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Future of Dredging Project Up In Air

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, August 29, 2000

The National Marine Fisheries Service says revoking its OK
to deepen the Columbia River was a "no-brainer"

The federal government erred eight months ago when it gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permission to proceed with a massive project to deepen the Columbia River between Portland and Astoria, officials conceded Monday.

And the error, officials said, was made clear by two things: an environmentalists' lawsuit against the deepening, which a federal judge early this month refused to dismiss; and an examination of the river as the National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this year concluded five years of study on whether to breach Snake River dams in an effort to help salmon.

The fisheries service corrected its error Friday by revoking its approval, issued to the corps late last year. The action took both dredging proponents and opponents by surprise, however, because the fisheries service typically is slow and deliberate in forming its official opinions and Congress had funded the project.

"It's like writing something under a deadline and you look at the piece the next day and wonder why you did it," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service. "The decision (to revoke permission) became easier to make as things accumulated. Ultimately it was a "no-brainer."

The "no-brainer" was a realization by the fisheries service that its first responsibility was to protect from harm any of the 12 species of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia that are listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The importance of avoiding disruption in the lower Columbia's vast estuary became paramount.

"Everybody's sensitized to the importance of the estuary," said Donna Darm, deputy regional director of the fisheries service. "That made us want to make sure that we really were getting it right."

Supporters of deepening -- including the ports of Portland, Vancouver and four other communities 100 miles up the Columbia from the Pacific Ocean -- scrambled Monday to understand the future of the project.

Asked how long the project would be delayed, Laura Hicks, the corps' project manager, suggested asking the fisheries service. Darm of the fisheries service said she did not know how long the delay might be. She said that would become clearer after a meeting between the corps and her agency.

As of Monday afternoon, the corps and the fisheries service had not scheduled a meeting.

The project, formally proposed by the corps in 1989, calls for deepening a 103.50-mile stretch of the Columbia's shipping channel by three feet, from 40 feet to 43 feet. The original plan also called for deepening the Willamette River from the Columbia to Portland's Broadway Bridge, but the corps put that phase on indefinite hold last year after the Willamette was proposed as a Superfund site.

Congress last year authorized spending $183.6 million for the entire project. The Columbia River portion would cost $155 million, the corps calculates.

Any delay will hurt, said Alan Willis, project manager for the Port of Portland. He maintained Monday that the channel could be deepened without harming salmon and other animals.

"We are assuring shipping lines and others that this action doesn't mean the project is stopped, that it is going forward," Willis said. "But I don't want to minimize our concerns about delay."

Deepening the river will allow many of the more than 2,000 ships a year that travel the Columbia to Portland and five other deepwater ports to leave more fully loaded, Willis said. That would save $34.4 million a year in shipping costs, he said.

The fisheries service in July recommended against breaching four federal dams on the Lower Snake River to help salmon. Officials said that their studies had found that improving small streams, where many salmon spawn, and improving the estuary, where young salmon linger and feed before striking out for sea, would accomplish more than breaching.

Conservationists who support breaching were angry that the fisheries service would oppose breaching while approving the deepening plan. NW Environmental Advocates, American Rivers and other groups that support breaching filed a lawsuit against deepening early this year. A federal judge Aug. 4 ruled that lawsuit can go forward.

"They can't say the estuary is very important and then approve something to dig up the estuary three feet and muck it up," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association of Portland. "It's two-faced."

Darm, however, said the decision to halt the dredging plan is not linked to the recommendation against breaching. Instead, she said, the fisheries service had not answered all the questions it needs to before approving deepening.

"It's time to pull back and make sure that deepening won't cause harm," she said. "We want to take a fresh look at this."

Jonathan Brinckman
Future of Dredging Project Up In Air
The Oregonian, August 29, 2000

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