The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intends to deepen a 100-mile navigation channel to allow larger container ships to reach the Port of Portland. NOAA Fisheries gave its approval for the plan even though the agency cites previous dredging as a major contributor to the degradation of key salmon habitat in the Columbia River estuary. The estuary provides feeding and hatching grounds for salmon, as well as a brackish area for salmon to adjust from the fresh-water river to the salty ocean.
"This project is wrong for salmon and other species, it's wrong for Washington and Oregon, and it's wrong for the American taxpayers," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, which successfully challenged the agency's previous endorsement of the project in 2000. "It's shocking that the federal agency in charge of saving salmon can approve further degrading the estuary that is so critical to salmon survival."
The combined effects of dams, past dredging projects, diking and filling, sewage and industrial discharges, and other actions in the estuary have destroyed salmon habitat and have resulted in erosion of coastal beaches and deterioration of the narrow inlets that provide important habitat for salmon. In 1999, NOAA Fisheries' scientists called the channel-deepening proposal "an incremental insult to an already degraded ecosystem."
"NOAA Fisheries disregarded its own scientific findings when it approved this project," said Todd True of Earthjustice, the nonprofit law firm for the environment. "All the science shows that dredging and dams on the Columbia have taken an enormous toll on salmon and it's outright illegal to approve more."
Five years ago NOAA Fisheries found that routine dredging on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers didn't harm salmon habitat because the agency claims the activity maintains but doesn't worsen the degraded state of an already struggling ecosystem. As with its approval of the channel-deepening project, the agency failed to study the causes of the estuary's decline and the potential for restoration if dredging were limited or modified.
"NOAA Fisheries' approval of maintenance dredging doesn't even pretend to address the effects of the existing channel on salmon," said Bell. "This is flimsy science and doesn't begin to meet legal requirements."