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Commentaries and editorials

Agency OKs Dredging Columbia

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, December 16, 1999

The U.S. fisheries service requires increased wetland restoration
as part of the $196 million project to deepen a shipping channel

A plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel by 3 feet cleared a big hurdle Wednesday when the National Marine Fisheries Service said it would approve the $196 million project.

But the fisheries service said it would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore more than 3,000 acres of tidal wetlands. The corps must also monitor the project to ensure that the dredging does not hurt salmon and steelhead trout protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

Representatives of six river ports that have pushed for the dredging expressed relief. They want the river deepened to allow bigger, more fully loaded freighters to make it from the Pacific Ocean to Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

The fisheries service will sign the approval by Friday. The project still needs water pollution permits from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and approval from the state Department of Land Conservation and Development.

Congress has authorized paying for two-thirds of the $196 million project, though the price tag could be higher because the costs of the wetland restoration efforts have not been calculated. But the authorization expires unless the Corps of Engineers submits a final report to Congress by Dec. 31. Corps officials would have been unlikely to submit that report without approval from the fisheries service.

The restoration measures announced Wednesday significantly increase the 250 acres of tidal restoration the corps previously agreed to. Restoration involves removing dikes and dams to re-create tidal wetlands that are key to the food chain in the estuary.

Officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service called the new measures a significant step toward returning a degraded estuary to ecological health.

Rick Applegate, a deputy regional commissioner for the fisheries service, said that the estuary was in "deep trouble" and that the fisheries service would require the corps to undertake significant restoration efforts. "We don't want to see a small-scale effort to simply address the directly provable effects of a 3-foot channel deepening."

But conservationists and tribal officials expressed disappointment.

"It doesn't wash," said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates, a Portland-based conservation group. "To allow further degradation of an already degraded ecological system so we can buy some ecological restoration doesn't make sense."

The corps plans to dredge the 40-foot-deep navigation channel to 43 feet by removing nearly 22 million cubic yards of sand, gravel and silt. Critics say the dredging could damage the riverbed and increase turbidity. They also worry about environmental damage from disposing of dredged material, which would be dumped at three sites in the river, in the open ocean and on 29 land sites covering 1,681 acres.

The fisheries service also released a scientific study on Wednesday that describes the estuary as in poor environmental shape. The study says the proposed deepening project would cause further environmental damage. But the NMFS scientists said it was impossible to predict whether that damage would affect the 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead trout in the Columbia River Basin that are already in poor shape and are federally protected.

The fisheries service said it would allow the project to continue only if it was shown not to threaten fish.

Applegate said the fisheries service approved the project after reaching agreement with the corps 10 days ago on a list of conditions:

Tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon said the fisheries service should not have approved deepening before understanding its effects on salmon.

Jonathan Brinckman
Agency OKs Dredging Columbia
The Oregonian, December 16, 1999

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