House panel budgets $3 million for Columbia River dredgingThe plan to deepen a 103-mile stretch of the Columbia River could be delayed after a U.S. House panel budgeted only $3 million of the $15 million needed to start the project.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said two months ago that they need at least $15 million to start work on the shipping channel next summer.

But the energy and water appropriations subcommittee approved only 20 percent of that amount. The smaller amount of money was approved despite a lobbying effort by legislators from Northwest states.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the only subcommittee member from the region, said the subcommittee set an important precedent by targeting the money exclusively for

dredging.

"Once you have that money started, the next year it's easier to continue that flow of money," Simpson said.

The Corps plans to deepen the channel by three feet, allowing deep-draft ships to load more fully at Portland and five other ports on the lower Columbia River. Officials at the Port of Portland have said the

$150.5 million project is crucial to help them compete for international trade.

However, opponents fear the project will dredge up contaminated sediments and further pollute the river. The question of where to dispose of dredge spoils causes further controversy, because the Corps' charter requires engineers to dump the sand in the least expensive manner. Some fishermen and others fear that putting dredge spoils in the water will destroy sensitive salmon spawning areas or contaminate ocean crab grounds.

A lawsuit from Northwest environmental groups is attempting to halt the approval of the project.

Wednesday's vote was the first in a lengthy process to set funding for navigation projects on the Columbia and elsewhere included in a $4.8 billion total for Corps civil works. The Senate also must set a funding level for 2005 and then reconcile with the House, probably in the fall.

Matt Rabe, a spokesman at the Corps' regional headquarters in Portland, said that until President Bush signs a spending bill with a final amount, the corps is going ahead with plans to start construction next summer.

"Until we see what the final balance is on this project, it is hard to say what the effect will be," Rabe said.

In Senate testimony in April, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, the corps' chief of engineers, said $15 million was the minimum needed to begin dredging in 2005 and finish by 2007.

The project has become the subject of political promises as President Bush seeks to win Oregon in his re-election bid this fall.

Until this year, the White House budget office had opposed funding the Columbia project as part of a "no-new-starts" policy intended to winnow the backlog of incomplete corps projects.

But in February, the budget office released a "justification sheet" saying that the project needs $93 million in additional federal funds and that "the administration will propose construction funding for the project to Congress."

The Oregonian contributed to this report

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