The Lower Columbia River's
by Erik Olson
In 1989, the Berlin Wall was about to fall, George H. W. Bush was in the Oval Office and the Seattle SuperSonics were a young and hungry NBA team.
And Chicago-area native Laura Hicks, a fresh-faced, 29-year-old civil engineer, latched on to a new but ambitious plan to boost the economic vitality of the shipping industry on the Lower Columbia River.
"We had a great idea of the scope of the project, probably not the length of time," Hicks said Thursday.
Two decades have passed. The Iron Curtain fell in Europe, Bush's son served two terms as president and the Sonics left for Oklahoma. And Hicks, a Portland-based project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, next month will mark completion of a milestone of her own: the $200 million deepening of the Columbia River ship channel from the river's mouth all the way to Portland, a 103-mile-long, 600-foot wide channel.
"Some of these things take a very long time," Hicks, now 50, said in an interview with The Daily News last week.
The Corps faced down multiple lawsuits from environmental and fisheries groups who were concerned that the dredging could release toxins into the water and erode the beach habitat. In 2001, Hicks was concerned the project would die, but the Corps also needed time to do it right, she said.
"It's part of our duty and mission to go back and re-evaluate as a federal agency," she said.
Settling on 3 feet
Fresh out of Ohio State University with a degree in civil engineering, Hicks started work for the Corps in West Virginia in 1982. She relocated to the Corps' Portland district in 1985, and her projects included jetties and other coastal structures.
Hicks got her feet wet on the channel-deepening project doing early feasibility studies, which determined that the ports' initial request to deepen the channel by five feet - to a depth of 45 feet - was too costly. Instead, the Corps and ports settled on three feet.
Ports along the Lower Columbia, including Longview, Kalama, Woodland, Vancouver, St. Helens and Portland, had been urging the Corps to deepen the river for years so ships could haul more cargo. A deeper channel would enable large vessels be carry full loads of bulk goods and containers, including grain, minerals and steel, and make Columbia River ports more competitive in terms of price and convenience. The six ports agreed to pay 25 percent of the costs, much of which was provided by the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Corps picked up the rest.
The channel-deepening project has already boosted the economy in Cowlitz County, said Hicks, who was named project manager in 1994. Without it, the Port of Longview likely would have lost its bid for a new $200 million grain terminal, which is expected to go online next year. St. Louis-based Bunge North America, Japan-based Itochu Corp. and Korean shipper Pan Ocean STX announced plans to build the county's first grain elevator in a quarter century shortly after the corps began dredging.
Also, the two grain terminals at the Port of Kalama are beefing up their operations to take advantage of the deepened river and better compete with Longview.
Kalama Export LLC is spending $36 million to add eight shipping bins for a total of 12, construct a grain cleaner building and a new loading belt. United Harvest LLC is expanding its rail lines to allow trains to unload grain more quickly and building a new dock for grain exports.
Also, the Port of Portland purchased three new cranes, and the Port of Vancouver bought new equipment and acquired more land in anticipation of increased cargo from fully loaded ships, said Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition.
Earlier in the decade, environmental groups had challenged the Corps' economic analysis of the channel-deepening, arguing the agency was exaggerating the benefits the project would bring.
However, Hicks pointed to the expansions at area ports as evidence that channel deepening was necessary.
"We let the market tell us how we're doing," she said.
The early years of the new century were a dark time for the project. During that time, a colleague gave Hicks two rocks that she still keeps in her office. One has the word "Persevere" on it, and the other reads "Miracle." Hicks said both are metaphors for the channel-deepening project.
This was particularly true in 2000, when the project nearly flew off the rails.
The Corps obtained congressional authorization for the dredging in 1999, but opposition was growing from environmental groups.
Nina Bell, executive director of Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, said Thursday the Corps had its priorities backward in removing 14 million cubic yards of sediment to deepen the channel. She said century-old jetties that protect the shipping channel at the mouth of the river are deteriorating and failure of the jetties would ruin the shipping channel and render channel-deepening moot.
"I think they were just dead wrong on this one. We neglect maintenance for new, sexy projects. Deepening the channel while the jetties fall apart falls right into that trap," Bell said.
In response, Hicks said the Corps opened up its records and documents on channel-deepening and rewrote the biological opinion about the project's impact to endangered salmon in the river. The agency posted documents online and held public meetings to try to address opponents' concerns, Hicks said.
"We decided that we were going to do everything as open and transparent as we could," Hicks said.
All environmental appeals were eventually dismissed, and the Corps began dredge work in 2005.
'Fair, calm, reasonable'
Ken O'Hollaren, executive director of the Port of Longview and one of the channel-deepening project's biggest proponents, credits Hicks with the project's start-to-finish success, citing both her technical expertise and understanding of federal regulations and processes.
"It's fair to say that this project could not have reached the point it has today without Laura's involvement," O'Hollaren said.
Having one manager steer the channel-deepening project through the various hurdles was crucial, said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.
"There (are) technical aspects, political aspects and people aspects. What makes Laura special is she is able to deal with all of this in a fair, calm, reasonable manner," said Vanselow, who also started on the project in 1989.
As the channel-deepening project winds down, Hicks is moving forward on her next big task. Last week, she met with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., about repairing the failing Columbia River jetties. The Corps is seeking to install 1.1 million tons of rock to reinforce the jetties against the crashing ocean waves, another project that could take a decade or longer to complete. The jetty repairs will cost more - $400 million to $500 million - and will face a more difficult regulatory and economic climate than did channel-deepening in the 1990s.
Hicks isn't the main project manager this time, but she said she will be involved in the work.
Over in the Longview area, the dredge Paula Lee is expected to finish deepening the Columbia River channel in early November.
It's a day Hicks will relish, she said.
"It's going to be like, 'We did it. Finally.' "
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