Statement by Senator Ron Wyden
Hearing on Water Resources Development Act Reauthorization
June 23, 1998

Columbia River ports are one of the nation's largest hubs for exports and international trade. But we need to accommodate the larger cargo ships that are now the state-of-the-art to stay competitive.

We have to keep the Columbia open for business to protect jobs in farms and factories from the Willamette Valley all the way to Montana and the Dakotas. The Columbia is our region's main street for wheat farmers and cattle ranchers throughout the West, and for the paper, lumber and aluminum mills throughout our region.

But today, the larger ships that are carrying more and more of the world's cargo exceed the current 40 foot channel depth. Already, one shipping line has moved its business from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. because of inadequate depth in the channel.

Deepening the Columbia Channel will improve the competitiveness of our ports and our entire region. This project will determine whether we will continue to have first-class ports in the 21st century.

I am absolutely committed to seeing this project move forward. I want to work with the Committee and the Corps to all explore options for advancing this project in the Water Resources bill this year.

The Army Corps' hopper dredges stationed in the Pacific Northwest, the Essayons and the Yaquina, are also critical to maintaining navigation channels and to commerce in our region.

Dredges must be available on short notice to respond to emergency situations, such as restoring the Columbia channel following flooding. In addition, Corps dredges perform maintenance dredging work in the Columbia River channel and in a number of coastal ports each year.

Northwest port officials are convinced that maintaining a strong Corps dredging presence is essential for commerce in our region. These are hard-nosed business people. If they felt they could get better service for their money using private industry dredges, they would do so in a heartbeat. But they're not going to take riverboat gamble and go with unproven dredging contractors.

In the 1996 WRDA law, a compromise was negotiated to put another Corps dredge based in the Gulf of Mexico, the Wheeler, in reserve status as an experiment to see if private industry can do the work that Corps dredges have done in the past. The 1996 law called for the Corps to provide a report to Congress within two years on whether the Gulf dredge should be reactivated or maintained in reserve status.

Mr. Chairman, the required report has not been provided to Congress. This Committee has no information to evaluate the impact of laying up dredges on our nation's commerce.

Despite this, the Corps has floated various proposals that would further cut back on the volume of dredging work performed by the Corps dredges.

I find it troubling that the Corps is proceeding in this way without having provided the report required by Congress. What is even more troubling is the Corps also seems to be totaling ignoring evidence uncovered by the U.S. Army Audit Agency indicating private contractors may have conspired to limit competition by rigging bids on Corps dredging projects.

Mr. Chairman, the Corps should not be rushing forward with reckless proposals to eliminate the Federal dredge fleet.. We need to proceed cautiously in this area or we could end up with many of our ports left high and dry while the taxpayers get ripped off by unscrupulous contractors.