Patty in the News

Ports praise development anchored by investors’ certainty about river

The economy in Southwest Washington is already benefitting from an as-yet-unfinished project to deepen the Columbia River’s shipping channel, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray heard during a round-table discussion today at the Port of Vancouver.

The $190 million project to deepen the channel from 40 feet to 43 feet will be finished by the end of this year.

Construction got under way in 2005, following almost two full decades of planning and lobbying by ports, business interests and labor groups along the river. Critics characterized the project as an economic boondoggle that would harm aquatic life in the river, but proponents told Murray today that the investment has already paid dividends.

A $230 million grain elevator is under construction in Longview.

“This project would never have happened without the promise of this channel-deepening project,” said Ken O’Hollaren, executive director of the Port of Longview.

The deepening project got a $29.6 million jolt of federal economic stimulus funding to finish the job this year rather than two or three years later.

The final piece of funding allowed contractors to use underwater explosives to scour out three feet of hard basalt in the river bottom between Ridgefield and St. Helens, Ore. The blasting occurred in November through February, shattering 600,000 cubic yards of black rock.

Murray told local business and labor leaders that the deepening project ensures the river will remain the “lifeblood” of the economy in Southwest Washington.

“Clearly, this is going to create economic vitality in the long term,” she said.

Eroding jetties

Protecting that channel will require a massive new investment by Congress through the Army Corps of Engineers, however. The jetties that protect the mouth of the river, originally constructed between 1885 and 1917, are eroding badly.

The corps estimates it will take 18 years and as much as $470 million to rehabilitate them.

“All the work that we’ve done to deepen the channel to 43 feet could be undone,” Murray said.

The jetties damp down waves from the ocean, while also serving as a barricade against beach sand that would otherwise clog the shipping channel. The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, an industry group based in Portland, noted that the jetties protect a shipping industry that annually hauls more than 40 million tons of cargo valued at $16 billion.

Longshoreman Cager Clabaugh drew chuckles when he noted that the promise of a deeper channel started shortly after he started the job after high school.

“I can see the guys starting now are going to hear, ‘We’ve got to get the jetties fixed,’” he said. Turning serious, he added: “If a serious breach were to happen, it’s going to kill the economy up and down the river.”

Murray alluded to the expensive and protracted construction schedule.

“Realistically, it’s going to take a community working very, very hard and sticking with it over a long period of time,” she said in an interview. “This is something that takes long-term commitment from the leadership on every level.”

Contractors conducted $30 million worth of interim repairs between 2005 and 2007.

Corps officials believe the interim repairs might have extended the life of the jetties another 10 years, providing time to get the major rehabilitation under way. The phased rehab project will cost close to a half-billion dollars.

“It will be hard, it’s a lot of money,” Murray said. “It’s competing with a lot of other projects out there, but I think the economic implications are very clear.”

- The Columbian