Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt said the Columbia River shipping channel cannot be deepened beyond 43 feet.

In the 112 years since the Port was created to build a channel from Portland to the Pacific Ocean, it has incrementally deepened it to accommodate larger vessels and remain a competitive port for shippers.

Now, at the request of six ports along the river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a plan to deepen the existing 40-foot channel again, but Wyatt said this would be the last time.

"This channel cannot go deeper than 43 feet," Wyatt said, adding that the Port of Portland must build a business plan to work with that.

But as Wyatt heard from an Astoria audience Friday, there are many who oppose deepening the channel beyond its current 40-foot depth.

They feel that a century's worth of channel deepening has taken a toll on the environmental and economic health of the Columbia River Estuary.

Wyatt was on hand to present the Port's draft Strategic Plan, a 13-page document outlining challenges and opportunities it will face in the next three to five years

Friday's event at the Columbia River Maritime Museum (where Wyatt is the newest member of the board of directors) was part of a series of meetings the Port held with public and private entities, such as shipping companies and environmental groups, to get feedback on its draft plan.

The Astoria meeting was the only one to be held outside of the Portland Metropolitan area - part of an effort to foster greater cooperation between Lower Columbia River communities and the Port. Wyatt, an Astoria native, credited Bob Eaton, who represents the lower river on the nine-member Port Commission, with suggesting a meeting be held here.

Eaton, in turn, said Wyatt, with his Astoria roots, has brought a greater awareness of the needs, desires and concerns of lower river residents to the Port.

In the draft strategic plan, the Port did not change its values, long-range goals, or its mission of providing "competitive cargo and passenger access to regional, national, and international markets while enhancing the region's quality of life." The plan describes many issues that the Port must address to accomplish that mission, including its need for a 43-foot channel.

The channel deepening plan, originally proposed some 14 years ago, would result in cost savings for shippers using the Columbia River.

One quarter of the benefits from channel deepening would flow to bulk carriers, Wyatt said, which ship wheat, soda ash, potash and hay - the Port's top four exports by volume. The balance of those benefits would go to the container trade, which generates 65 to 70 percent of the overall revenue for the Port's Marine Department - roughly $30 million annually. Containers are 20- or 40-foot long steel or aluminum boxes that carry everything from French fries to footwear to computer parts.

With a 43-foot channel, a typical container vessel could increase its load by maybe 15 or 20 percent, Wyatt said, noting that he was making an estimate.

Wyatt said the 43-foot channel depth is "based on a metric that attempts to approximate as close as possible the Panama Canal." The Port wants to accommodate any ship that can transit the 40-mile canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Wyatt was asked if the Port has a "plan B," in case the deepening project is denied necessary permits by state regulators or halted by environmental lawsuits.

"In a way, we're living 'plan B' right now," he said. "A lot of cargo has to find another way out of here."

If channel deepening is stopped, shippers would be forced to move containers to other ports, creating another 250,000 truck trips between Portland and Tacoma, he said. Building a deep-water container port closer to the mouth of the Columbia River, as has been suggested in the past, would not be economically or logistically viable.

"I suspect if we are unable to sustain a container business in Portland," Wyatt said, noting that he was giving his opinion, "the Columbia River will not have a container business."

Peter Huhtala, an active channel deepening opponent, said the Columbia River Estuary has consistently provided an "environmental and economic subsidy" for a century of channel deepening, and communities here have received no compensation. He said this pattern is part of the "crux" of the community's resistance to the latest deepening effort.

Wyatt said that is why the Port is making efforts to reach out to the lower river. He said the Port is trying to understand its "footprint on the world" and then address what it can do to reduce its impact on other economic, social and community activities. He said he has the fishing industries of the lower river in mind and intends to continue working on solutions to the problems of dredged material disposal.

"Whether or not the channel is deepened, we have the ongoing challenge of maintaining the existing channel and the mouth," he said.

Some 7 million cubic yards of sand is dredged from the Columbia River Estuary each year. The challenge is finding a place to dispose of that material in a way that doesn't damage the estuary or local fisheries.

While channel deepening received the most attention from the audience of fishermen, community leaders and mariners Friday, the Port's financial situation topped its list of six challenges outlined in the Strategic Plan.

Even after decades of deregulation, growing environmental cleanup costs and declining property tax support, the Port of Portland's current financial position is strong. However, questions remain about its ability to make capital improvements in the long term.

Since 1990, when Oregon voters passed a property tax limiting measure, the Port has watched property tax contributions fall from 25 percent of its total revenues to 3 percent. By comparison, Wyatt said, the Port of Seattle gets 35 percent of its revenues from property taxes.

The cost of so-called "legacy" environmental cleanups, such as the Willamette River Superfund site, have increased substantially.

Deregulation of transportation industries during the last 20 to 25 years has forced the Port to compete for things such as airline service that used to be guaranteed.

"There are no guarantees in the world that we operate in," Wyatt said.

According to the Strategic Plan, "The Port's General Fund will be challenged in the next three to give years to generate sufficient cash to invest in and maintain its own facilities."

To address this, the Port plans to make its operations as "efficient and cost-effective as possible," find new sources of revenue and secure funding for infrastructure improvements from local, state and federal government sources.

Other issues in the Strategic Plan include:

• Environmental performance. The Port plans to include long-term environmental goals into its planning, development and decision making.

• Stakeholder relationships. By strengthening stakeholder involvement and communications, the Port hopes to enhance its effectiveness. Wyatt said the Port has taken steps toward this goal, such as holding joint meetings with the ports of Astoria and St. Helens during the last two years and working with the Port of Astoria to help develop new businesses.

• Air service to key markets. Building on its success in attracting German airline Lufthansa to Portland International Airport, the Port hopes to continue developing domestic and international passenger and cargo service to Asia, Europe, Mexico and Portland's top 25 domestic markets.

• Trade-related infrastructure and policy. The Port seeks to work with its partners in the region to plan, fund and implement road, rail and land programs to strengthen the overall trade-related economy.

The draft Strategic Plan is available on the Port's Internet site: www.portofportland.com. The Port is accepting public comments on the plan until Feb. 12. The Port Commission is scheduled to adopt the plan at its March meeting.

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