Ports fight for life and dredging

<p>Dredging activities at the Chinook Channel.</p>

PENINSULA — A port without access to open water is about as useful as a fast-food restaurant on Mars. With the federal government now reneging on long-term understandings, south Pacific County port officials are paddling hard to keep our channels open.

It hasn’t yet come to using three-pound coffee cans to personally scoop out excess sand, but port managers are certainly scooping up as much political support as they can. Without prompt intervention, they fear smaller Pacific Northwest harbors will become functionally landlocked behind shifting barriers of sediment.

The port managers’ biggest gripe? The end of federal budget earmarks means Congress has less ability to throw lifelines to ports that are essential to local economies, even if they aren’t big enough to merit attention by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The Corps of Engineers historically maintained the entrance channels into the ports of Ilwaco and Chinook with earmarks that were annually applied for by the ports and designated to the Corps specifically for the maintenance of these entrance channels. With the loss of earmarks we scramble every year to get these channels dredged and normally do not get it completely done, due to a lack of funding from the Corps’ operations and maintenance budget,” Port of Ilwaco Manager Jim Neva explained.

This year, in order to be “dredge-worthy,” a port must move at least one million tons of trade freight a year. Few coastal ports in Washington or Oregon achieve this level of activity, the Port of Grays Harbor being the nearest. The Port of Astoria falls short, in part because seafood isn’t counted. Commercial fishermen don’t pay a federal harbor tax. South Pacific County ports move far less taxable freight than Astoria.

Harbor tax reform

The Harbor Maintenance Tax, established in 1986 as a user fee charged against the value of imports and domestic cargo arriving at U.S. ports, was designed to fund the entire maintenance costs of the nation’s deep-draft and coastal waterways. But about $700 million from this tax instead goes into the U.S. general fund and away from coastal ports, according to Heather Stebbings, communications coordinator for Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA) in Portland.

Local port managers Neva, Chuck Whiteman in Chinook, Mary DeLong in Nahcotta and others are lobbying Congress for the full Harbor Maintenance Tax to be spent for upkeep of the country’s valuable coastal waterways.

In March, Washington State Legislature passed a non-binding statement of support (SSJM 8007) for reforming the harbor tax. A key argument for reform in Washington and Oregon is that only $28 million is being provided to dredge the main Columbia chipping channel in 2014, although between $30 to $50 million are actually needed. The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) has grown to more than $7 billion and its income should be spent only on harbor-related investments, state legislators urge.

“We in Ilwaco and Chinook desperately need ALL these funds to be held for their intended use, giving the Corps of Engineers additional funding to maintain infrastructure, entrance channels and jetties that they are authorized to maintain,” Neva said. “Without the total amount being reserved for its intended use, we could easily lose access to our ports. This is very important to our survival.”

Local shortfall

According to Neva, dredging for the Ilwaco Channel (from the Port of Ilwaco to the Columbia River near A Jetty) has averaged a cost of $450,000 over the last six years. “And that is not enough,” Neva stated.

Three years ago the Chinook Channel was dredged and it is filling in fast again with shoaling and siltation.

“If we don’t get financial help and soon, we may have to close as soon as next year. Crab boats with nine or 10-foot draft may not be able to get out at low tide this winter. They already have to wait sometimes for one boat to pass before they can get out the narrow channel. Last time we dredged it was the Eleventh Hour and we are fast approaching that again,” Whiteman said.

In 2005, the Port of Peninsula in Nahcotta was dredged at a cost of $1 million.

“We could have cut that cost in half if we could have used the Port of Willapa Harbor’s dredge. HMTF funds are definitely on our radar. We will soon need to rebuild our docks and our Master Plan could include adding more slips for commercial development. This is an important part of our community’s economy,” DeLong said.

HMTF divides the amount Congress allocates from the port tax in proportion to how much cargo value each port brings in. However, if a port does not need the funds, then ports that do need the money, both large and small, receive the remaining funds.

For example, Los Angeles ports may bring in more revenue than Portland, but since the mouth of the Columbia River is much more susceptible to shoaling, Portland would receive enough money for upkeep of the North and South Jetties and to continually dredge the main channel to a depth of 43 feet. The channel has been deepened to 55 feet at the mouth of the Columbia as needed for the newer and larger commercial ships with deeper drafts.

At the Port of Ilwaco, there are 800 slips — a number of which are filled full-time by commercial vessels. The port is at 100 percent capacity during the months of the sport salmon season each year. There are eight full-time employees. At Port of Chinook there are 350 slips, and five full or part-time employees. At least a dozen commercial fishing boats are moored there year-round.

“The small town of Chinook depends on the stability of the Port of Chinook operating and that not only our fisherman, but our local businesses would suffer. In one way or another, every small business in Chinook is dependent upon the port,” Whiteman said.

The Port of Peninsula has 84 slips that are filled to 100 percent capacity by commercial vessels, with some slips having two vessel sharing moorage by “swapping out” port time. Three full-time employees work at Port of Peninsula. The Willapa Bay shellfish industry brings in about $25 million annually and there are 300 jobs directly dependent upon the Nahcotta port being operational and a total of 600 jobs dependent upon a commercially viable Port of Peninsula.

The Ilwaco Channel is the only lifeline to U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment and the Motor Lifeboat School. The local USCG employs over 150 personnel and goes on about 800 search and rescue and Homeland Security missions a year, all coming and going through the vital Ilwaco Channel.

The local crab fishery averages $25 million annually. There is also significant income to south Pacific County from other commercial fishing operations, fish processors, charter boat operators and from sports fishers. Sports fishers often spend money for lodging and food, bait and their families spend time at Peninsula shops.

“What happens at the Port of Ilwaco has a huge impact on the South County economy,” Neva said.

Lobby Congress

Neva has written letters to stakeholders and met with staffers from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Buetler and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s offices. Neva has also had a telephone conversation with Washington state Rep. Brian Blake about the issue of port funding for maintenance and operations. DeLong and Whiteman have also penned letters to Sens. Patty Murray and Cantwell.

Neva encourages citizens to contact federal lawmakers about harbor tax reform. Sen. Cantwell’s website is www.cantwell.senate.gov and Sen. Murray’s is www.murray.senate.gov for those who wish to send an e-mail.

“There is quite a bit of momentum to ‘fix’ the fund and ensure that the monies collected are spent by HMTF and not for other purposes. Nothing has been agreed upon as of yet, but many folks are working on a comprehensive solution,” PNWA’s Stebbings stressed.

“The best way to maintain our local economy is to contact our U.S. Senators and show your support of bill SJM 8007,” Neva concluded.

To contact Sen. Cantwell’s Tacoma office call 253-0572-2281 and to reach Sen. Murray’s Vancouver office call 360-696-7797.

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