You may not have noticed, but earlier this month the Columbia estuary enjoyed one of its best days ever when years of effort paid off with a $2 million congressional appropriation for habitat restoration here.

U.S. Sens. Murray, Cantwell, Wyden and Smith and Reps. Blumenauer, Wu, Baird and Hooley led a bipartisan coalition that achieved this amazing feat in a year when few would have predicted success for any conservation funding. The victory is a tribute, too, to American Rivers, which shepherded the funds through Congress, and to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will help nurture the work.

Most importantly, none of this would have been possible without the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership and its members. LCREP's Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, drafted with intense community participation in the 1990s, forms the prescription for the estuary that the corps and contractors will follow.

Thousands of citizens from Cape Disappointment to Bonneville Dam contributed to this plan that can now commence in earnest. Farther upriver, the Columbia's powerful tribes have been key allies in convincing everyone of the importance of a healthy estuary to the recovery of salmon and countless other species that once thrived in these waters.

Someone seldom mentioned by name, but without whom none of this would have happened, is LCREP Executive Director Deb Marriott. Her patience and leadership have steered estuary efforts past many rocky shoals, as she's kept a steady eye on the goal of a establishing a sustained tradition of stewardship over the river, with adequate funds to accomplish genuine results.

The finest plan is nothing but there merest sham in the absence of money. All the thought and struggle that went into drafting the estuary plan would have been wasted if Congress hadn't made this appropriation, which has no connection with channel deepening efforts. It's notable, however, that channel advocates showed considerable good will in helping and not sidetracking this effort.

For more than a decade, Washington, Oregon and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have funded LCREP and the scientific studies leading up to it. This has never been more of struggle than now, when all three face budget difficulties. These hard economic times will be the true test of whether these agencies support this effort.

There's no doubt citizens of our two states regard a healthy Columbia as a top priority, and the two state environmental agencies have mostly passed the test over the years. In the current state budget crisis, however, DEQ is cutting $20,000 from LCREP this biennium, forcing an early end to program scientist Bruce Sutherland's dedicated service to the estuary partnership. This is unfortunate, but at least Washington shows no sign of matching the cut.

LCREP, with great help from state Sen. Joan Dukes and Rep. Betsy Johnson, will host a reception in Astoria on May 17 to begin trying to independently raise $20,000 in an effort to better establish private funding sources for the Partnership. We all should make plans to attend.

Wonderful as the $2 million in congressional funding is, it's only a start. Habitat restoration and protection will cost at least $1 million a year. And LCREP is certain to face continuing threats to its operational funding. So we can dance only a short victory dance before getting back to work on convincing our state and federal legislators and agencies to stay engaged in this task.

It took a century of damage to get the estuary where it is today. It may take a century of care to get it back to how it should be.

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