Small ports along the Oregon Coast could get much-needed dredging if a bill approved by the U.S. Senate earlier this week is also approved by the House of Representatives.

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, is part of a water resources bill and could increase the chances money would be allocated to small, shallow-draft ports.

The amendment directs the Army Corps of Engineers to use money left over from the maintenance of high-use, deep-draft ports and the Great Lakes Navigation System to smaller ports such as those in Brookings Harbor, Gold Beach, Port Orford and Bandon.

"Ports up and down the Oregon coast, both big and small, are the engines that drive the economic health of coastal communities," Wyden said. "I want to ensure that Oregon's smaller ports are taken care of and get the much-needed maintenance and dredging that is critical to their community's survival."

The amendment, co-sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), was included in the Water Resources Development Act that now goes to the House. The Senate version of the water resources bill provides $1.6 billion to address navigation infrastructure needs over the long-term.

The Port of Brookings Harbor was able to dredge its basin last summer using small suction dredges and piping that transported silt - mostly material deposited from the 2011 tsunami - to an offshore, EPA-approved dump site.

Officials there hope to work with other small ports to conduct small scale dredging to keep the ports open for business.

In January, Curry County port managers, U.S. and state congressmen and scores of concerned citizens met in Brookings to discuss ideas to obtain port-dredging funds since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared last year that the agency no longer has money to dredge most of Oregon's ports.

"If we don't come up with a way to dedicate money, we're going to spend the summer risking our lives trying to operate," Chris Aiello of the Port Orford Ocean Resources Team (POORT) said at the time. "We need some solution by next summer. I suggest you gentlemen get to work. We need it now."

A standing-room-only crowd addressed U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, State Sen. Jeff Kruse and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. John Kitzhaber's offices. Most of them agreed there are things they might be able to do to help the ports, including making permitting easier and continuing their work with Congress to get funding.

The newly formed Five Ports Group, including the ports of Brookings Harbor, Gold Beach, Bandon, Port Orford and Umpqua, had already formed to do so at a more regional level. And while DeFazio said that was a great start, he also suggested they work with bigger ports from areas as far-flung as Louisiana and the Great Lakes.

"This is not just about these five Oregon ports," DeFazio said at the January meeting. "This is not just about Oregon ports. This is not a one-state problem, or a tri-state problem. It's the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes region."

The Army Corps has a $62 billion backlog on infrastructure-related projects on dams, levees, reservoirs, ports and locks throughout the nation, leaving Oregon's smallest ports without any funding to dredge their ports.

Army Corps Col. John Eisenhauer told DeFazio last year that small ports along Oregon's coast combined do not fit criteria - international tonnage coming into the ports - for those dollars.

In 2010, the Army Corps reported that 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at U.S. ports were constrained due to inadequate channel depths. Despite a backlog of dredging projects, only about half of the money collected in that fund in recent years has been used for that purpose.

Smaller ports bring in millions of dollars to the state, as well, and provide a livelihood for thousands. Salmon fishing in Brookings brought in 51 percent of all that caught along the Oregon coast last year, according to Port of Brookings Harbor Manager Ted Fitzgerald; crab is king in Port Orford, noted Port of Port Orford Manager Sam Scaffo.