It's deja vu all over again as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Washington Department of Ecology consider whether to grant state permits for the Columbia River channel deepening project.
The two agencies said no two years ago, citing potential harm to marine organisms including Dungeness crabs and loss of sediments from the river system, sediments that should be carried by waves and currents to recharge beaches from Tillamook Head in Oregon to Point Grenville, Wash.
The channel project has been much delayed by the need to respond to these objections and others initially voiced - and now withdrawn - by the National Marine Fisheries Service over possible impacts on migrating endangered salmon. The project's basic economic justification also has been strongly called into question by this newspaper and the Oregonian.
Considering all this intense scrutiny, one would assume the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and sponsoring upriver ports would have gone back to the drawing board. People attending a hearing in Astoria Monday night should have come away reassured. But it's fair to say that most did not.
It is true there have been changes in the corps' proposal for where to dispose of dredged materials, which will total hundreds of millions of cubic yards over the life projected life of the project. Much more of it will be dumped on upland sites, for example.
Problems remain, the most fundamental of which is loss of vast quantities of sediment from the grasp of the littoral system, the near-shore ocean area that plays a fundamental role in preserving beaches. Upland disposal and dumping in water depths greater than about 25 feet exacerbate a sediment deficit that already is causing huge problems on the Washington coast, problems that soon may begin showing up in Clatsop County. (The corps asserts its dumping practices in fact keep sediments in the littoral system, but other experts reject this, saying the corps dumps in waters that are too deep.)
The loss of beach in Fort Canby State Park has been big news for several years and continues to accelerate this winter. That erosion is moving north. Walk on the beach between North Head and Seaview, Wash., this winter and you will encounter sheer 10-foot escarpments where the ocean has bit deeply into the once-formidable primary dune. Meanwhile, scientists studying Clatsop beaches and nearby undersea areas are seeing signs that verify erosion could soon become a worrisome issue south of the Columbia's mouth.
A modest experiment last summer funded by Congress, Washington state and upriver ports showed pumping sediments over the North Jetty directly onto the beach at Ft. Canby may be a feasible method of delivering sand where it most needs to go. But this welcome good-will gesture also showed the corps that using this mechanism likely is too expensive to be useful within the current legal framework, which requires agency projects to be least cost while remaining environmentally acceptable.
"Acceptable" is in the eye of the beholder. For channel-deepening sponsors, it has always been acceptable to treat the estuary and plume region of the Columbia as a giant dredge disposal site. But it should not be acceptable to Lower Columbia residents or to the two states to be locked into a multi-decade arrangement that guarantees accelerating loss of beaches. Nor has the corps adequately addressed the concerns of crabbers and fishermen. Too much sediment still is dumped on crabbing grounds, while projects like that at Lois Island that ostensibly mitigate for project losses actually appear to endanger valuable habitat.
If channel deepening is indeed vital to the region's economy, then the states and the nation should do it the right way, making certain environmental damages and costs aren't inappropriately shifted to innocent people in Clatsop and Pacific counties and our neighbors to the north. The corps asserts it only does what it is told to do by Congress, and now is the time for Congress to tell it to reform its approach to sediment handling, treating it as the irreplaceable resource it is.
In the meantime, the two state environmental agencies should continue to act with great caution toward a project that appears to threaten direct harm to the coastal environment and economy.