News that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t plan — at least in the near future — to maintain access channels to the ports of Chinook and Ilwaco is not entirely shocking, as the corps has been delivering similar messages to other small ports in the Pacific Northwest. It is completely unacceptable.

In the first place, a healthy national economy in many ways depends on maintaining a base level of infrastructure throughout the land. This doesn’t mean building an interstate highway through every county, but it does mean ensuring that citizens can continue their customary jobs.

Nobody would consider it OK if a Nebraska farm town were cut off from all its fields because highways and bridges were allowed to become impassible. By the same token, it’s wrong to sit back and let fishing towns lose their links to commercial and recreational fisheries. A maritime port without access to deep water is doomed to wither away — kayaks don’t cut it when it comes to ocean fishing.

Beyond this threshold issue of economic fairness, the ports of Ilwaco and Chinook are in the special situation of being at risk due to a long series of government actions.

Nautical charts from the 19th century show navigable waters throughout nearly the entirety of Baker Bay even at low tide. This was a consequence of the Columbia’s north channel sweeping through the bay. Deliberate decisions were madae — some political, some for engineering reasons — to prefer the south channel on the Oregon side of the river. Starting more than a century ago, this pushed Sand Island into Baker Bay from its natural position about two-thirds of the way between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams.

With construction of the jetties and other corps’ navigation structures, Baker Bay was in effect consigned to become a vast sediment catchment basin for the Columbia estuary. Former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird felt so strongly about this that he managed to win congressional authorization of a study of the whole sorry situation. Sadly, the second step in this two-part funding process — appropriation — never occurred and the study died on the vine.

Even without a study, the charts don’t lie. It was federal action that put Ilwaco and Chinook in the position of needing routine maintenance dredging.

The corps will always take the position that it just does what it is told to do by Congress. In a sense, this is accurate, and Congress should indeed tell it to honor its obligations by keeping ports connected to traditional fishing grounds. However, doing so is much complicated by the sharp curb in the old process of earmarking U.S. funds for specific projects.

However, with its vast resources and deep — and somewhat incestuous — relationship with politicians and industry, the corps can always find a way if it puts its mind to it. When it comes to Baker Bay dredging, it should absolutely do so.

As a last resort, it might be about time for Ilwaco and Chinook to fire up a lawsuit. Litigation is frequently wasteful and dumb. But in this case, justice and economic survival may justify it. It would be a David v. Goliath proposition. However, a jury might just have considerable sympathy for small towns turned into backwaters by a gargantuan government agency.

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