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Draft Calls Columbia Dredging OK on Fish

by Brent Hunsberger
The Oregonian, May 2, 2002

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't harm salmon by deepening the Columbia River shipping channel and won't have to restore as much fish habitat as it once promised, according to Northwest tribes' review of a preliminary federal report.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, charged with protecting the river's 13 stocks of endangered salmon, has tentatively approved the corps' $188 million plan to dredge the Columbia River from Astoria to Portland, according to Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission officials who inspected the report this week.

But the federal opinion, which has not been released to the public, proposes to restore only about half as many acres of critical fish habitat along the lower river as the fisheries service proposed when it first approved the project in 1999.

In that opinion, later withdrawn by the fisheries service, the corps agreed to restore 5,250 acres to avoid an unfavorable "jeopardy" ruling that could have halted the project. The latest federal opinion, tribal officials say, recommends 2,700 acres of estuary restoration.

Tribal members say the preliminary opinion does even less to protect salmon from the uncertain biological impacts of dredging than before.

"We are not convinced the impacts are neutral and we are very concerned they will be negative," said Don Sampson, executive director of the commission. "From the tribes' position it is biologically unjustifiable."

A favorable biological opinion is one of the final hurdles the corps needs to clear before it can proceed with deepening the channel from 40 to 43 feet.

Corps officials say their new plan, unlike the previous one, identifies specific restoration projects rather than a total acreage figure.

But some scientists and conservation groups question whether the restoration will succeed. One project takes a proposed dump site and relabels it salmon habitat. Another that biologists say will do the most to help salmon won't be started for at least a decade, if ever.

Brian Gorman, spokesman for the fisheries service in Seattle, declined to comment on the report but noted its contents were not final.

"I would caution anybody not to read too much into a draft," Gorman said.

He refused to release a copy until the report is completed later this month.

The fisheries service had said it would issue its biological opinion April 26. But last week, the agency postponed the release until May 20 so it could consult with the tribes.

The corps also must finish a review of the project's economic benefits. The corps says the deepening would save shipping lines $2 in operating costs for every $1 spent.

The Oregonian's analysis of the project earlier this year found it would return only 88 cents for each dollar spent.

The corps also needs congressional funding for the project. Corps officials don't expect to begin dredging until at least 2004.

The corps' own assessment According to tribal officials, the fisheries service's preliminary report generally accepts the corps' biological assessment, with few additional conditions.

It requires the corps to monitor the $188 million project's environmental impacts and halt work if dredging kills more than 10 adult salmon or 50 juvenile salmon, tribal officials said.

It also allows the corps to dredge round-the-clock without stopping when juvenile salmon migrate downstream. State and federal regulations require most other in-river construction projects to halt work during fish migrations.

Bob Heinith, a biologist for the tribes who inspected the federal opinion, said he wants the fisheries service to reconsider. He gave the agency new research by the tribes, Oregon State University and the University of Idaho that suggests salmon migrate deeper in the channel than previously thought, possibly within reach of corps dredgers and in areas of bedrock that the corps plans to blast. He also criticized the preliminary report for allowing the corps to do its own monitoring.

Controversy's history
The corps' restoration plans were crucial in its previous efforts to gain approval for the project. In 1999, the fisheries service had drafted an opinion that could have killed the project, according to agency documents. But fisheries officials backed off and issued a favorable opinion after the corps promised to restore 5,250 acres of estuaries critical to salmon.

Months later, it withdrew that opinion amid disagreements with the corps over restoration activities and a lawsuit by conservation groups accusing the service of failing to protect salmon.

Since then, the corps and the Port of Portland, the project's chief backer, have spent $2.5 million for consultants to craft a new, 389-page biological assessment of its impacts. Corps spokesman Matt Rabe said Wednesday that officials expect the fisheries service's final opinion to be that the project won't harm salmon.

"We feel our analysis was credible," Rabe said.

Sampson and other conservationists accuse the fisheries service of being rolled over by political momentum for a project that is widely supported by Oregon's congressional delegation, shippers, farmers, economic development officials and six Columbia River ports.

"I was never really expecting that the National Marine Fisheries Service would be an effective watchdog over the Army Corps of Engineers," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, one of the groups that sued the fisheries service in 2000. "If they had been, we wouldn't have had to sue them."

Brent Hunsberger and Brent Walth
Draft Calls Columbia Dredging OK on Fish
The Oregonian, May 2, 2002

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