Guest Column

I just wanted to respond to the article written in the May 21 Observer regarding the Benson Beach project. It is unfortunate that we didn't have more time to respond to the letter you received from the Columbia River Channel Deepening Coalition, as maybe it would have lent itself to a more balanced story about what is really going on with the Benson Beach project. I would appreciate you printing this in the next available newspaper.

Pacific County and the Coastal Communities have been dealing with coastal erosion as a collective group for well over the last 10 years. The Coastal Communities group consists of Pacific County and Grays Harbor, the cities of Ocean Shores, Westport, Long Beach and Ilwaco, and includes the Ports of Willapa Harbor, Peninsula, Chinook, Ilwaco and Grays Harbor. The Columbia River Crab Fisherman Association is also an active participant in this group. Individually, these entities are small and do not carry a relatively loud voice. Collectively, this group has done some impressive things on the coast, namely in addressing areas of coastal erosional issues and by raising the general level of awareness about coastal issues and concerns, especially from the standpoint of the smaller, coastal communities.

The Coastal Communities has retained the services of Pacific International Engineering (PIE) to help facilitate, coordinate and manage our collective interests. PIE brings to our group a very strong engineering and managerial presence our small entities individually lack. They also bring to our group a means to further our collective interests, especially in the technical, political and fiscal arenas. They have, and continue to provide, sound technicial advise and expertise on coastal issues. And, just so you understand and it is clear with other interested parties, the process we go through to select PIE as a consultant was, and is, an open and competitive process.

The Coastal Communities have been actively engaged in Benson Beach and Columbia River issues for well over the last five or six years. As coastal erosion heated up in the mid 90s, the analysis kept pointing back to the Columbia River system and the lack of sediment coming out of the mouth and making its way onto the coastline. It also appeared that the current management and maintenance practices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the mouth of the Columbia River were exacerbating the problem. Our efforts began to focus on how could we modify and utilize the Corps' maintenance practices to manipulate the way sand was being managed at the mouth, and instead move it towards a more beneficial system of uses, i.e., placement on or near the beaches.

We began developing and designing a process for modifying the Corps' maintenance practices at the mouth, and institued a program to work towards that goal. This process involved engaging a multitude of stakeholders, including various governmental entities at the local, state and federal levels. Initially, this process did not include the upriver ports. This process has taken several years while the costs to, and borne by, the coastal communities have been substantial. Essentially we, the coastal communities, are paying to change the negative habits and impacts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintenance practices at the mouth of the Columbia River.

As a side bar to this process, the Columbia River Deepening Project was elevated in awareness among the public and the various governmental entities. Our primary issues have revolved around impacts to crabs and crab habitat at the mouth, impacts to the local fishing fleet due to safety concerns caused by improper material disposal and disposal management, and the loss of sand from the littoral drift system and its associated impacts to the Washington coastline.

As this issue heated up, the upriver ports, who are project sponsors of the deepening project, had their state-appropriated funding for their costs of the deepening project tied to habitat protection measures at the mouth. Sen. Sid Snyder felt strongly enough about the impacts to the lower river communities that provisions were made to link the upriver ports funding to specific crab protection measures at the mouth.

Unfortunately, after Sen. Snyder's retirement, the provisions tied to the funding were eventually removed. The significance of these funding provisions is what ultimately brought the upriver ports, i.e., Longview, Kalama, Woodland, Vancouver, Portland, Ranier, et. al, to the table as active participants in the process to move the Benson Beach project forward. The Benson Beach project afforded a means to avoid impacting crab at the mouth by depositing sand at Benson Beach rather than on crab grounds thereby fullfilling their obligations under the funding conditions.

So, a couple of things regarding the letter written by Dave Hunt and the upriver ports/channel deepening coalition. That group did not become actively engaged in the process until they were forced to. The money that was contributed in their name towards the first phase of the Benson Beach project was actually diverted State funding initially earmarked for the deepening project. They were not an original project sponsor nor were they an active partner in the Coastal Communities process.

That group has actively resisted any attempt to minimize crab and habitat impacts associated with their sponsored deepening project and its ancillary spin offs, namely, the various disposal projects. If they had a true and genuine interest in protecting the economies and lifestyles of the lower river communities, they would have directed the Corps of Engineers and their project designers to take these issues into consideration. Their buy-in to the Benson Beach project was strictly a business decision. Plain and simple.

Last summer we implemented the first phase of the Benson Beach project. Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we were able to place approximately 46,000 cubic yards of sand in the active surf zone of Benson Beach with the stated purpose of determining whether it was technically feasible to do so. The stated purpose was not to determine the fate of the sediment; rather, the purpose was to demonstrate that the equipment could safely operate in this environment, under what conditions, how long, etc.

For several years, the Corps had told us they could not safely moor a hopper dredge next to the North Jetty and pump material over the jetty. For them, it was physically impossible. Phase one proved them wrong. Federal funding for phase one was initially inadequate to do the project. Additional funding was allocated for the project through a diversion of some of the State of Washington's of the deepening funds. Additional funding was also provided by the Port of Vancouver, the Port of Kalama and the Coastal Communities. The total cost of the project was well over $1 million.

Phase two was designed to use the same technology and increase the volumes of sediment pumped over the North Jetty by approximately 500,000 cubic yards. The purpose of the second phase was to determine the fate of the sediment placed at Benson Beach since we had already proven the operating parameters for the technological component of the project. The supplemental federal funding authorized for the Portland District of the Corps of Engineers for the Benson Beach phase two project was approximately $905,000. As was the case last year, the authorized amount fell far short of our cost estimates for a fully functioning phase two. The Coastal Communities and the Corps of Engineers were faced with a difficult decision (remember who the original project proponents/sponsors are). Do we proceed with a limited phase two project and merely replicate last years project and results? What will we gain by doing this? Will we advance our knowledge base enough to get us to phase three, or even and beyond, where we are contemplating the actual construction and implementation of a sand bypass system at the mouth that will be moving literally millions of yards of sand onto the Washington coastline and off of important crab grounds? A number of uncertainties came into play, namely the uncertainty of future funding sources, our interaction with Corps of Engineers, our standing with our elected officials in Washington who labored to get the federal funding, whether we were wasting almost a million dollars of taxpayers money to replicate last years project, and even whether the bids would come in under or over last years cost's. The Coastal Communities decided to instead work towards a phase three project involving substantially more material and a different technology not as susceptible to the similar market variations as a pump ashore project. Phase three involves the placement of a sump adjacent to the North Jetty where material can be deposited by a hopper dredge and then pumped over the jetty and out into the surf zone using a pipeline dredge or similar technology. We didn't make this decision in a vacumn. We discussed it at a series of open meetings with the Coastal Communities group as well as with the larger Benson Beach group. We believe the decision to postpone this year and work towards a larger project next year was sound. We also believe this will bring us closer to realizing our eventual goal of re-establishing a type of sand bypass system feeding the Washington coastline while protecting important crabbing and fishing areas.

The federal funding allocated towards the Benson Beach project was not lost nor was it wasted. Portions of this years funding are going towards securing the necessary permits for phase three. Portions are being used to complete the important environmental analysis and documentation neceeary to comply with local, State and Federal laws and permitting requirements. We are working towards a Benson Beach phase three, hopefully in 2004. We also believe we are helping the Portland District in that some of the funding will go towards other, unfunded needs within the District, some of which are directly tied to the MCR project. We recognize that we will have to go back to our elected representatives at the State and Federal levels to pursue additional funding for phase three. This would have had to happen regardless of whether we completed phase two or not. In fact, we believe we have gained more credibility with our elected officials because we are not spending taxpayers dollars just to spend money, as the upriver ports would want us to do.

The Coastal Communities and Pacific County are project sponsors of the Benson Beach project, not the upriver ports. We are actively working together with the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with other interested, involved and engaged entities, to make the Benson Beach project happen. Our overall goals haven't changed. We have confidence in the technical expertise provided to us by our consultants. We are confident the Portland District is actively working with us in forwarding these goals. We have confidence in the process as it has been an open and unadulturated process. It is unfortunate the deepening coalition decided to withdraw from the partnership. They provided a strong presence with a very solid viewpoint on their mission, interests and purposes as upriver ports. Some of us more skeptical individuals believe we provided an opportunity for them to remove themselves from this project and process because, as their State funding is no longer restricted, they have very little, if any, interest in what happens in protecting the Columbia River estuary or the significant crabbing and fishing areas.

Pacific County and the Coastal Communitie are optimistic that we, as a group, will continue to make forward progress in our desires to see the Washington coastline nourished with a continual source of available Columbia River sand, that the important crabbing and fishing areas necessary for a healthy, lower river economy are protected, and the way of life for so many residents of these coastal areas are preserved and even enhanced.

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