CHINOOK and ILWACO — Local port officials received a dire message at a May 14 meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland: there will be no dredging of the entrance channels to Ilwaco and Chinook this year and probably not next year.

Port and business leaders say that ceasing channel maintenance for two years or longer will have a serious impact on vessel traffic.

“How are these communities supposed to survive without access? Chinook in particular is at a critical point. Bell Buoy is at a critical decision-making point,” Ilwaco Port Manager Jim Neva said last Friday.

“These channels must be maintained. There is no alternative, if we want to see our communities survive. They cannot be held off for a few years, while we wait for the economy to improve, or additional operations and maintenance revenue from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.”

“The fishing industry to the ports of Ilwaco and Chinook are what Microsoft and Boeing are to Seattle. We have to get the fish to the markets and that takes the boats being able to get to the ports,” said Butch Smith of Coho Charters, president of the Ilwaco Charter Association.

Both Chinook and Ilwaco rely on long, narrow navigation channels through the manmade tidal flats of Baker Bay to gain access to the main Columbia River channel and the ocean. Routine dredging is necessary to remove fine sediments that drift into these access routes.

Without dredging, they can quickly become impassible to deep-draft fishing boats. The corps has fallen behind on repairing pile dikes in the Columbia estuary, “allowing mainstem channel tidal flow to migrate strongly into the wrong areas, carrying copious quantities of sediment into the Chinook/Ilwaco channels at an accelerated rate, causing dredging requirements to become much more frequent,” according to the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries. Pile dikes are structures that keep sediments penned up and direct the flow of water, somewhat like heavy-duty fences.

Impacts on crab processor

Bell Buoy Crab is the primary industrial tenant at Port of Chinook. It provides a market for local fishers and supplies product to stores and distribution centers throughout Washington, Oregon and California. Bell Buoy’s primary source of raw product is from the commercial vessels that fish out of the Port of Chinook, although the company does source additional product from San Francisco north to Kodiak, Alaska.

“The short term impact on Bell Buoy’s operations would be gradual as its home fleet erodes due to the difficulty of navigating a shoaling entrance channel,” company co-owner Dwight Eager said this Monday. “This would stress the company’s ability to get the raw material and dramatically increase the cost of the raw material. Over a longer period it is hard for me to envision Bell Buoy remaining in business without the port and/or Chinook channel being properly maintained. The economic impact to our area would be huge.”

Bell Buoy uses approximately half of the Chinook Water district’s water and pays about 30 percent of the district’s total operating budget. Bell Buoy has close working relationships with many area businesses and these relationships would also be in jeopardy.

“Chinook and Ilwaco channels generate large amounts of economic activity which results in substantial tax receipts,” Eager said. “Why are our tax dollars not being spent on such core infrastructure projects that are necessary to guarantee the economic activity that is necessary to keep the ball rolling? This whole situation is very disturbing to all of us business people and taxpayers who have had to prioritize their spending and put their treasure where it is most needed.”

Writing as president of the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries, Dale Beasley of Ilwaco said to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, “Channel dredging is currently in dire need into Chinook as access is now extremely limited to high waters only and continuing to fill, which will stop all commerce into the port. Ilwaco channel is quite a serious safety problem as the larger vessels must transit on the wrong side of the channel, causing grave concern of a collision in the highly restricted channel.”

Beasley cited a recent University of Washington study that estimated 38 percent of all earned income in Pacific County results from access to marine waters.

“With this much economic activity at stake in a suppressed rural area it seems paramount that these channels need immediate and continued attention,” Beasley said. “To put it into better perspective; the crab cannery in Chinook grosses more each year than all the motels and hotels in the entire county and the employees at the Bell Buoy Crab cannery receive wages twice as high as a motel worker; critical to the economic stability and welfare of our area.”

Local political reaction

Legislators are hopeful that the state’s congressional delegation can come to the rescue of our local ports, as they have in the past.

“Senator Murray was able to pull a rabbit out of the hat and fund this last time and hopefully she can do it again,” state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said.

Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said, “It is frustrating to know that there is money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, yet we cannot get an appropriation to dredge channels that need it in our area.”

This trust fund contains taxes collected on products imported into major U.S. ports. Although it technically is supposed to go to maintaining just those big harbors, as a practical matter it is large enough that funds can trickle down to small ports — if Congress authorizes it to do so.

Neva of the Port of Ilwaco is asking for ideas for “any ‘out of the box’ funding mechanisms that we should be pursuing, like the 1 percent emergency fund. The corps mentioned the effort in Oregon and that we should approach our state legislators for a similar effort in the state of Washington.” But Neva said that doesn’t appear to be a viable option at this point, with the Washington State Legislature already in a budget-related special session and with a highly restrictive budget climate in Olympia.

“That solution [of seeking emergency state funds] is a non-starter for us,” Neva said. “Time is our enemy. We need maintenance dredging now. Major employers are losing business and could easily go out of business. What should we be doing to fight this battle?”

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