U.S. House Committee Approves
by Andre Stepankowsky
Small U.S. ports, including several on the Lower Columbia River, got some good news last week that could raise hopes for dredging their clogged navigation channels.
The House Appropriations committee last week designated $30 million for small port dredging in the 2014 water resources budget, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler announced. The Senate version of the bill also would provide the money.
The bill still has to go through both full houses, and there's no guarantee any of the money would go to local ports even if it gets approved. And there's a big backlog of dredging needs in the Pacific Northwest alone that $30 million won't even begin to cover.
Nevertheless, action is a significant political step in resuming dredging of small harbors, many of which are the major source of livelihoods for their communities, such as Chinook and Ilwaco.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been unable to keep up with dredging needs. As a result, many small harbors and ports are silting in. Two weeks ago, the Wahkiakum County Port District 1 commissioners discussed shoaling in the entrance to the Elochoman Marina in Cathlamet. With no money available to dredge the area, the commissioners talked about resorting to a "prop wash" - using the churning action of ships' propellers to stir up silt -- to temporarily relieve the problem.
One reason for the funding shortage is that Congress has raided the Harbor and Maintenance Trust Fund. The fund, established in 1986 and nourished by a tax on cargo, raises $1.5 billion a year. Congress has typically siphoned off half the funds for other uses.
"It's a very difficult time for the corps. . . . They are being squeezed ever tighter as the years go on," said Kristen Meira, executive director of the Portland-based Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.
The good news now is that there is a growing sense in Congress that trust fund should be used for its intended purpose, said Meira, whose group represents regional ports.
Under the waterways funding bills now under consideration, about two-thirds of the harbor trust fund money -- about $1 billion -- would go to its intended use, Meira said. The $30 million for small port maintenance is part of that $1 billion allocation.
"Both bills propose spending $1 billion from the trust fund. But that's only about two-thirds of what is being collected. There's still a lot of money being left on the table," Meira said.
"Finally getting a fix for the trust fund is so important. We feel that money is supposed to be used to maintain these coastal waterways. Ilwaco and Chinook would be part of that," Meira said.
Nevertheless, the level of awareness about the problem has increased dramatically in Congress in the last four or five years, she said. "There is a real groundswell on (Capitol) hill to get this addressed."
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