The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignores sentiments about sediments

With a tenacity that, depending on one's point of view, is either heroic or reminiscent of the many-lived fiend in the Friday the 13th teen-slasher series, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is back with its latest best guess about the costs and benefits of deepening the Columbia River navigation channel to 43 feet.

Coming at the end of several years of close scrutiny by other government agencies, journalists and environmentalists, the corps' analysis and underlying plan are perhaps more defensible. Some project critics appear to concede the corps' fine tuning has resulted in environmental mitigation efforts much improved from the sheer window dressing first proposed.

Assuming the project comes to pass, only time will tell if what the Corps is willing to give back to the Columbia really is useful. But to spend any serious time looking into these mitigation plans would be a classic case of staring at the decoys while overlooking the flock of ducks passing quickly overhead. The real issues are the ones the corps and upriver ports don't want examined.

This newspaper and the two state environmental agencies - particularly Washington's Department of Ecology - have repeatedly lobbied the Corps about the most important of these issues, the far-ranging impacts industrial modifications of the river are having on sedimentation patterns in the estuary and on the coast.

Turning the river into a single deep canal and the river's mouth into a high-speed hose nozzle means vast areas of exposed mud flats in the estuary. The river we look out at today has been wholly transformed from a wild stallion into an old pack mule, with awful consequences for wildlife, birds and fish, as well as the people who depend on salmon for part of their livelihood.

Couple this with dredge disposal practices that permanently remove enormous quantities of sediment from the natural beach-building system, and what you have is a river sacrificed for one purpose: serving as a lowest-cost conveyor belt from the ocean to the I-5 corridor.

The river system is supposed to consist of an interlocking chain of habitat and creation, moving up and down and sideways. Everything the Corps has done in the past 100 years has been directed at stripping the river of complexity. Nothing significant in its current channel plan corrects this long, sad assault.

Blasting sediments out into deep water, creating new island bird refuges in what used to be prime fish habitat, pumping and hauling millions of cubic yards of valuable sands away from the river system - these things are absolutely, undeniably dooming the coast of Washington and probably Clatsop beaches to major erosion. But since dealing with it would adversely affect project economics, the problem is ignored.

Same story on another issue, that of how developments at other West Coast ports affect ports on the Columbia. As it so often has on the East Coast, the corps prefers to pretend each project lives in its own world. It busily panders to local politicians who want to please big industry and labor unions, designing navigation projects that exist in a world without competition. Never mind that Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, British Columbia, have large expanding ports with far better sea and highway access than Portland will ever have. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

The pieces finally are in place to ramrod this project down our throats, probably in preparation for the 50-foot channel to come in a few more years. But the outrage local citizens have expressed, the questions they've raised, the letters they've written have all made a difference, slowing down what would have been a lousy project and making it a little better.

And who knows, maybe continued active involvement could still turn the tide in thinking about the river. Maybe a few more years of delay, in the courts if need be, will bring the Corps and ports to the table for a discussion of the real changes that must be made in Columbia River management.

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