PORTLAND - It would cost the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $134 million to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel from Vancouver to the Pacific Ocean - $22 million less than an earlier estimate, according to the Corps' final report on the project released last Tuesday.

The five-volume report details plans to deepen the 103-mile channel by three feet to accommodate deeper-draft vessels, which port leaders say are the key to the economic health of the region.

The cost estimate, down from the $156 million figure described in a draft report issued in July, was one of the changes in the final document.

Other changes include: adding five ecosystem restoration features, reducing the amount of sand to be dredged by nearly 4 million cubic yards and making a statement about ocean disposal of dredged materials.

The project will require "no disposing of sand dredged from the navigation channel during the deepening or for the first 20 years of maintenance in the ocean, according to current projections, provided the Corps can place the material into beneficial use at Lois Island and Miller-Pillar for ecosystem restoration," the release said.

Sand from channel deepening only represents a small fraction of the amount proposed for disposal at sea. Sand from regular maintenance dredging at the mouth of the Columbia River, which produces about 5 million cubic yards annually, would still be disposed of in the ocean.

Commercial crab fishermen oppose dumping dredged material in the ocean because it creates dangers to navigation and harms Dungeness crab habitat. Salmon fishermen oppose placing sand in the Lois Island Embayment (a proposed ecosystem restoration feature) because it would hamper a successful gill-net salmon fishery. Salmon raised in Clatsop County net pens and caught in the embayment represent about 80 percent of the commercial salmon catch here, Tod Jones, who runs the fishery for the county, told a hearing on the issue earlier this month.

The final report proposes dumping 4 million cubic yards of dredged material in the embayment to create 191 acres of inter-tidal marsh, which the Corps said would be beneficial for salmon.

"Not only would the revised plan protect the existing ecosystem," said Laura Hicks, deepening project manager, in a press release, "it would actually improve conditions in some areas and provide additional habitat for threatened and endangered salmon species."

Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, said the proposed ecosystem restoration features would do more harm than good.

"The deepening would damage the estuary environment and steal from the economies of our communities," Huhtala said in an e-mail. "We really don't need the added insult of suffering this rhetoric about 'restoration'."

Earlier reports said the project would return $1.50 in benefits for every dollar invested. The final report raises the benefits figure to $1.71.

Leaders from the six upriver ports sponsoring the deepening project reacted favorably to the final report.

"This is a much improved project today because the Corps of Engineers took time to listen to stakeholders from boaters to the lower river communities," Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt said in a press release. "The Corps sharpened their pencils, made changes, and as a result we better understand the costs and benefits, which have been validated by an outside panel of experts."

Huhtala said he thinks the sponsoring ports care little about lower river communities, calling the channel deepening project "a continuing process of refusing to communicate with the downriver communities, while pretending that they did."

Other channel deepening opponents were still reviewing the final document. The entire final Supplemental Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement and supporting documents are available on the Corps' Internet site: www.nwp.usace.army.mil

Comments on the final document will be accepted for 30 days.

Issuing the document does not mean work can start on the deepening or ecosystem restoration features. Several steps remain before the project could begin.

Oregon and Washington environmental regulators are reviewing the Corps' application for water quality permits and coastal zone management consistency. This process is to ensure that the project will not negatively impact water quality in the Columbia River and that it abides by applicable state and local laws.

Other remaining steps:

• The Corps must prepare a record of decision for the proposed project;

• The sponsoring ports need to enter a project cooperation agreement with the Corps - committing them to cover 35 percent of the cost.

• Finally, Congress must provide funding to the Corps for the project to move forward.

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