CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT — In essence, it’s a pile of rocks. Its benefits, however, are felt from fishermen in Warrenton to farmers in Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Aug. 8, a major milestone in an ongoing jetty rehabilitation project was celebrated by 70 people including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who reaffirmed her continued support for a system of navigation protections that cradle $24 billion in commerce at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Dale Beasley, president of the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries and of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman’s Association, was among the attendees, who also included U.S. Coast Guard personnel and commercial fishing families. Beasley was encouraged by Murray’s commitment to ports and coastal communities that rely heavily on fishing industries.
“She’s always been a champion for this area,” Beasley said. He said the jetty rebuild started years ago, but “probably wouldn’t have happened,” without Murray’s support.
The importance and role of jetties can sometimes be lost among a myriad of infrastructure projects seeking federal funds, said Mark Wilson, executive director for the Port of Kalama.
“You won’t see 10,000 people march on the capital and demand the jetties be repaired,” Wilson said. “You won’t see TV commercials of people pleading for $12 a month to save the jetties.”
Infrastructure, according to Wilson, isn’t an exciting thing for people to talk about. The impact and importance of the project, however, pay dividends locally and nationally.
“Since the channel deepening project, we’ve seen nearly $1 billion in private sector and local investment on the river,” Wilson said. A failure to continue to invest in upkeep of the jetty system would have consequences across the U.S., he asserted.
“Should the system fail, the ripple impacts would go clear back through the Midwest — through Wisconsin and the Nebraska — where our grain comes from, those are the people that would be impacted by this simple pile of rocks on the Columbia River,” Wilson said.
The weather was cool and foggy during the ceremony, comparatively calm conditions compared to those experienced by U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River Capt. William R. Timmons over the years.
“The river continuously offers treacherous waters, especially at the bar,” he said. “Maybe not today, but trust me, in November, it’s treacherous.”
Timmons believes the jetty rehabilitation will continue mitigating the otherwise dangerous conditions at the mouth of the Columbia.
“The shifting currents and bad weather have rightfully labeled the mouth of the Columbia River as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific,’” he said. “But because of a lot of hard work, this label is hopefully being used less and less.”
Col. Aaron Dorf, commander of the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gave a brief history of the jetties, beginning with South Jetty, completed in 1885.
“This 10-year project was the first critical step,” he said.
Dorf explained how later jetty improvements and deepening of the river facilitated the flow of commerce in the Pacific Northwest, and how ongoing rehabilitation is necessary to continue into the future.
Dorf said completion of Jetty A was “the first significant milestone in the major rehabilitation of the mouth of the Columbia River jetty system” and the multi-year project expected “to culminate somewhere around 2023.”
Looking back and ahead
Built in 1939, the one-and-a-half mile-long Jetty A’s primary function is to direct river and tidal currents away from the North Jetty foundation. Engineers say the lifespan of a jetty is about 50 years, so on the whole, Jetty A has outlived expectations.
Nonetheless, the jetty has been in need of repairs and upgrades for years. The corps began the estimated $30.5 million effort to bring the jetty back up to full strength in June 2016. Completion was originally expected this June. Work crews added about 82,000 tons of giant rocks to the jetty.
The mouth of the Columbia River is about five miles wide, but the 9.7 mile, three-jetty system reduces that width to about two miles. That narrowing makes the river act like a hose, flushing sediment to sea. A properly functioning jetty system greatly reduces the frequency and need for expensive dredging. And a clearer, deeper channel means safer ship travel.
The focus of work has now shifted to a roughly year-long effort to rehabilitate North Jetty. In 2019, the corps will start a more ambitious, four-year restoration of South Jetty. According to estimates provided by USACE in its 2012 “Major Rehabilitation Evaluation report,” the total cost of work on all three jetties is estimated to cost $257.2 million.