Uncertainty Swirling around Columbia River Deepening Proposalby Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, June 18, 2004
PORTLAND -- Despite a recent setback in Congress and further attempts by environmental groups to halt the Columbia River channel deepening project, one of the primary supporters of the plan says he’s confident the effort could still get under way on schedule next summer.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee last week approved $3 million for the first phase of the project – an amount significantly less than what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says is need to start removing the estimated 14.5 million cubic yards of river bottom silt, sand, rubble and sludge to deepen the shipping channel between Portland and Astoria, Ore., from its current minimum depth of 40 feet to 43 feet.
“If that had been the Senate, then I’d be far more worried,” said Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Deepening Coalition. But in fact, support among Northwest congressional representatives, as well as state and local political leaders, is getting stronger, he said. And unlike the House energy panel, which has only one member from the region – the Senate subcommittee on energy and water, which will take up the issue later, has two staunch proponents of the plan – Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
Hunt said he’s guardedly confident the Senate may actually restore the total $15 million the Corps indicates it needs to get the $150 million-plus project moving. The Senate subcommittee could begin discussing the issue as early as next week.
Hunt said he’s also hopeful Eastern Washington wheat farmers will put some pressure on President Bush to commit funds to the project during a campaign stop he’s scheduled to make in Spokane this week. The Bush administration has expressed support for the concept of deepening, though they’ve yet to propose money for the project in the 2005 budget.
On another front, the group Northwest Environmental Advocates this week amended a lawsuit they filed earlier this year challenging NOAA Fisheries’ 2002 approval of the dredging plan. They have now added the Corps as a named defendant.
NWEA contends that the dredging plan violates the federal Endangered Species Act, among other U.S. environmental laws.
Chief among the issues alleged in the suit is that the Corps is overlooking the chronic problem of deteriorating jetties at the river’s mouth, and the cost of repairing them. Not only is the environmental analysis of the project flawed, but given the cost of mitigation efforts, the economic justification outlined by the Corps is also suspect, said NWEA executive director Nina Bell.
In reality, the figures the Corps is putting forward for the total cost of the project are much lower than what taxpayers’ will ultimately have to fund, she said.
For decades the Corps’ dredging activities have resulted in “severe erosion along the coast of Oregon and Washington, estimated to have cost $70 million to $100 million over the last 10 years,” NWEA argues.
“Instead of supplying the coast with sand, the Columbia River is now vacuuming sand from the coast into the estuary,” according to a NWEA statement issued June 14.
“By omitting the costs of repairing the jetties, the Corps misrepresents the costs of deepening the Columbia River,” added Bell.
Hunt maintains that the new legal wrangling by NWEA is actually “good news” of sorts for project supporters: the “extreme opponents” are now publicly showing their true colors — that they oppose not just deepening the channel, but also current dredging to support waterborne navigation in general.
“All along they’ve been saying their only concern is the incremental difference between a deeper channel vs. the current annual maintenance dredging, but now they’re starting to take on all the maintenance dredging as well,” said Hunt, who’s also a Democratic member of the Oregon House of Representatives from Clackamas County. “They have clearly identified their true intention, which is limiting or stopping all shipping on the river — a very dangerous demand, in my view.”
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