonstrated it needs. At the Ocean Disposal Task Force convened by the Corps, they had demonstrated a need for a site 2,000 feet by 2,000 feet for the next five years, but the proposal is much larger than that, he said.

Beasely also wants some type of mitigation for spoiling crab habitat similar to mitigation provided in Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay that mitigates for shellfish loss. He suggested some kind of nursery for crabs to increase their chance of survival when small. Another option would be to dump more sand on Benson Beach. That would do less damage, he offered. Rabe said Benson Beach is proposed, but that its use in 2003 depends on funding by Congress.

Rabe said this previously unused site located about six miles offshore in water that averages 215 feet deep was identified by the Task Force years ago and has been under review for over a year by the EPA to determine whether it should be made a permanent dumping site. It was also included in the Corps' original 1999 channel deepening proposal as a site for dumping dredged spoils. The Corps has since determined that it will dump dredged spoils from the channel deepening project in a series of in-river habitat restoration sites as well as at upland sites.

Rabe said the deepwater site is large -- 17,000 feet by 23,000 feet -- but that the Corps must first allow a 3,000 foot buffer within that area and that it plans to use only a small portion of that, a box that is 3,000 feet square.

"Our dredges have to be within the smallest box before they can deposit the material," Rabe said. "The water is deep, so it will spread out, but the goal is to keep it in the mid-size box."

The next steps depend on whether the state and federal agencies do their jobs regarding size of the deepwater site and its mitigation, Beasely said. He said Washington placed conditions on the site last year and he wants the state to do that again this year by requiring the Corps to demonstrate the need and size of the site and to provide mitigation if it moves ahead.

"We will meet with both Washington and Oregon," he said. "This is a bi-state issue." Oregon last year gave the Corps' MCR maintenance dredging and disposal plan an approval for five years, while Washington gave the plan a single year approval and is again reviewing the plan this year.

"We're not trying to stop the dredging," Beasely said. "We are for responsible dredging that protects the environment and deals with its effects on all parties."

The Corps will take comments at its office through March 3, but Rabe said the project's approval must move forward so that the Corps can begin dredging in June and be completed in October before the weather prohibits the work. During that time, the Corps expects to move 4 million to 5 million cubic yards of material directly from the Columbia River as it dredges the channel at the mouth to a depth of 48 feet to 55 feet.

Rabe said the Corps is looking for comments that would affect the proposed plan. "If we get new information and it is viable, we'll make adjustments," he said.

In the meantime, the Corps still needs water quality and CZMA approvals from Washington, and it must receive the go-ahead from the EPA before it can use the deepwater site.

Related Sites:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Mike O'Bryant
Corps Reviews Annual Columbia River Mouth Dredging
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 14, 2003

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