Federal Budget Includes Moneyby Mike O'Bryant
The 2003 federal budget approved by Congress just weeks ago has $4.25 million in three separate pots of money that is headed to projects in the Columbia River estuary.
Two pots will go to study or build estuary restoration projects and the third is for monitoring and evaluation in preparation for deepening the Columbia River navigation channel by three feet. All are separate programs and all the money goes directly to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Some $2 million will fund ecosystem restoration projects under a new Section 536 water resource authority that the Corps received in 2000. This is the first year Congress has funded the Lower Columbia River and Tillamook Bay Restoration Project, an authority that in the long run will bring $30 million of federal money to both estuaries. The first year's money will go to Columbia River projects.
Another $250,000 will fund the ongoing feasibility study that is investigating how to do ecosystem restoration in the lower Columbia River. That process will eventually develop a master plan for estuary projects.
Also included in the federal budget is $2 million for channel deepening that the Corps said it didn't ask for. The funds were tacked on as a congressional "adder" after the Corps' nonfederal partners in the project -- among them six lower Columbia River ports and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association -- lobbied the Northwest congressional delegation to get the project started.
"The $2 million is enough to begin the process for pre-construction work, including the monitoring," said Theeme Hoznagal of the Channel Deepening Coalition.
She said originally there was $5 million in an Energy and Water bill last summer earmarked for channel deepening activities, but that most appropriations this year have been cut back, partly due to fact that Congress approved the federal budget so late in the fiscal year. The non-federal partners are working to get $20 million into the 2004 budget and the full amount for channel deepening in 2005.
The channel deepening appropriation is for the initial monitoring and evaluation required by NOAA Fisheries' and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinions of the project, said Matt Rabe of the Corps. That work is required for two years before project construction to set a baseline for river conditions. The Corps then is required to continue monitoring and evaluation work during construction and to shut down dredging operations if monitoring shows it is impacting endangered species. The Corps must also monitor the river for three years after construction.
The Corps, which received the two BiOps in May 2002, ruled that the project to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel from 40 feet to 43 feet to accommodate deeper draft cargo ships posed no jeopardy to 13 species of salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout listed, or being considered, under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The $2 million for the Lower Columbia River and Tillamook Bay Restoration Project is considered a new start for the Corps, and only one of two new starts approved by Congress for fiscal year 2003 (the other is work at Chief Joseph Dam). However, Rabe said money for channel deepening is not considered a new start because the project had previously received about $4.5 million soon after its original Congressional authorization in 1999.
A lot has happened since that authorization: NOAA Fisheries rescinded its original BiOp; Oregon and Washington denied the project water quality permits; the Corps initiated a public scientific review process; and it completed a new biological assessment as well as a new economic justification for the project. Through all that congressional authorization sticks while the Corps completes a supplemental plan, which it released in late January. Authorization is separate from appropriations, Rabe said.
The Lower Columbia River and Tillamook Bay Restoration Project is a new project under the federal Section 536 Water Resources Development Act. The authorization was granted two years ago, largely at the urging of American Rivers, particularly the organization's David Moryc, according to those now involved in determining how the money should be spent. The $2 million for fiscal year 2003 is the first installment for projects that will eventually amount to $30 million at the rate of $2 million to $5 million per year, according to Taunja Berquam, the Corps' Columbia River Basin coordinator and project manager for the Sec. 536 program. She said the annual appropriation will be driven by what projects are ready to go.
Berquam said the Corps, along with local governments and organizations, will use the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership's estuary management plan as a guide when developing a plan, along with criteria and an approach to complete restoration projects.
Any project requires cost sharing, she said. The Corps, with its federal appropriation, will pay 65 percent of each project's cost, but 35 percent of the cost must come from non-federal resources. The one exception is projects on federal land. Then the Corps would pay 100 percent of the cost. Whoever pays, projects must have benefits for fish and wildlife. Berquam listed such general projects as restoring side channels, tidal marshlands and wetlands to open up more habitat.
One project that could soon receive funding is the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce's plan to reopen about 7.5 miles of habitat near Brownsmead, Ore., that was blocked years ago by dikes. While that project is currently funded under another Corps program (Sec. 1135), according to CREST's Executive Director Matt Van Ess, funding could be transferred to the Sec. 536 program. That project, which includes new channels and culverts to connect inland water to the river, could begin as early as this summer.
"We're at the user level of this and want to build the case that local groups can get projects on the ground," Van Ess said. "We want to put the Corps to work doing good projects."
He added that high on the list of candidate projects should be a watershed project proposed by Sea Resources on the Chinook River in Washington. Berquam also mentioned these two projects as possibilities, but said decisions will be made with partners, such as LCREP, other federal partners and the two bordering states, and that the first projects will likely be on an "opportunistic" basis. That means a specific site must be available and partners must be supportive and willing to provide the required cost-share, in addition to the project's ability to provide ecological benefits.
Berquam isn't sure how much could be accomplished this year. Whatever site is chosen, it still must go through the normal National Environmental Policy Act review. Choosing projects that are now working through this review, such as those at Brownsmead or the Chinook River, could ensure that something gets done this year.
Berquam said the Corps will begin in earnest before the end of March to talk with partners to outline the selection criteria and move into the planning and design stage this summer. She said that if the full $2 million isn't spent this fiscal year, the Corps has the option to carry over the money into next year.
"As one of two new starts for the Corps this year, it will be important to show progress," she said. "We look to this to be a partnership between agencies and organizations that may have their differences elsewhere. The restoration of the lower Columbia River is needed and we can all agree on this."
The final pot of money funds in the amount of $250,000 an ongoing study of how to proceed with ecosystem restoration in the Lower Columbia River. It is a comprehensive study of wetland and riparian habitat restoration and stream and fisheries habitat improvements that will eventually develop into a master plan for estuary projects, according to Eric Bluhm, project manager for the Corps.
The purpose of this ongoing feasibility study, Bluhm said, is "to investigate and recommend appropriate solutions to accomplish ecosystem restoration in the lower Columbia River and estuary, including wetland/riparian habitat restoration, stream and fisheries improvement, water quality and water-related infrastructure improvements."
However, completing the study is contingent on a cost-sharing agreement with Oregon and Washington. Although they have agreed to sponsor the study and even wrote a letter of agreement in May 1998, the states have yet to step forward with the money, Bluhm said. "Our problem is that we have a skeletal project management plan, but need state support to get started."
He said that Sec. 536 and this study are parallel activities that will occur at the same time "because an urgency exists to initiate habitat restoration projects especially to support salmon recovery." In defining the differences between the Sec. 536 authorization and this ongoing study, Bluhm said that the study is a comprehensive and long-range approach to address water resource problems and opportunities in the Lower Columbia River, and that Section 536 is focused on fish and wildlife habitat projects, which are contained in LCREP's management plan.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District: www.nwp.usace.army.mil
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