PORTLAND – Twenty years ago, a massive dredging effort to deepen 103 miles of the mighty Columbia River held the promise of securing Oregon’s connection to the rest of the world.
At 43 feet, the channel – otherwise too shallow to compete with deep-water ports – could play host to today’s larger vessels and more efficiently send Northwest wheat and steel to markets around the globe.
But with the Columbia River Channel Improvement project drawing to a close by the end of this year, the environmental and economic promises of the now $178.4 million project could fall short of the taxpayer investment, especially in an economy that’s resulted in an unprecedented decline in international trade, a review by the Oregonian found.
The cost of the project, estimated at $134 million in 2003 to calculate its cost-benefit, has grown by 33 percent and taken years longer to complete than expected.
Many of the restoration projects promised as environmental sweeteners at the outset of the project fell through, although there’s no evidence of the project harming fish.
The economic benefits of channel deepening have been jeopardized by a global recession that’s driven down ship traffic. The shipping vessels Oregon and Washington leaders were counting on may not arrive.
Port officials from Portland to Longview have long said deepening the Columbia River, which stoked controversy and a flurry of environmental lawsuits, is a matter of survival for upriver ports struggling to compete against bigger, more accessible ports in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C.
But in the drive to become more efficient, shipping companies are likely to build ever-larger vessels, sparking a boom in dredging activity worldwide as ports race to land lucrative shipping contracts.
Ultimately, the Columbia River may still be too shallow.
“I don’t think the final chapter has been written on the big ships,” said Bill Wyatt, the Port of Portland’s executive director. “The measure of success won’t come for years.”
The Columbia River, one of the world’s most important trade routes for grain, has never been deep enough in the eyes of the shipping industry.
As far back as 1878, the channel was dug to 20 feet, then to 40 feet by the 1960s. But as overseas trade rose in the late 1980s, oceangoing vessels grew even larger to carry more cargo.
“There’s historically been a problem with water depth,” said Barry Horowitz, a Portland-based international trade consultant. “We’re the only major river port on the West Coast.”
Northwest exports – wheat, steel and minerals – tend to be heavier than items arriving from overseas – shoes, clothing and tires. Local exports require greater river depth to fill vessels to capacity.
At 40 feet, ships loading at Columbia Grain, a major exporter at the Port of Portland’s Terminal 5, can only take up to 60,000 tons, even on ships built for 70,000 tons, said the company’s president, Tom Hammond.
“At times, it makes our shipping costs higher,” he said.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials say the estimated cost to complete the project in 2010 is $184.7 million and they will likely finish lower.
A big fear before the project began was that dredging would cause a host of environmental woes, from directly harming fish to boosting saltwater intrusion to increasing contaminants in the river’s estuary.
Regulators say it’s too early to tell – monitoring will continue for another three years. But so far, contamination has been low and fish damage minimal.
The problem: After regulators approved the corps’ plans, the projects started falling by the wayside amid opposition from fishermen, landowners and state and federal agencies.
Sport anglers opposed converting a bay on Washington’s Martin Island, near Woodland, Wash., to tidal marsh.
Farmers, landowners and diking districts opposed projects to convert farmland to wildlife habitat on Martin Island and nearby Woodland Bottoms.
Gill netters and others opposed work on fishing grounds near Lois, Miller Sands and Pillar Rock islands near Astoria, saying it would harm fishing.
Only one in five proposals to retrofit tidegates to allow fish into 38 miles of Columbia River tributaries has gone through.
In response to the opposition, the corps and the ports switched gears on the mitigation work, shifting in 2008 to restoring wetlands and forests for endangered Columbia white-tailed deer on port-owned Cottonwood Island near Rainier.
By its own calculations, the corps still covered its obligation to restore at least as much habitat as the amount damaged by the project’s dumping.
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