Estuary Improving - But Worries
by Cassandra Profita
A five-year report card on Columbia River estuary restoration efforts released Friday showed the region is making progress in creating habitat, controlling storm-water runoff and recovering endangered species.
But a wide array of toxics - from legacy pesticides and industrial chemicals to pharmaceuticals and flame retardants - remain unabated in the river.
And while members of the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership have restored more than 16,000 acres of estuary habitat in the last 10 years, leaders note that the habitat won't be as helpful to threatened and endangered species of salmon and steelhead if it is riddled with contaminants.
U.S. Reps. David Wu, Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Shrader of Oregon have introduced the Columbia River Restoration Act in Congress to access up to $40 million a year for clean-up efforts.
Wu told members of the Columbia River partnership Friday that the bill is "substantially a product of the partnership's advanced knowledge of the river and existing regional collaborations."
He acknowledged that "dedicated funding and surveillance is needed" to address the problem of contaminants in the river.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski recognized progress the region has made toward improving the Columbia River ecosystem at the press conference announcing the river's report card in Portland Friday.
"The lower Columbia, one of the great natural jewels of the Pacific Northwest, is making a comeback," Kulongoski said. "Yes, we are moving in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go."
The region earned a C for water quality, a C+ for land use decisions that protect water quality, an A for stewardship that offers citizens opportunities to learn about the river, a B for habitat restoration and a C+ for recovering endangered species. The grades are up from five years ago.
Cleaning up contaminants is chief among four problems in the river that have not been solved, Kulongoski said.
Toxics in the river can cause delayed mortality in salmon and steelhead and may be linked to reproductive failure in bald eagles, mink and river otter.
Water quality in the Columbia is still suffering from human activities that have changed the ecological balance of the river over the past 100 years, Kulongoski said.
"Here in the metropolitan region, where the Willamette meets the Columbia, pollution is both persistent and prevalent and presents a special challenge that we must overcome if we are to earn the A that has always been our goal," he said.
Washington State Rep. Deb Wallace said one of the major shortcomings of the region's restoration efforts has been a lack of investment in toxics monitoring and reduction.
And, she said, when it comes to restoring habitat, "16,000 acres is amazing, but it's less than half of what we've lost."
Debrah Marriott, executive director of the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership, said her group has set a new goal of restoring an additional 19,000 acres of estuary habitat by 2014. However, she doesn't know yet where all the acreage will come from.
"Those are going to be a lot harder," she said. "A lot of the ready-to-go projects are already done. We're going to need bigger investments to get the next ones done. We are working really hard to identify where those projects will be."
Svensen resident Joan Dukes, a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said habitat restoration efforts could be undermined by contaminants in the estuary, and more testing needs to be done just to figure out where toxics in the river are coming from and where they're most concentrated.
"We know it all comes down to the estuary," she said, "But there's so much we don't know. We've done some testing but we haven't done enough yet. It's a toxic environment. We can give fish and wildlife habitat, but if it's toxic, it's not going to be helpful."
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