SHOALWATER BAY RESERVATION — During a jam-packed meeting on March 31, citizens expressed frustration as state and county officials shared grim projections about coastal erosion in northern Pacific County.
The meeting was about revisions to the “Critical Areas Ordinance,” which regulates the county’s wetlands, conservation areas, flood zones and geological hazard areas. The conversation focused almost exclusively on the erosion that has already consumed much of the community of North Cove, and now threatens State Route 105, and the homes and businesses beyond.
Federal scientists and engineers have said that the cost of halting the erosion would be enormous — greater than the total value of the land and infrastructure in the area.
“It would have to be an absolutely massive structure to stop the dynamic forces at work here,” state Department of Ecology scientist George Kaminsky said during the meeting.
With that in mind, county leaders have proposed expanding the existing “no-build” zone as part of the CAO revision, a change that could affect many people whose land hasn’t washed away — yet.
By the time the Thursday evening meeting started, every seat was full, and a long line of citizens snaked out of the main hall at the Shoalwater Bay Tribal Center.
At the back of the room, County Commissioner Lisa Ayers spoke with state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, in urgent tones.
“We’ve got to get somebody to find some money for this,” Ayers told him.
Throughout the evening, members of the public would repeatedly accuse the county of being unprepared for the overwhelming turnout, but Ayers said she wasn’t surprised to see a big crowd.
“It’s pretty dramatic, what we’re going to talk about tonight,” Ayers said. “It affects a lot of people.”
State law requires cities and counties to periodically update their CAOs, using “the best available science” to evaluate areas with a risk of landslides, floods or other natural disasters. During the roughly two-and-a-half-hour meeting, representatives from the county Department of Community Development, DOE and the state Department of Transportation said there is plenty of very recent erosion research this time around, none of it very encouraging.
Using a series of models, charts, maps and historical photos, Kaminsky illustrated how a migrating channel scours the shoreline around North Cove, then deposits huge amounts of sand further north. Over the course of eight to 12 years, the current forms a sandbar at the mouth of the Willapa Bay. Eventually, the sandbar breaks apart, and the process starts all over again.
Kaminsky said the cycle will probably continue until about 2060. Right now, the erosion mostly affects houses, but in about five years, it will encroach on the commercial cranberry beds on the far side of SR 105.
“It basically feeds on itself,” bringing more destruction with each new iteration, Kaminsky said. “... That’s why it’s so intractable to really stop it.”
Kaminsky based his conclusions on historical data that dates back as far as the 1870s, when North Cove first began falling into the sea. Researchers at DOE, WSDOT and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) have used everything from vintage photos to measurements of the water’s depth to computer modeling to predict the future course of the erosion. So far, the various measures have been consistent with each other, and consistent with what actually happens on the ground.
“It shows a very clear pattern over time,” Kaminsky said.
“That’s what we feel like we’ve seen as well,” County Department of Community Development Director Faith Taylor-Eldred said on April 5. “County GIS folks take measurements twice a year, and they’re seeing the same thing compared to George’s map.”
Citizens who have a lifetime of earnings and work invested in the area don’t want to be told their homes and businesses are essentially collateral damage in a losing battle with Mother Nature. There were loud groans as Taylor-Eldred said a recent phone conference with the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) gave her little hope that feds would step in.
“It comes down to funds,” she said. “What they told us is, there’s no infrastructure that they need to protect —”
“They won’t spend more money than the property’s worth!” an audience member interjected. Someone else noted that the Corps’ reductive analysis didn’t take into account the value of local industry, or the hit the county’s economy would take if erosion put cranberry growers out of business.
“George’s presentation shows what’s gonna happen if we do nothing,” a cranberry grower said. “But we don’t want to do nothing. We want to do something.”
He suggested that something could be done with a stockpile of 300-foot-long highway pontoons that are collecting dust elsewhere in the state. Another man asked why “large, industrial sized sandbags” couldn’t be used. A local who protected his vulnerable property by surrounding it with huge quantities of riprap “has made a pretty good case for it,” someone said.
“Logic tells me that there are ways to put buffers, to block the flow …” another woman insisted. But Kaminsky replied that any structure big enough to be effective “would be absolutely so massive that the costs of constructing it would be prohibitive.”
Two experts from WSDOT, Chuck Meade and Charlie Hazen, briefly spoke about short-term repairs to SR 105, and plans for a more ambitious project in 2017.
Due to budget constraints, environmental concerns and the bay’s inevitable assault on all of their erosion-control projects, what engineers have mostly done until now is throw rock at the problem. Lots and lots of rock, said Hazen, who oversees emergency repairs to state roads in this area.
Hazen shared a photo of a spot where the bay already laps against the jetty rock piled along the edge of the highway, and said experience has taught him what to expect: upcoming high tides later this month will probably wash some of it away.
Meade said the 2017 project will involve “reconstructing the armor” on about four-tenths of the highway with “enormous, enormous stones” that have to be carted in by dumptruck, one rock at a time.
“It just shows you some of the strength and energy that can dislodge the work we have done. It can be challenging.” Meade said. “We are trying to come up with some potential long-term solutions.”
There is a big red block on the county’s map where “things are already falling into the ocean or the bay,” DCD Assistant Director Tim Crose said at the end of the meeting. In an effort to protect both environment and human health, the county doesn’t issue building permits there, and DCD officials think it should be bigger. People stood on their toes and strained to see as Crose revealed image of the proposed new Building Moratorium Zone.
“If you own property in here, this is potentially gonna affect you when that new ordinance comes into effect,” Crose said, and the room filled with sounds of dismay.
“None of this has been adopted. I’m just telling you this is what’s coming,” Crose said, and he urged citizens to speak at upcoming CAO planning meetings, or submit comments in writing.
“We’re open to any kind of ideas,” Crose said.
Citizens can give testimony about the CAO update at the county building in South Bend on April 7, at 6 p.m. and at the county annex in Long Beach on May 5 at 6 p.m. A third CAO public hearing will take place in South Bend on June 2 at 6 p.m., but will not include an opportunity to give testimony. Citizens can also submit comments in writing until 9 p.m. on May 5.
Email Tim Crose at email@example.com, or mail comments to: Attn: Tim Crose, Department of Community Development 1216 W. Robert Bush Drive, PO Box 68, South Bend, WA 98586