Channel deepening lawsuit shouldn't be needed for us to do the right thingMany on the Lower Columbia River who might otherwise be somewhat sympathetic toward a lawsuit filed to stop channel deepening are likely to be appalled by its challenge to routine maintenance dredging.

It's hard to imagine anything more likely to play havoc with the established economy than toying with the dredging that keeps the river's mouth clear and preserves existing passages into ports and mooring basins.

Before now, Northwest Environmental Advocates has gained a reputation for buying headlines with its "take no prisoners" approach. With this lawsuit, it may achieve what the Corps of Engineers and Port of Portland never could: unite the far reaches of the river.

This is not to suggest the Portland environmental group is entirely wrong. One or more lawsuits became inevitable when the Corps and sponsoring ports chose to ramrod their deeper ditch despite serious unresolved issues.

These are not, in every case, what the lawsuit claims they are. For example, credible studies have largely alleviated concerns that this project might stir up toxic contamination. There certainly are other dredge sites on the Columbia and Willamette where that would be an issue, but probably not in the middle of a fast-flowing channel.

Nor is it all that likely scientists from the federal NOAA Fisheries agency would, in effect, lie about probable impacts on endangered species. The NOAA folks we know are neither morally nor intellectually weak, although they may be bound too tightly by the narrow manner in which questions have been framed.

Where this challenge hits the mark is in questioning how and where millions of cubic yards of dredged sediments are going to be deposited. This has been the big issue from the very start.

Virtually any departure from the cheapest possible disposal strategy would push this project's cost-benefit ratio into the red, or at least so close to it as to make its political cost too stinky.

Even a painful judicial examination of the routine maintenance dredging program may be helpful if it forcefully brings about a well thought out plan for placing sediments in the beach-building system instead far out at sea where it's lost forever or dumping it on and near crab grounds, as now.

Northwest Environmental Advocates also is correct in worrying about one more big modification in an estuary that has been sorely twisted for human purposes.

Deepening Portland's ditch from 40 feet to 43 may not be the straw that broke the camel's back; we suspect that straw was added long ago. Instead, the question is at what point we're going to finally say enough is enough, we're not doing anything in the estuary that isn't beneficial.

It shouldn't have to take a lawsuit for us to decide to do right by our river.


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