BAKER BAY - The dredging crane working these last weeks in Baker Bay gives an incomplete picture of the complexity of the issues lurking in the silt and sand below the surface of the bay.
The political clout needed to annually lobby for federal dredging funds is taking its toll on Chinook and Ilwaco port managers, Dan Todd and Jim Neva respectively, and other local fisheries advocates. Dredging every two or three years is a must to keep the ports open.
Todd put it bluntly, "If we lose Murray in this election, we could lose our earmark for dredging."
"Some years there's money and some years there's not. Senator Murray is on the waterways and transportation committee and she has a lot of pull. She holds the President's ear because she is so high ranking," he continued.
"Baird and Murray have made sure we get our appropriations for dredging, but this election makes me very nervous. The last time we had a Republican Senate and Congress, there was no money for small ports and we went several years with no dredging. I lost boats because of it."
"We've got to fight for every dollar we get. A lot of people don't understand that," he added.
The funds for dredging Baker Bay for port access come primarily from federal allocations. First money is "appropriated" but that is not the end of the story because that appropriation must be funded. Once the funding is established, the project must still be voted on and approved. It is a complex and arcane political dance.
Funds for the current dredging project were appropriated in past years and boosted by recent stimulus monies. But why are the ports reliant on these federal funds and why is dredging so vital to Pacific County fisheries?
Disappearing Deep Water Channel The history of the Columbia River is one marked by politics, broken promises and power struggles, perhaps none so clearly focused as those in our backyard, at its mouth, a territory from the Megler Bridge to the Columbia bar.
Newcomers take it for granted that Baker Bay and the ports of Ilwaco and Chinook need regular dredging so that channels will be navigable to commercial and recreational fishing vessels. But this silting-up problem is a man-made dilemma, largely politically induced.
"The deep water channel in the Columbia River was deliberately moved years ago," said Kathleen Sayce, science officer for ShoreBank Pacific. "The Army Corps of Engineers created groins - a wood wall that starts on the beach and goes into the water - and jetties that changed the Columbia River and impacted our Baker Bay ports."
Todd explained, "The Washington side channel was the deep side of the river, the Oregon side was shallower. But Oregon had more political pull than Washington state and they pushed the channel over to the Oregon side."
"You've got to admit, basically we don't have the industry on the Washington side of the river that they do over there, especially years ago, we had nothing. They had Astoria and Portland. That was the big money pull," Todd continued.
"Astoria was grain and wood products and Portland had large terminals so they [the Army Corps of Engineers] moved the channel. But you've got to remember that years ago a deep draft ship was 20 feet and now it's more like 40."
"The decision was made at the national level," Sayce said. "The groins were designed to push the current away from the shoreline, some of them are hundreds of feet long."
"Then they built jetties basically to constrain the channel at the Columbia's entrance. You have to understand that the entrance of the Columbia River would shift minute by minute and hour by hour. The original idea was to try to stabilize it to make it safer for navigation," she said.
Harbor Impact Although the causes of Baker Bay's silting may be complex, no one argues about the obvious changes that have taken place in the bay.
Early navigational charts clearly indicate that the deep water channel from the mouth of the Columbia River ran directly into Baker Bay. In fact, an 1851 chart (from the collection of Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters), produced under the command of the U.S. Navy Lieutenants W.P. MacArthur and W.A. Bartlett, shows both the deep water channel and a historic anchorage just around the tip of Cape Disappointment, at the one-time county seat called Pacific City.
"Years ago this was a well-known anchorage for sailors," said Sayce. "Captains knew if they could make it over the bar in inclement weather, they could take refuge from the storm just around the inside tip of Cape Disappointment."
The 1851 chart shows the icon of a tiny anchor to mark the spot.
In fact, this original northern deep water channel is the reason the Washington/Oregon state line is so close to the Washington shore. "The state line was drawn in mid-channel, right through the north channel," said Sayce.
But even after the channel was moved to the south side of the river, nearer the Oregon shore, the states' dividing line was left in its original place. (Currently the main shipping channel is just below the highest portion of the Megler Bridge near Astoria.)
Interestingly, according to Sayce, the salmon still return to spawn up the northern channel on the Washington side - which is why these are preferred waters for fishing.
Dredging and Commerce Dale Beasley, member of the Lower Columbia Solutions Group (LCSG) and fleet leader of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association (CRCFA), discussed the issues of the river and bay while sipping coffee at Don's Portside Café in his long-time home of Ilwaco. "The Corps turned the river mouth into a nozzle, they narrowed it down. At the jetty tips it's probably a third of what it was."
"This narrowing effect speeds up the flow and they thought that would drive the silt downriver and out to sea. Well, it didn't work that way."
The river carries silt, clay and other particles that get dropped along its path depending on the size of the particles and the speed of the flow. In simplified terms, changing the deep channel to the south side of the river meant that the north channel slowed down, so silt particles were more readily and steadily deposited into Baker Bay.
Over time, this has caused the bay silt-up. Even the position of Sand Island, once clearly south of the northern deep water channel leading into Baker Bay, has moved dramatically north, to further block ingress to the ports.
Beasley adds another issue to the discussion. "The feds measure the need for our dredging on what they call 'commerce,' measured in tonnage. For our ports this means commercial fisheries."
"Recreational fisheries is not included. So if the commercial tonnage drops and those dredging subsidies are gone, those two channels [for Ports of Ilwaco and Chinook] will not be dredged."
"In effect, the recreational fishery is being subsidized by the dredging made possible by commercial tonnage."
Neva concurs, "The feds count tonnage in fin fish and shellfish. Recreational fishing is not counted."
Least Cost Option Funding for dredging is only one problem for port managers and fishermen. The other issues require understanding of both politics and environmental sciences.
Beasley, with a degree from Western Washington State University in geology, provides additional proof of the bay silting up in a series of three Baker Bay charts compiled by Davis Consulting Group, Inc. The charts show the increasingly shallow Baker Bay in 1870, 1915 and finally 1999. The last chart indicates most of the bay is less than 5 feet deep and predominantly above water at low tide.
Though the channel shifting and the resulting silt-up is a done-deal, the effects of dredging and the dumping of dredged materials is an ongoing problem and expense.
The Army Corps of Engineers, criticized by many for their "my way or the highway" approach to projects is not noted for its environmental record. Their codified guidelines have resulted in damaging outcomes both for the bay and for humans.
"What we're dealing with today is the 1983 Principles and Guidelines of the Corps - and the 'least cost option' is their bully pulpit," said Beasley. "Another is the 'net national economic gain,' which does not take into account regional economic effects."
These two guidelines together have spelled difficult times for our region. In fact, they have killed people.
Killer WavesBringing a large dredging operation to the area is expensive. The so-called "mob and demob" [short for mobilization and demobilization, pronounced mobe and dee-mobe] costs can be upwards of a quarter- to a half-million dollars before operations even begin.
Additionally, dredged materials must be transported and dumped somewhere at an additional cost, which can range from $2.32/cubic yard to over $19 depending on the volume, distance to the dumping site and other factors. Where to put those dredged materials, called "spoils," is also controversial.
The Corps' least cost option means the most cost effective method must be chosen. However, "cost effective" for the Corps has a narrow scope that does not include what sustainability experts would call "complete life cycle costs."
For instance, it is cheaper to dump Baker Bay spoils back into the river in the hopes that the current will carry them further downstream. Generally, they are picked up and moved again during the annual dredging of the Columbia River, needed to keep the main shipping channel open.
The placement of these spoil mounds must be negotiated.
Beasley gives some dramatic examples of resulting disasters at dump site B (from a "Mouth of the Columbia River, MCR" chart) where a spoils mound was responsible for the deaths of many fishermen and crabbers because of "mound induced wave amplification." In layman's terms, this means if you put a tall pile of stuff on the river floor where the surrounding depth is lower, it will cause increased wave turbulence.
The agreement with the Corps was that these mounds would not result in wave amplification over 10 percent. After taking the Corps to court, with the legal support of Earth Justice and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, CRCFA was able to prove that selected dumping mounds had increased wave action by 80 percent. (After the ruling, the Corps began quietly removing spoils to another location.)
As Beasley put it, "The ocean is arrhythmic not harmonic. Dredge dumping needs to minimize the negative impact on the marine environment both for our fisheries and fishermen. But dredge dumping has endangered both crabs and fishermen."
He names off the boats that have flipped and the men who have died as a direct result of the dumping at site B, which has since been closed. Other problems erupted as a result of dredge spoils dumping at site E, closer to shore where the wave climate was also negatively impacted.
"And even 10 years after decommissioning a dredge site, we still see environmental damage in terms of decreased crab production," Beasley said.
Beach Nourishment and Dredge Spoils At the same time the Corps is dumping dredge materials back into the river with, at best, inconvenient and, at worst, deadly consequences, Benson Beach erosion is creeping northward.
In this case, one of the Corps guidelines - protection of infrastructure - has worked in the region's favor. Since the erosion of Benson Beach created a tidal wash adjacent to the north jetty - their infrastructure - the Corps agreed to participate in a project to dump materials directly onto the beach.
The cost is higher, though the exact difference between water dumping and "shore nourishment" is still disputed.
Neva said of the major project at Benson Beach, "The Corps realized that of the dredge spoils produced annually at the mouth of the Columbia, usually about 3.5 million cubic yards, approximately half of that has been dumped into deep water and is lost to the system."
"We'd like to eliminate that deep water disposal and put the material closer to shore. So we worked to fund a $3.5 million Benson Beach project."
"In 2004, $1.7 million was appropriated by Congress but the money sat there. Then they wanted a 50/50 match, so DOE [Department of Ecology] asked Governor Gregoire's office and they came up with a $1.8 million matching, which made the project a reality."
"The Corps paid for mob and demob and our portion went to placing sand on the beach," Neva continued. "We've put 369,000 cubic yards in the near shore of Benson Beach, just finished a month or so ago, and now we'll monitor that material to see what it does." (The study will be reported on as this series continues.)
"We're monitoring dredge spoils at different sites. We want to see how much goes back into the river and how much moves north or south or offshore."
"We've got three approved dump sites and we're looking at three more."
Next Steps The two- to three-year dredging cycle for Baker Bay requires a constant lobbying effort that port officials would like to change. Particularly since the silting up of Baker Bay is not a problem that our community has caused, local officials would like to hitch it to the annual dredging at the mouth of Columbia River. To do this they need to create new Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) language to couple the two dredging projects.
Additionally, port managers and others are working with the Corps to identify new sites for dumping dredge spoils.
"Mike Ott, of the Corps, Dale and I have been talking about the interconnection between the mouth of the Columbia and Baker Bay and the entrance channels to our ports," said Neva.
"We'll need to fund a study to prove that connection and incorporate it into WRDA language. Our goal is that when the Corps funds dredging for the mouth of the Columbia it also includes our entrance channels because it's all interrelated."
"Every year to get our dredging funded, we must apply for grants, lobby state and federal officials, talk to our congressional reps and senators - every year."
"We have to get our earmarks funded and I'm worried that they could be threatened if they made the determination that we are too small of a port, if our commercial tonnage went down," Neva said.
Beasley returns to the question of cooperation with the Corps, other ocean and river advocacy groups moving forward. "Basically, every yard of spoils we can get onto our beaches isn't killing crabs or killing people. Our beaches are eroding so fast that Department of Ecology can't rebuild them fast enough to deal with the pace of erosion."
"But I think we're in a new era, we've got some new managers and ideas. Obama is encouraging revisions to the Corps' '83 Principles and Guidelines - they've been out for public comment."
"I'd like to see us build the dynamic capacity of the resource and quit making temporary solutions."
"I'm not as optimistic as I could be, but I think we're making progress," Beasley adds.
In the next part of this series, we will explore the material make-up of the dredged material, the hazards buried in our Bay, and the costs for studying and mitigating them.