Eroding Jetties at Columbia River's Mouth
by Erik Robinson
Now that a $190 million project to deepen the Columbia River's shipping channel is nearly complete, engineers are turning their attention to a problem that could unravel all of the work that preceded it.
The jetties protecting the mouth of the river are badly eroding.
The north and south jetties tame the Columbia's violent bar, keeping sand out and waves down. Together, they funnel the Columbia's tremendous outflow while forming a barricade against beach sand that would quickly clog the shipping channel. The jetties help to tame a notoriously rough bar -- once known as the Graveyard of the Pacific because of the more than 2,000 shipwrecks that have occurred there.
Fixing them likely will require a federal investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, but letting them go would choke off access to an industry that annually hauls $18 billion worth of imports and exports.
"If one of those jetties was to fail, within a few weeks it could easily fill the channel," said Todd Coleman, deputy director of the Port of Vancouver. "For us alone, that means over 500 vessels a year, which use that channel to get to Vancouver, wouldn't be able to reach us."
Dave Hunt, director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, said a jetty failure "would have a huge impact on commerce."
Hunt, a Gladstone, Ore., Democrat who also serves as speaker of Oregon's House of Representatives, on Wednesday addressed the Rotary Club of Vancouver. In a subsequent interview, Hunt noted that patches on the jetties in recent years bought a little time until permanent repairs can be designed and completed.
"The jetties protect an economic lifeline," he said.
A breach in a jetty would quickly allow sand to move into the 55-foot-deep channel at the river's mouth, especially if it occurred during violent winter storms. This, Hunt said, would be a "nightmare scenario" because it would force contractors to constantly dredge the river bottom while at the same time trying to patch the jetty.
Work on the 6 1/2-mile-long south jetty started in 1886 and was completed in 1913. The shorter north jetty, 2 1/2 miles long, was built in 1917.
Laura Hicks, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the last mile of the south jetty has already been lost. "It's just been overtopped with waves," she said.
Though the corps recently spent $26 million on a three-year project to temporarily shore up areas of particular weakness, a project that ended in 2007, Hicks said a long-term repair will be much more costly. This fall, the corps expects to launch a major study examining its options.
It's about time, said one longtime critic of the channel-deepening project.
"The corps and, frankly, the congressional delegation have been very focused on the channel-deepening project without paying attention to what you might call the front door of the river," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, which sued to block the channel-deepening project.
Bell suspects it's no coincidence that channel deepening came before the jetty project.
"It certainly doesn't make sense to invest a vast amount of taxpayer money into deepening the channel if it won't be used," she said. "Perhaps, the strategy was to put Congress over a barrel."
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