The impact of dredging on salmon spurs debate

Friday, January 4, 2002

Seattle P-I

PORTLAND -- After more than a year of additional study, the Army Corps of Engineers says threatened salmon will not be seriously affected by a $188 million Columbia River dredging project aimed at opening the river to ever more massive container ships.

The corps released a biological assessment yesterday recommending the dredging after its latest review suggested any effect on salmon will be minimal -- and expanded habitat-restoration plans may even benefit fish.

But environmentalists say it was bad science the first time the corps recommended the dredging in 1999, and it's still bad science.

"It's pretty much the same plan we saw the first time around," said Nicole Cordan, spokeswoman for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

"The first time around, it didn't pass muster on the science, and I don't think it will this time," Cordan said.

The project to deepen the Columbia River channel by 3 feet all the way from Astoria to Portland still must by approved by state and federal regulatory agencies, and Congress must provide funding, along with matching funds from Oregon and Washington.

"The hurdles appear insurmountable," said Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group. The Corps of Engineers "were taking their best shot here."

Based on a five-year study by the corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service approved the project late in 1999, and Congress authorized funding.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service halted the project when it withdrew its approval in August 2000, citing a lawsuit by environmentalists and renewed questions about the impact on salmon.

The corps responded with more studies and hired the Portland-based Sustainable Ecosystems Institute to conduct an independent review, which concluded last August. The result was another recommendation to begin dredging, although the corps now wants to expand the list of accompanying salmon restoration projects from three to nine.

"This is a good project, and this is based on solid science," said Matt Rabe, Corps of Engineers spokesman.

Doug Thompson, an Astoria City Council member and longtime opponent of channel deepening, was unimpressed by the corps' support and words of assurance.

"It's not surprising at all that the Army Corps of Engineers would say this is a go," he said. "The Army Corps (has) yet to see a dredging project that they don't love."

The project would cover 103.5 miles from the mouth of Columbia at Astoria to its confluence with the Willamette River at Portland, deepening the river from its current average of 40 feet to 43 feet.

"We believe this project will actually improve the Columbia's habitat and environmental quality," said Bill Wyatt, Port of Portland executive director.

Thompson disagreed. He said that the estuary degradation that he has witnessed over the past 25 years has hurt the local economy and impedes salmon recovery. The question isn't will the dredging be beneficial or harmful, he said, "the question is how harmful?"

Wyatt said the channel deepening would allow a new generation of big ships to travel inland to the Port of Portland, considered the key West Coast link between maritime traffic and railroads. It is also one of the nation's busiest export centers for wheat and other agricultural products.

"Every foot of depth in the river is estimated to be worth about a million dollars per vessel in container cargo," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a longtime supporter of the project.

Baird said environmental concerns are a priority, but the latest recommendation from the Corps of Engineers is a strong signal the project should finally get started to boost the sagging Pacific Northwest economy.

He noted that Oregon now has the highest monthly unemployment rate in the nation at 7.4 percent.

But Dave Moryc, spokesman for the American Rivers conservation group, said uncertainty is the chief problem on the issue of salmon.

"So far it's just a snapshot in time," Moryc said of the corps' study. "We still don't really know what will happen over the long term."

The latest biological assessment by the corps said that dredging may have some short-term effects on the river system, but the project can be completed without long-term negative effects to salmon or the environment -- especially in the delicate estuary system near the river's mouth.

The new assessment expands the list of restoration projects needed to minimize the impact of dredging, from three to nine, and includes improvements to intertidal marshes and mudflats for juvenile salmon. It also calls for reconnecting backwaters and side channels to the river and increasing the food supply in estuaries.

"We believe that, through these environmental restoration activities, we'll actually enhance the lower Columbia River for salmon," Rabe said.

But environmentalists remained doubtful.

"We always hear about the importance of the Columbia estuary," Cordan said. "But how can you dredge the place that's supposed to be so key to restoration?"


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