For more than 128 years, the lower Columbia River has been maintained - through dredging - to provide safe passage of cargo ships making the 106-mile trip between Portland, Ore., and the Pacific Ocean. This important link for national and international commerce aided in the development of the region, and continues to contribute to the regional and national economies.
Since the first dredging operations in 1873, the channel has periodically been deepened to accommodate evolutions of larger, deeper-draft cargo ships calling on the world's ports, including those in Oregon and southwestern Washington. The last effort to improve navigation in the river occurred in the 1970s when the channel was deepened to its current 40-foot depth.
In the late 1980s, several Columbia River ports joined together to request the Congress to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to study navigation in the river. The Corps began a reconnaissance study in 1989, and concluded in 1990 that the potential existed for improving the navigation channel and that further study was warranted. In 1994, Congress directed the Corps to began a five-year feasibility study to evaluate options for improving navigation in the river.
The Corps worked with the Columbia River ports that originally requested the initial study and entered an agreement with them to partner and share the cost of the feasibility study and any resulting construction. The ports included Portland, St. Helens, and Astoria in Oregon, and Vancouver, Kalama, Longview and Woodland in Washington.
The purpose of the feasibility study was to identify potential actions, determine the best course of action to take (if any), determine how much that action would cost and associated national economic benefits, and identify potential environmental impacts and restoration actions. The Corps also completed a Dredged Material Management Study (DMMS) to evaluate the most efficient way to maintain the existing 40-foot navigation channel. This provided the study team a baseline condition for evaluation purposes.
The feasibility study evaluated various alternatives for improving navigation in the Columbia River. The alternatives studied included dredging the river bottom to various depths, updating river level forecasting systems, upgrading existing port facilities or developing a regional port, and taking no action. At the completion of the study, the Corps concluded deepening the channel to a depth of 43 feet provided the most benefit to the nation of the studied options.
The DMMS was completed in 1998; the feasibility study was completed in August 1999 and the project was authorized by Congress in December 1999. The project, as authorized, serves multiple purposes, including navigational improvements and environmental restoration.
Deepening the Columbia River federal navigation channel requires full compliance with various environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). To comply with NEPA, the Corps conducted an environmental review of the project and published comprehensive environmental impact statements for both the feasibility study and the DMMS. For their part, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a ?No Jeopardy? Biological Opinion in December 1999 on the expected impacts to salmonids; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) completed its ?No Jeopardy? Biological Opinion on the potential impacts to birds, wildlife and plant species in December 1999. NMFS later withdrew their document in August 2000, citing the availability of new information.
In February 2001, Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI) was retained to help resolve scientific concerns raised in connection with the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project. The Corps, NMFS, and USFWS jointly agreed to use SEI's experience to help resolve fishery issues surrounding the project.
The SEI process included formal and informal review of scientific materials by SEI staff and an independent panel of seven scientific experts. This process included five workshops, which were open to the public, from March 2001 to August 2001 to review the science underlying the proposed Columbia River Channel Improvement Project. It also included ad hoc meetings between panelists and project managers and agency scientists, as well as a questionnaire completed by all the panelists. Based on its comprehensive discussion of all relevant issues (numeric and conceptual modeling, fisheries, sediment and water quality, and monitoring and adaptive management), the panel determined that the knowledge base is adequate to resolve environmental concerns through the reconsultation process. The panel addressed only issues relevant to conservation of threatened and endangered salmonids.
The Corps has worked closely with NMFS and USFWS to address the new information, as well as resolve concerns included in the original biological opinions. Updated opinions were released in May 2002. The services determined the project can proceed without jeopardizing listed species. Additionally, the states of Oregon and Washington must certify the project?s compliance with the Clean Water Act, and state water quality standards and coastal zone management rules. The project cannot proceed until all coordination is completed and state water quality certifications are issued.
Between March 2002 and July 2002, the Corps revised its economic analysis of the project to reflect the new information obtained during the reconsultation with the services, as well as taking into account new cost estimates for completing the project. The supplemental report was released for public comment on July 10, 2002. The comment period, which included several public hearings, closed Sept. 15, 2002.
On January 28, 2003, the Corps issued its final supplemental report (see below). A notice was published in the Federal Register on January 31. The final report reflects comments and information received by the Corps since the draft supplemental report was published in summer 2002.
Since receipt of water quality approvals and concurrences to the Corps' coastal zone management consistency determinations in June 2003, the Corps has modified the project to address conditions handed down by the states of Oregon and Washington. As a result of those conditions, the Corps will not proceed with construction of the Miller-Pillar or Lois-Mott ecosystem restorations features, or the embayment portion of the Martin Island mitigation site. Instead, the Corps will place some dredged material in the ocean.
The cost of the authorized project - both deepening the navigation channel and the environmental restoration component - is $136 million. The federal government will cover about 65 percent of the cost, with the states of Oregon and Washington each contributing about $27 million for the Columbia portion of the project. The Corps? final supplemental feasibility report shows a $18.8 million annual national benefit once the project is completed, or a return of $1.66 for every dollar spent on construction.
Phase One of the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project was completed in mid-February 2006. This work consisted of deepening the lower 18 miles of the Columbia River (River Mile 3 to RM 21) and dredging work in the upper river from RM 95 to just past RM 104, and the first mile of Oregon Slough. With this completed work, more than 2.6 million cubic yards of sand was removed.
In January 2006, the dredge Oregon deepened the first mile of Oregon Slough at RM 102.
As with any major project in today's complex environmental, economic and political environment, this one has its supporters and its critics.