the film
Economic and dam related articles

Salmon Pay for Shipping Benefits

by Brent Hunsberger
The Oregonian, March 4, 2002

For more than a century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dredged, filled and dammed the Columbia River to promote commerce.

Salmon have paid the price.

Now protected by federal law, 13 threatened and endangered salmon runs face a new risk: The corps and six river ports want to deepen the river again.

The dredging will further erode a delicate estuary nurturing millions of young salmon. In addition, the disposal of the dredging wastes -- enough to fill the Rose Garden arena 119 times -- will smother offshore crabbing areas.

On all this, scientists agree.

But they have not been able to say exactly how much damage the dredging will do to salmon.

And where science creates a vacuum, politics rushes in.

The corps and Columbia River ports say their plan for restoring salmon habitat will more than make up for any damage. But interviews and records show that the plan promises to do less than what federal fisheries officials once demanded.

In a few weeks, the National Marine Fisheries Service, taking into account the effects on salmon, will decide if the project can go forward.

In 1999, the fisheries service had drafted a report that could have killed the project, according to agency documents. But fisheries officials backed off after the corps promised to restore 5,250 acres of estuaries critical to salmon.

Today's plan offers less: 2,700 acres of habitat restoration. One restoration project takes a proposed dumpsite and relabels it salmon habitat. And the project that biologists say will do the most to help salmon won't be started for at least a decade, if ever.

The corps and the ports say that the earlier plan may have been bigger but that it didn't identify specific restoration projects. The new plan does.

"We have an opportunity to really make a difference while we accomplish the project," said Bill Wyatt, Port of Portland's executive director.

Beyond fish and dredging, this is a story of what happens when the Endangered Species Act threatens to stop a project that has powerful friends and promises to bring millions of dollars to the Northwest.

The spoils of dredging Columbia River ports, the shipping industry and growers want a deeper channel so vessels cruising down the Columbia can carry more cargo and, presumably, lower their shipping costs. The number of big ships is increasing worldwide, and Port officials say deepening the channel from its average of 40 feet to 43 feet will help the region keep those ships coming to the Columbia.

Oregon and Washington taxpayers will help pay for the project. But federal taxpayers will foot most of the $188 million costs, and the corps, responsible for deepening navigation channels in U.S. waters, will oversee the work.

The corps plans to dig up 19 million cubic yards of sediment and blast out 7,500 dump truck loads of river-bottom basalt. During the next 20 years, the corps says, another 90 million cubic yards would be scraped out of the channel to maintain the 43-foot depth.

Most of those dredging spoils will be dumped at 34 spots along the river. The corps also would dump as much as 37 million cubic yards in the Pacific Ocean six miles off shore, in a deep-water area nearly twice the size of Portland's Forest Park.

Corps studies acknowledge that the dumping, which the corps has done for decades, kills sturgeon and smothers crab. State and federal officials also fear the project will remove sand from a system that naturally replenishes Washington's beaches, hastening a coastal erosion problem that has threatened shoreline buildings and roads.

"It's good quality sand. It could do a lot to nourish the beaches," said George Kaminsky, coastal engineer with the Washington Department of Ecology. "But if we put it in deep water, it's basically gone for good."

But the greatest concern is for salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act.

To survive, young salmon, called smolts, need the shelter and rich food found in the Columbia's shallow tidelands. Scientists familiar with the river think its estuary is a key area of growth for more than 100 million smolts that each year migrate to the sea.

But the tidelands have dwindled, in part, under the bulldozers and dredging shovels of Corps of Engineers projects.

About 30,000 acres of the estuary's marshes and swamps -- an area as large as Salem -- have disappeared in the lower Columbia, lost in part to the corps' dredging and dumping of spoils, according to research by the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, an Oregon-Washington regional planning agency representing cities and counties in the lower river.

The dredging spoils have turned riverbanks and islands into moonscapes that erode back into the channel, only to be dredged again.

Each time the corps has deepened the channel, scientists say, the river's shorelines recede, draining wetlands that are important food sources for salmon and their prey.

The corps acknowledged the destructive legacy in its 1999 report on the deepening project: "These losses have been incremental in fashion and are substantial in aggregate."

Fisheries service under pressure
As watchdog for endangered salmon in the Columbia, the National Marine Fisheries Service must decide if a project such as channel deepening could potentially harm the protected fish. The agency publishes its findings in a document called a biological opinion.

How fisheries service officials handled the first biological opinion in 1999 shows how the project got to where it is today.

The fisheries service has released records regarding the opinion in response to a lawsuit and a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Northwest Environmental Advocates, a Portland-based group opposed to the deepening project. The group provided the records to The Oregonian at the newspaper's request.

The records show that, as the time came to make a decision about the dredging project, fisheries service officials felt squeezed.

The corps demanded that the fisheries service finish its work by the end of 1999 to meet a deadline or its congressional approval would expire. But the corps' report on the environmental impact, called a biological assessment, was "skimpy," as one fisheries service official called it in an internal memo.

At the time, fisheries service officials suggested the agency take longer to study the threat to salmon.

The corps' answer?

"Political -- very problematic," the fisheries service's project manager, Cathy Tortorici, wrote in her notes during a telephone call with corps officials.

"If we don't meet date," she wrote, "political blow up!"

Corps officials argued the dredging would alter the river only slightly. But biologists say the sum of the corps' actions has done enduring damage.

In an Oct. 25, 1999, memo, biologists at the agency's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle wrote that the dredging would inflict another wound in the estuary. As the center's biologists put it, "An appropriate analogy is 'death by a thousand cuts.' "

Still, a few fisheries service officials thought some evidence of harm to fish habitats was weak.

Will Stelle was then the agency's regional administrator responsible for issuing the opinion. Today, he's a partner with Preston Gates & Ellis, a Seattle law firm representing Columbia River ports supporting the channel project.

Stelle recalls that some scientific evidence pointing to harm for the salmon was strong while other research left the agency "in a place of substantial ignorance and very substantial uncertainties."

When faced with such a dilemma, Stelle said, "the benefit of the doubt should go to the fish."

Under pressure to decide quickly, fisheries officials on Nov. 5, 1999, drafted a biological opinion that concluded the dredging project was "likely to jeopardize" endangered salmon.

The opinion wasn't made public at the time.

But it triggered a backlash against fisheries officials.

Political "jeopardy"
A "jeopardy" opinion by itself would not have necessarily stopped the project, but it could have dealt it a fatal political blow.

The same day fisheries service officials drafted the jeopardy opinion, the agency's Tortorici broke the news about the opinion to corps officials in Portland.

"The corps is furious," Tortorici wrote in a memo about the meeting. During the meeting, she wrote, one corps official called the fisheries service process "crap" and "just wanted to tell us to go to hell."

Fisheries officials started looking for a compromise. Stelle, noting the high-profile nature of the channel deepening, said the fisheries service sometimes used the threat of a jeopardy opinion to force changes in such a project.

Two weeks later, fisheries officials offered the corps a deal: The agency would drop the "jeopardy" ruling if the corps agreed to finance a massive restoration effort in the lower Columbia River estuaries. Corps officials labeled this idea "extortion," fisheries agency records show.

But some fisheries service biologists didn't like it either. The deal called for "adaptive management," trusting the corps to identify environmental problems as the project moves ahead.

"Talk about the coyote guarding the hen house," wrote Edmundo Casillas, a fisheries service biologist, in a Nov. 24, 1999, e-mail to other agency officials.

Pressure built on both the fisheries service and the corps to reach a deal. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a strong backer of the channel deepening project, was concerned about timing.

Josh Kardon, chief of staff for Wyden, said that the senator told Stelle that he wanted the fisheries service "to meet the deadline and to fall short would be a disservice to the region and taxpayers." Stelle declined to discuss the conversation.

Wyden summoned the fisheries service's director, Penny Dalton, to a Dec. 2, 1999, meeting at his Washington, D.C., office. Agency officials busily wrote talking points to brief Dalton on the local issue.

One memo, written by Elaine Denning, then with the agency's congressional affairs office, shows some people in the agency thought Wyden was asking the fisheries service to drop its objections.

Denning, summing up views from a regional fisheries service official, said that Wyden talked about protecting habitat in the lower Columbia but still wanted the fisheries service to approve a channel project that would have "a serious negative effect on habitat."

"The channel deepening project is on a collision course with the (Endangered Species Act)," Denning wrote. "Wyden can't have it both ways."

Denning declined to comment on the memo.

Kardon said that at no time did Wyden tell anyone at the fisheries service what to say in the biological opinion.

"If anyone thought that, it was probably because Senator Wyden has worked so hard and so long for the port improvements," Kardon said. "They probably missed the fact that he has repeatedly said he wants the project to go forward only if it is a world-class environmental success, as well as a trade success for the region."

Wyden later met with Dalton, who says Wyden didn't pressure her agency. "He emphasized the importance of the channel project and emphasized his recognition for the need to ensure salmon protection," Dalton said. "It was a very pleasant meeting."

By this time, however, the fisheries service and the corps had cut a deal.

On the day Wyden and Dalton met, records show, fisheries service officials drafted a new biological opinion that now concluded dredging would be "unlikely to jeopardize" salmon. In exchange, the corps had promised to restore more than 5,250 acres of tidal wetlands along the river within 10 years. The final opinion was released Dec. 16, 1999.

The project soon faced setbacks.

In February 2000, five conservation groups -- including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Northwest Environmental Advocates -- sued the agency in U.S. District Court in Seattle. When the groups won a key legal motion, the fisheries service retreated.

On Aug. 25, 2000, the fisheries service took the extraordinary step of withdrawing the favorable opinion. In the notice, the agency's acting regional administrator, Donna Darm, noted the inability of her agency and the corps to "reach consensus."

In response, Oregon and Washington denied the corps the necessary permits for dredging the river and disposing of the wastes. Both states said they would reconsider if the fisheries service released a new biological opinion.

The whole process had to start again.

Port weighs in Port of Portland officials, the agency's records show, agonized over their dredging project as they watched the fisheries service and the corps tangle. They wanted the Port to take a stronger hand.

"Can the corps and (the fisheries service) ... collaborate together to produce a result that allows the project to move forward?" Dave Lohman, the Port's policy and planning director, wrote executive director Mike Thorne in an October 2000 memo. "We believe, no."

The Port helped organize and pay for a panel of seven scientists to mediate the impasse between the corps and fisheries officials.

The scientists -- with little experience studying the Columbia -- found no certainty salmon and their habitat would be harmed, even though four of seven agreed the potential was there.

One scientist called the lack of information on the issues a "major shock." Wrote another, "We are in a rather weak position to draw firm conclusions on potential project impacts."

Two months ago, the corps issued a new biological assessment designed to persuade the fisheries service to again approve the dredging project. Even though the new plan came out under the corps' name, documents show, a Port-paid consultant wrote it and Port officials edited its content.

The new assessment calls for restoring marshy areas to Tenasillahe Island, a 1,800-acre portion of Julia Butler Hanson National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles upstream from Astoria. The refuge is home to Columbia white-tailed deer, also protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But before this can happen, the corps would have to buy 1,000 acres of Cottonwood/Howard Island, near Longview, Wash., to replace the refuge and relocate the deer. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have to first remove the deer from the endangered species list, which biologists say will take a decade or more.

The corps also proposes creating "shallow water habitat" by dumping dredging wastes near the shorelines: 8 million cubic yards near Tongue Point, five miles upriver from Astoria, and nearly 6 million more near Pillar Rock and Miller Sands, another five miles upstream.

Smolt can use shallow water to rest and feed. What's more, the corps saves money by disposing of silt in the river rather than at sea.

The Tongue Point site, for example, essentially would turn a proposed disposal site into "restoration." While an inexpensive option for the corps, the plan could ruin a growing fishery, where gill-netters catch nursery-bred salmon instead of native runs. Tod Jones, manager for the Clatsop County fisheries project, said filling in the area with sediment would "totally eliminate the ability of fishermen to harvest those fish."

Corps officials say their plan focused on helping endangered fish. "It's not looking at a hatchery and recreational fishery at this point," said Laura Hicks, the corps' project manager.

Biologists with decades of experience studying the lower Columbia say the shallow-water habitat isn't all that helpful to smolts. The corps' dumping of dredging spoils has already increased shallow water areas, studies show.

"This sort of opportunistic way of looking to call dredge disposal 'restoration' is getting pretty far afield of what juvenile salmonids need," says Charles Simenstad, wetlands ecosystem team coordinator at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences.

Scientists say the estuary desperately needs more marshes and swamps, and those restoration opportunities lie mostly on private property. They are also the most expensive.

Corps officials say projects involving private land add too much uncertainty. "We were trying to find things that would benefit the juvenile salmonids and be pretty much assured that they could actually be acquired," Hicks says.

The fisheries service's Tortorici and others say few lower Columbia River landowners want to work with the corps, based on past experience and damage caused by earlier corps work.

Last year, the corps considered helping a $4.2 million effort to restore a 1,000-acre portion of the estuary near Chinook, Wash. But Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups -- who dislike the dredging project -- didn't want the corps to link the restoration to the channel project. Corps officials say they never intended to link the two, and the sides never reached an agreement.

Tortorici says her agency understands that the misgivings of landowners limits the corps' options.

"What we have to work with is part of a process," Tortorici said. "These projects aren't bad, but they are not the be-all and end-all."

Brent Hunsberger and Brent Walth
Salmon Pay for Shipping Benefits
The Oregonian, March 4, 2002

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation