Merkley, Wyden Announce Critical Step Forward to Modernize Oregon’s Waterways and Ports for Those Who Rely on Them

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden today announced a raft of critical projects and policy initiatives for Oregon that have been written into the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2022 which passed out of a key Senate committee today. The bill will next head to the Senate floor for a full vote.

“Every one of us wants to know that we can rely on safe water coming from our taps and that other key water infrastructure will be there to keep us and our families safe and healthy,” said Merkley, who serves on the committee that wrote the bill. “From modernizing drinking water systems, to making sure breakwaters and jetties protect our ports and their communities, to shoring up dams and levees so we don’t face floodwaters in our streets, the provisions of this bill will keep Oregonians safe while expanding economic opportunities and putting folks to work with good-paying jobs. Passing these provisions through the committee was a key first step, and I’m looking forward to moving this bill through the Senate.” 

“Oregonians know water is intrinsic to our state’s quality of life — whether it’s confidence that what’s coming out of the faucet is safe to drink or the knowledge that investments in ports, jetties, levees and breakwaters have been made to generate jobs and keep communities safe,” said Wyden. “This bill provides those protections throughout Oregon while also taking essential and long-overdue steps to replace tribal housing along the Columbia River. I’m glad this legislation has earned committee approval and will work hard to get it through the entire Senate.”

The WRDA bill provides authorizations for studies and projects that upgrade infrastructure like jetties, levees, and breakwaters in Oregon’s communities, such as West Linn and Coos Bay-North Bend, as well as critical funding for ports, such as the Port of Astoria, Port of Bandon, and Port Orford. 

It also continues Merkley’s work to require the federal government to finally fulfill its promise to replace tribal housing that was flooded by the creation of the Dalles Dam in the 1950s. 

Merkley and Wyden have consistently fought to make sure small ports in Oregon and throughout the country receive a share of HMTF funding for dredging and other critical projects. This year’s WRDA bill includes language that allows, beginning in October 2022, up to $5 million of HMTF funding for Emerging Harbors—which includes most of Oregon’s ports—to be available for up to 10 maintenance dredging projects in marinas or berthing areas in harbors located adjacent to, or accessible by, a federal navigation project. This will bolster small ports’ access to funding for maintenance projects. 

In keeping with experts’ warnings that the destruction of waterway ecosystems could hamstring local economies and threaten the health of countless species, the senators fought to ensure that the WRDA bill authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to carry out efforts to restore salmon and steelhead habitat. The bill also authorizes a number of studies that will support Oregon’s small ports and fish hatcheries. 

Accepted projects and policy initiatives can be found below:

Columbia River Tribal Housing  

Following the 2018 WRDA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was required to create tribal housing for displaced tribal people of the Columbia River caused by the development of The Dalles Dam. The Corps responded to a 2018 congressional authorization by producing replacement village options that were not mutually acceptable to Columbia River treaty tribes. The 2022 WRDA would require the Corps to revise and then carry out the village development plan for Dalles Dam, Columbia River, Washington and Oregon to address the impacts to Indian villages and housing sites that resulted from construction of multiple dams by the Corps in the Columbia River Basin. 

Portland Metro Levee System – Authorization of Portland Metro Levee System Chief’s Report 

Authorization of the Army Corps of Engineers Portland Metro Levee System Chief’s Report will reduce flood risk and increase the resiliency and reliability of the 27-mile levee system along the Columbia River in the Portland metro area. The total cost of the project is $110, 498,000 and it has a benefit-to-cost ratio of 3.7 to 1. 

Ecosystem Restoration General Investigation Feasibility Study for the Mill Creek Levee Project on the Walla Walla River, Authorization  

The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Milton-Freewater Levee project for flood control purposes in 1951. The project reduced the historic 5-mile floodplain width to approximately 200 feet and has since impacted ecological functions within the reach. To address these ecological impacts, a feasibility study is requested to identify actions to improve floodplain-riverine processes, stop channel incision, enhance fish passage and rearing habitat, and decrease surface water seepage while having no negative impacts and likely improving flood risk management. 

Nationwide Low-Head Dam Inventory 

Low-head dams are engineered structures built into and across stream and river channels for a variety of important purposes. In the 1800s, low head dams were constructed across rivers and streams nationwide to provide services such as diverting water for irrigation or municipal and industrial water uses. Others are in place to prevent erosion of embankments or to control flooding impacts. The structures are numerous and widespread. Nicknamed “drowning machines,” low-head dams have proven over time to be extremely hazardous to public safety, as well as having negative impacts on fish populations and ecosystems. The bill would establish a Nationwide Low-Head Dam Inventory and a State Low-Head Dam Inventory and Rehabilitation Program to be administered by the USACE in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Bureau of Reclamation. 

Lane County Environmental Infrastructure (Sec. 219) Authorization  

The bill adds Lane County to the list of eligible entities to receive Section 219 (Environmental Infrastructure) funding from the USACE. This authorization will allow Lane County to pursue critical USACE assistance and funding to support water supply and storage, treatment and distribution systems, and wastewater treatment systems.