FREEWAY TO THE FAR EAST
Dredging the Columbia River 106 miles from its mouth in Astoria southeast down to Portland began during the 1860s. The purpose was to carve a deeper navigation channel for the heavier oceangoing ships.
The river channel has been dredged more than once since then, with the last completed project during the 1970s extending the depth to 40 feet. Today, the channel is a 600-foot-wide "highway" Â— just enough for two ships to pass each other coming and going.
As engineering and technology have advanced, however, shipping lines have demanded larger oceangoing vessels able to carry a bigger payload. And bigger ships, loaded with more cargo, ride lower in the water.
By the late 1980s, Port of Portland officials say, the numbers of container barges and oceangoing craft riding too low for the 40-foot channel had increased dramatically.
The Columbia River ports found themselves at a competitive disadvantage. The Port of Portland lost many of its bigger, more lucrative international shipping lines to other West Coast ports. Of those who stayed, they sent their smaller ships into Portland or sailed away less than fully loaded.
In 1990, Columbia River ports and shippers began preliminary studies, including environmental impact, on deepening the channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended deepening the channel by three feet to "maximize economics benefits and provide ecosystem restoration improvements for fish and wildlife habitat."
Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued favorable biological opinions after conducting their own assessments of the proposed project. In 1999, the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project was approved by Congress, which pledged to fund 65 percent of project costs. The remaining 35 percent will be funded jointly by Oregon and Washington.
The project has not been without criticism from environmental groups.
However, as potentially contentious issues have arisen and been satisfactorily resolved, all but one of those in opposition to the project have fallen by the wayside, says Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, which supports the project.
In June 2005, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the project. Ten days later, dredging began on an 18-mile section of the lower channel near Astoria. That section has been completed and another
eight miles of the upper portion near Portland will be completed by year-end.
"The irony of (environmental protest) is that we will actually leave the river in better shape than when we started," says Hunt, adding the project goes above and beyond the usual mitigation standards for environmental impact.
"We chose to take it to a higher level," he says.
Hunt travelled to several Eastern Oregon communities last week, stopping in
La Grande to speak with various groups, including city and county officials and members of the ag community about the channel improvement project and the coalition's mission to educate the public on its importance to the state's economy.
When asked how the project relates to agriculture, Hunt's response is matter-of-fact.
"It has everything to do with agriculture," he says.
Of the 33 million tons of cargo worth $16 million that is shipped annually out of the Port of Portland, the lion's share are the agriculture commodities of wheat, barley and grass seed Â— all bound for international markets like Taiwan and Korea.
There are grain elevators in Umatilla, Boardman, Arlington, Biggs and The Dalles loading either bulk or ocean container barges filled with grain, grass seed and hay headed for the Port of Portland.
Of all Northwest wheat exports, 85 percent go through the Port of Portland via upriver ports along the Columbia River like the Port of Umatilla and the Port of Morrow at Boardman. Local farmers here in La Grande, those eastward to Lewiston and even those in Midwest states like Kansas transport their grain to elevators and ports along the Columbia River.
The Port of Portland is the nation's largest exporter of wheat, shipping approximately 37 percent of all U.S. wheat exports.
It is these very same farmers who are supplying the product that fuels this commerce that have been penalized the most by a 40-foot channel, Hunt says, and channel deepening will result in an $18.8 million savings in transportation costs.
Every dollar spent on the $150.5 million channel-deepening project will yield $1.66 in national economic benefit, Hunt says. That's translates to $249.8 million.
With a 43-foot deep channel, he says an average grain farmer will be able to ship an additional 6,000 tons per ship.
"That means a lot to a farmer whose costs are fixed. Six thousand additional tons of product with the identical fuel, crew and pilot costs he had before. He either makes more money or markets more competitively," Hunt says.
Rivers have long provided an effective and inexpensive mode of transportation. Barge freight costs are lower than trucking and use less fossil fuels.
"We have high quality ag products here in Oregon, and our production costs are fairly reasonable. There's not much more we can do to improve in those areas," Hunt says. "What we need is cost-effective transportation Â— that's something we can control."