Opposing groups point to what it will cost them if they loseThose in favor testified that a deeper Columbia River shipping channel was crucial to maintaining the region's economic vitality. Those opposed told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that its proposed project would harm the river, the people and the economies of its lower reaches.

Of the 21 people who testified at Tuesday night's final public hearing on the Corps' most-recent draft report on deepening the channel from 40 to 43 feet, 11 spoke in favor of the project and eight were opposed. Two individuals presented opinions that were unclear.

Speaking in favor were representatives from the Columbia River Bar Pilots, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Willamette Valley farmers, the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department and Pacific Northwest ports. No representative from the Port of Astoria was among them.

Bill Wyatt, an Astoria native and executive director of the Port of Portland, said the history and the future of his port is tied to channel deepening.

The Port of Portland, one of the deepening project's lead supporters, was created to deepen the channel to 25 feet in 1891. The last channel deepening project, which lowered it from 35 to its current 40-foot depth, was completed in the 1960s.

"Then as now, we deepened the channel because we had to," Wyatt said. "We had to keep pace with the changing market and technology of maritime commerce.

"We can't predict the future, but the past, they say, is prologue," he said. "If we had left the channel at 35 feet, it is likely there would be no container service on the Columbia River, and anyone wanting to ship via container, whether it be french fries or tennis shoes, would be shipping through Puget Sound, paying higher rates, creating more traffic and more pollution."

Warren Banks, executive director of the Columbia River Bar Pilots, said that some shippers will no longer find it economically viable to call on Columbia River ports if the channel is not deepened.

As smaller aging ships are taken out of service, Banks said, they are being replaced by large fuel-efficient, deeper-draft vessels. If the Columbia River can't accommodate these bigger ships, "there is a real danger that the Columbia River will lose a great deal of its service," he said.

Jon Westerholm, a long-time Clatsop County resident and commercial fisherman, asked the question, "When is big, big enough? When is deep, deep enough?"

He said he didn't feel the Corps considered the opinions of lower Columbia River residents in assessing the project.

"From the commercial fishing angle, it will do damage to a fishery that is historic," Westerholm said. "It can't do us any good at all."

Westerholm joined Robert Warren, executive director of Sea Resources in Chinook, Wash., three members of the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce and people representing sport fishermen and commercial crab fishermen in opposing the project.

In this most recent channel deepening proposal, the Corps has added six ecosystem restoration features. Two of these projects involve dumping millions of cubic yards of dredged materials to restore historic areas of shallow water, beneficial to juvenile salmon. The Corps says these projects go beyond mitigating environmental impacts from the project and actually improve ecosystems on the Columbia River.

Not so, said Christy McDonough, CREST's coastal planner.

"Unfortunately, the two projects presented that involve dumping and that are labeled 'restoration' will result in permanent alteration and further degradation of the estuary," McDonough said. "In fact, by creating shallow water the Corps is proposing to create the one habitat type that has actually grown over the past century. We have over 4,000 acres more shallow water than we had historically in the estuary."

Commercial crab fisherman Dale Beasley said ocean disposal of the material dredged from the channel deepening project and from annual maintenance dredging at the mouth of the Columbia River is having a direct impact on his industry.

Beasley, president of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association, said he thinks the Washington state Legislature may withhold funding and support for the project if it feels the commercial crab industry isn't being protected.

Corps spokesman Matt Rabe said that all the testimony from Tuesday's public hearing and two previous sessions in Longview, Wash., and Vancouver, Wash., plus any written comments received by Monday, will be considered as the Corps moves forward. All testimony will be replied to, he said, and included in a modified final draft report on the deepening project, which is due out in late October or early November.

There will be a 30-day period for public comment on the final draft report. Rabe said the Corps had not yet decided if it will hold formal public hearings on the final draft.

While the Corps is composing its final draft, it will also be applying to Oregon and Washington state agencies for necessary water quality and coastal zone management approvals.

After the Corps issues its final draft, the next step is a decision of whether to move forward with the project or not. Rabe was unable to guess when that decision might be made, but it will likely be in the "shorter than longer term."

• The report of the independent technical review of the Corps' economic analysis of the channel deepening project is available on the Corps' website at: www.newp.usace.mil/issues/crcip/pubs.htm

• The Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a draft letter at its meeting in Portland Tuesday requesting the Corps collect more data on the impact of disposing of dredged materials from the project on fish habitat. Among other things, the letter also requested the Corps secure funding for mitigation of impacts to ocean fisheries.

• Written comments on the project will be accepted until Monday. They should be sent to: Commander, USACE-Portland, Attn: CENWP-PM-F (CRCIP), P.O. Box 2946, Portland, OR 97208-2946.