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Proponents Tout Channel Deepening's Economic Benefits

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - August 2, 2002

There was no middle ground this week as members of the public got their first chance to express their opinion about an updated $156.2 million proposal to deepen the lower Columbia River's shipping channel to accommodate the deeper draft vessels that are becoming more common in maritime trade.

Local politicians and business and labor interests called the project vital if the region is to hold its strong niche in world trade and sustain local economies in the Columbia Basin and beyond. Others say the stirring up of that lower river environment, and deposition of the spoils, would be too damaging to fish and wildlife and fishing economies.

According to the Corps' Matt Rabe, a total of 36 people testified at the Wednesday hearings in Vancouver, Wash., 25 during a two-hour afternoon session and 11 more during the continued hearing that evening. All but two during the afternoon session expressed support for the project. The balance swung during the evening with six testifying in opposition to the project. Additional hearings are scheduled Sept. 5 in Longview, Wash., and Sept. 10 in Astoria, Ore.

But the hearing was not intended as a vote but rather to gather input on how the documents might be improved before final versions are published and a decision made about whether to proceed.

Deepening the existing channel from 40 to 43 feet is proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from near the Columbia River mouth to river mile 106.5 at Vancouver, Wash., and for the lower 12 miles of the Willamette River. The proposal also calls for implementing nine restoration projects for aquatic and wildlife species.

In 1994, the Corps' Portland District began the feasibility study to evaluate improvements to the Columbia River federal navigation channel. The study's non-federal sponsors are the six lower Columbia River ports -- Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Longview, Kalama, Woodland and Vancouver in Washington.

The purposes of the proposed project are to improve transport of goods on the navigation channel by improving the channel's ability to handle deep-draft vessels and to provide ecosystem restoration for fish and wildlife habitats. The need for navigation improvements has been driven by the steady growth in waterborne commerce, and the use of larger and more efficient vessels to transport bulk and containerized commodities, according to the Corps. The existing 40-foot channel prevents many of the larger vessels from transiting the river at full capacity.

The Corps in early July released a revision to its 1999 economic analysis of the costs and benefits for the project. The draft Supplemental Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement describes a project that requires less dredging and blasting of basalt rock at the river bottom than in its earlier report.

The project cost estimate includes both dredging operations and the cost of the proposed environmental restoration projects. The channel deepening is estimated to bring in an additional $18.3 million per year over 50 years to the national economy.

Excluded from calculations in this latest report is the cost of dredging the lower sections of the Willamette River that includes a portion of Port of Portland facilities. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency declared the lower river a Super Fund site, effectively blocking any deepening of that section of shipping channel until the contamination is removed or capped. Also changed are calculations affecting commodities, fleet projections (movement of ships), vessel operating costs and interest rates.

The new economic study found that for every dollar spent dredging the channel, the region and nation will reap $1.46 in economic benefits. That figure is revised downwards from the 1999 report which found that the project would result in nearly $2 in benefits for every $1 spent.

Most of those testifying Wednesday urged the Corps to push forward with the project as quickly as possible.

Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard said the channel deepening project is "critical to maintaining maritime commerce" in the region. Industrial and maritime activities associated with the Port of Vancouver provide 5,500 family wage jobs. If access to the Columbia's lower river ports is not improved, business, and jobs, will be lost to other regions and the economic growth that the project portends would be lost, he said.

"This project has broad-based support in communities across the Columbia Basin," not just in the lower river, said Tom Bradley, a Port of Vancouver commissioner. Witnesses said that agricultural products are funneled to the Columbia River ports from as far away as Minnesota and Kansas and are shipped to more than 40 countries.

Steve Frasher, president of Tidewater Barge lines, said that cheap reliable transportation for the products flowing in and out of the region provide the foundation for the regional economy.

"The Pacific Northwest provides products to the world at a price the world can afford," Frasher said.

Brad Clark said waterborne trade is responsible for 40,000 jobs directly and 59,000 more indirectly in the region. The president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's Vancouver local said that the vast Columbia-Snake river system serves to channel goods to the ports and the world. That transportation system is as much a signature of the Northwest economy as gambling is to Las Vegas and automobiles are to Detroit, he said.

"Take away those jobs and you'll see impacts large and small," Clark said of the need to remain competitive with other West Coast ports.

Astoria's Peter Huhtala, executive director the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, said the dredging and spoils disposal had the potential to further erode the environment, and elements of the local economy that are already hard hit.

"The Columbia River estuary is critical habitat for every run of salmon in the Columbia Basin. It is also critical to historic ways of life and the vitality of long-standing communities," Huhtala said. There are 12 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia-Snake river basin that are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Reports of lower Columbia communities being "hostile" to the deepening project are well-founded, he said.

"When the salmon, smelt, lamprey, sturgeon, crab and rockfish that feed and sustain us are threatened; when our fragile economy faces another thrashing; when the health of our children is at stake, we tend to get a little defensive," he continued.

"Obvious losers include the commercial fishermen of the estuary and near-shore ocean, the families and communities of the lower river, the tribes of the Columbia Basin and all who depend on a relatively healthy estuary ecosystem for existence, enjoyment and spiritual nourishment," Huhtala said.

"This latest plan offers to dump millions of tons of sediment in estuary waters, destroying much of a rare, innovative, low-impact fishery, diminishing opportunities for aquatic development, killing endangered salmon, and increasing the distribution of toxic contaminants.

"I guess that draws a battle line in the sand," said Huhtala. He urged the Corps to withdraw the proposal, saying litigation was inevitable if the project proceeds.

Port of Vancouver executive director Larry Paulson said that the environmental issues associated with the project had been analyzed in federal and other forums. Those analyses -- such as a National Marine Fisheries Service assessment that the project and planned restoration activities pose no jeopardy to endangered fish -- are "credible, defensible and appropriate." He said the plan not only leaves the river unharmed but actually improves the ecosystem.

"The ports and the states have a significant interest in this economically," he said, but they also have an interest in "seeing it done efficiently and seeing it done well."

After initially announcing a no-jeopardy opinion on the project in December 1999, the NMFS rescinded the ruling nine months later, concerned how contaminants from the dredging operation would affect listed salmon and steelhead. NMFS again gave the project a favorable opinion in June 2002, as did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Corps still must get water quality approvals from Oregon and Washington and show the two states that the project is consistent with Coastal Zone Management laws.

If Congress approves and funds the project, the Corps would like to see the work completed by 2007, with the majority accomplished between June 2004 and July 2006.

In addition to the public hearings, the Corps is convening two meetings of a panel of economists in Portland on Aug. 5 and 9. The public is invited to present new economic information at those meetings.

Related Links:
US Army Corps of Engineers:

Barry Espenson
Proponents Tout Channel Deepening's Economic Benefits
Columbia Basin Bulletin, August 2, 2002

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