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Corps to Leave No Terns On Throne

by Elaine Williams, Lewiston Tribune - September 28, 2000

Rice Island in Columbia Estuary may be destroyed

Nesting Caspian terns on Rice Island, a dredge material disposal island in the upper estuary Rice Island in the Columbia River Estuary used to be a paradise for salmon-eating Caspian terns. Now it may be destroyed.

The birds have left and the island could become part of a runway for an airport in the San Francisco area, Mike Thorne, executive director of the Port of Portland told a Clarkston crowd Wednesday.

The island, which was created with sediment from dredging, has made a short list of possible materials to construct the new runway, said Thorne. It could be barged to its new location.

Rice Island is about 20 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River and was once home to as many as 16,000 terns, about three-fourths of the West Coast population.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been encouraging the terns to leave the island by erecting concentric circles of black fence that reduced the birds' line of sight and effectively cut their habitat from eight acres to one.

Many of the birds now are on East Sand Island five miles from the ocean where the corps created a nesting area.

Terns are listed as threatened, endangered, protected or vulnerable in eight states and British Columbia.

Silt fencing used to deter tern nesting on Rice Island in 1999 The more important issues supporters of Snake and Columbia river navigation need to be focusing on, Thorne said, are habitat restoration and a channel-deepening project to improve the navigation between Portland and the mouth of the Columbia River.

With Northwest products being sold worldwide, the Port of Portland plays a vital role in the health of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley's economy, Thorne said.

Barging saves money on shipping goods, Thorne said. The gentle ride on the river reduces rips and tears in wood products such as paper, tissue and milk cartons that occur with other modes of transportation.

The region needs to take advantage of a five-year window it has to improve habitat, Thorne said.

At that time the National Marine Fisheries Service will review its finding against removing the lower Snake River dams in its biological opinion on the Columbia River Hydropower System.

Thorne showed a video titled "Stewards of a River at Risk'' that detailed some of the abuse the Columbia River system has suffered.

The offenders range from cities that used to dump untreated waste water into the river to farm irrigation systems that would remove cool water and return warm pesticide- or fertilizer- laden water, according to the video.

"If the environmental integrity of fish habitat on the Columbia-Snake system becomes jeopardized, it jeopardizes the river's navigation system,'' according to a statement from the Port of Portland about Thorne's visit.

Thorne said the Port of Portland spends about $2 to $5 million of a $250 million annual operating budget on habitat restoration.

At the same time, Thorne stressed the importance of regional support for the port's proposal to deepen 114 miles of the Columbia River between the Pacific Ocean and Portland.

The project would deepen the navigating channel from 40 to 43 feet.

The proposal is opposed by environmental groups who say it would degrade salmon habitat.

Most of the distance is at least that depth already, Thorne said, but in the places that aren't, new larger ships are nearly scraping bottom.

Ships are carrying less than capacity loads to accommodate the channel, Thorne said.

Congress has already authorized the $118 million project, but the Port of Portland is waiting for a record of decision that the corps would issue in consultation with NMFS. That would allow the port to seek appropriation of the money from Congress.

The work could start as early as a year from now and is expected to take about 18 months.

Elaine Williams
Corps to Leave No Terns On Throne
Lewiston Tribune, September 28, 2000

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