Scientists track changes in NW beaches

Laura Bauleke and Laura Landerman look seaward to where wave runners are measuring the depth of the ocean up to two kilometers off the Peninsula. The U.S. Geological Survey will map the coastline from Tillamook Head in Oregon to Point Grenville in Washington in the next five weeks. KEVIN HEIMBIGNER photo

CRANBERRY ROAD - Federal and state crews combed local beaches last week, taking readings and measurements that will ultimately help authorities make decisions about recreational and commercial usage of the Washington and northern Oregon coastlines.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Washington Department of Ecology teamed to measure the depth of the ocean out a distance of two kilometers (about 1.2 miles) from Tillamook Head in Oregon, north to Point Grenville on the Olympic Peninsula. The Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Program study began four years ago and requires four to five weeks' work each summer to complete.

"The information gathered is used by local governments and state and federal agencies to make policy decisions concerning the coastline," USGS employee Laura Landerman said.

Their work will influence deliberations on such vital issues as safety due to shoaling and where to put dredge spoils.

Beach and berm elevations are also mapped four times a year according to the seasons.

"There are seasonal changes, but data from the first four years hasn't yielded any major trends in beach elevation change," Landerman said.

"The water line is also mapped once a year to determine the mean low water mark," Department of Ecology intern Laura Bauleke said.

Peninsula residents out for a stroll last Tuesday afternoon just north of Cranberry Road saw the team in action: two wave runners wove in and out of the surf; a young woman in a wet suit waded out into chest-high waves, while another directed all of their movements with concise instructions spoken into a walkie-talkie.

The wave runners, directed from shore by Landerman, provided the brawn of the operation. They carried state-of-the-art equipment - eco-sound systems to find ocean depth and global positioning systems - to determine locations. Both communicated with computers on board each craft.

"When the wave runners are coming directly east toward shore," Landerman said, "data is fed into the computer continuously to give exact readings as to the contour of the ocean floor."

The wave runners were transported on land by loading onto a portable sled that looks like a pair of upside-down Jugs pitching machines. The balloon tires moved the jet skis from the ocean to the truck over the soft sand. As the runners approached the beach, Bauleke waded out to help them with alignment. She made sure their turns were safe in the breaking waves, then coached the drivers in setting up for their next runs.

"I'm actually warm, thanks to the wet suit and the beautiful weather," said Bauleke. "I've really enjoyed this project."

Wave runner pilot Peter Ruggiero was responsible for mapping the ocean floor, said Landerman. Along with fellow runner operator Etienne Kingsley, the pilot made his sounding runs twice every kilometer, moving steadily northward in a zigzag pattern. Computers connected the dots to exactly map the coastline out two kilometers.

Landerman and Bauleke came to the Pacific Northwest from Southern California and both agreed that the weather the past couple of weeks has been every bit as spectacular as where they grew up. "It's hard to call this work," Bauleke said. The women said they expect the project to take four to five weeks to complete.

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