Digging for Dollars
by Editorial Board
The Columbian, February 28, 2010
Pace of channel-deepening project has accelerated, but jetties need work, too
When the term "shovel-ready" was first applied to federal stimulus projects, most people didn't envision gargantuan claws, pneumatic scoops and massive vacuum equipment that pound, gouge and inhale more than 40 feet under water. But that's the nature of an ongoing project on the Columbia River between Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean.
Dredging crews have been deepening the shipping channel from 40 feet to 43 feet for more than four years. Three feet might not sound like much, but it will allow much larger and heavier cargo loads to reach inland ports, particularly at Vancouver and Portland. It's a complex $190 million project that was expected to last another two or three years as federal funding arrives intermittently. But, as The Columbian's Erik Robinson recently reported, that work now is expected to be finished by the end of this year, thanks to a $29.6 million jolt of federal economic stimulus money.
Say what you will about the purpose, pace and results of federal stimulus spending, but no amount or criticism will remove the smiles from the faces of people affiliated with Columbia River-related ports, businesses and labor groups. Not only was the channel-deepening project shovel-ready, it had the big shovels gassed up and going. And the project's potential impact was real and well-known. Thus, the river dredging might emerge as a poster child for stimulus-spending success.
The Columbian editorially opposed this project several years ago because of concerns about environmental impacts. Gradually, those concerns were resolved. The project was fully reviewed in numerous court cases and drew opposition from virtually no public officials. Now, we're glad to see this rare case of government work actually accelerating its schedule. When else and where else has that been happening? Certainly not in bridge planning.
The most recent river dredging has been the toughest part of the work. Final funding has allowed contractors to use underwater explosives to dislodge 600,000 cubic yards of hard basalt on the river bottom between Ridgefield and St. Helens, Ore.
Long-term results will significantly expand the shipping industry, which already involves the annual movement of 40 million tons of goods, grains and new cars through the channel. That diverse cargo is valued at about $16 billion per year.
Many of the project's benefits will be arriving more quickly. As Robinson reported, a $230 million grain elevator is under construction in Longview, in anticipation of the deeper channel.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., visited with port, shipping industry and labor officials on Feb. 19 to hear details about the ahead-of-schedule project. But she also heard about the deteriorating condition of protective jetties that extend into the Pacific Ocean at the river's mouth. Murray warned: "All the work that we've done to deepen the channel to 43 feet could be undone," if one or both of those jetties should break apart.
The shipping industry relies on the jetties to prevent beach sand from clogging the channel. Much of that work is more than a century old. The jetties were built between 1885 and 1917 and have been extended and fortified through the years. About $30 million worth of interim repairs were made between 2005 and 2007.
Still, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers report that more upgrades are necessary. That work could make the channel-deepening project look minor in comparison. Strengthening the jetties could cost $470 million and take up to 18 years.
Today, Pacific Northwesterners can toast the advanced pace of the channel's deepening. Ultimately, though, Congress must find a way to buttress the barricades where the Great River of the West meets its destination.
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