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Dredging Puts Small Ports in Jeopardy

by Editorial Board
Daily Astorian, April 18, 2013

Strangling on sediments

The small ports of the Pacific Northwest -- a designation that applies even to facilities as extensive as those of Port of Astoria -- are at risk of losing routine dredging.

In fact, it can be said this loss has already occurred. Virtual elimination of the historic practice of Congress earmarking federal funds for specific projects has deprived harbors of their main way of obtaining dredge projects. It used to be fairly straightforward for individual U.S. representatives and senators to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain specific waterways -- even small ones that don't necessarily pencil out on a strict cost-benefit basis.

Now, ports in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere are beginning to strangle on sediments that filter down into access channels and other crucial linkages that used to be maintained by the corps and its contractors. Initial regional news coverage of the issue started in southwest Oregon, where Bandon and other harbors are at the forefront of losing ocean access for recreational vessels. The same issues are coming to bear here for small ports clustered around the mouth of the Columbia.

"The ban on earmarks ties our congressional representatives' hands and puts all of the decision-making responsibility in the hands of those who know nothing about our challenges or needs," a Bandon commissioner recently said. This means that towns with a heavy economic reliance on recreational fishing or relatively small-scale commercial fishing are being dropped off the edge of the corps' "to-do" list.

Thanks to their proximity to the main shipping channel, the Oregon estuary ports are in somewhat less dire straits than Ilwaco and Chinook, and Nahcotta on Willapa Bay. Ports on the north shore of the Columbia have been particularly victimized by the historical decision to sacrifice the Columbia's north channel by using Baker Bay as a vast sediment catchment basin. A federal study was authorized of this issue, but never funded.

All small ports including Astoria are on a quest for a reliable funding stream for dredging. The most obvious one is the $7 billion Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), which has accrued from taxes on products imported into major ports from abroad. Income from this fund mostly goes to maintaining the largest ports. Even the Port of Portland doesn't quite technically qualify.

Congress diverts a large part of the HMTF to nonport purposes. This has meant underfunding core maritime transportation corridors like the recently deepened Columbia channel. If the HMTF is spent solely for its intended purpose, there will be money for the big jobs, plus enough left over to filter down to small-town ports. Congress certainly should take this step.

A port like Ilwaco, Hammond or Garibaldi doesn't mean much to the national economy, but is extremely important to the life of its community. A developed economy needs to find a way to keep all its coastlines open for business.

Editorial Board
Dredging Puts Small Ports in Jeopardy
Daily Astorian, April 18, 2013

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