Shallow-Draft Ports Dredging Crisis

By Ryck Lydecker

Shallow-draft ports are always swimming upstream for dredging dollars. Here's how a few ports are getting by — and why some others aren't.

Oregon coast small port dredgeBuddy can you spare a dredge? Five shallow-draft ports on the Oregon coast share the dredge Laura, pictured at left, to maintain their channels and pick up where the Army Corps of Engineers leaves off. (Photo: Bandon Western World)

On the Oregon coast, the timings of two natural phenomena control the window of opportunity for harbor dredging. One, the more predictable window, opens or closes for channel maintenance in accordance with salmon-spawning seasons in such legendary rivers as the Rogue. The other window is controlled by weather, and in mid-February, Pacific gales had slammed it shut for the Port of Gold Beach, Oregon, about 40 miles above the California border.

"We've had gale-force winds for a week down here," said port manager James Clemens while taking a break from unloading the portable dredge Laura from a flatbed truck. Next, his crew would take advantage of the lull to launch the dredge tender SoCo from its trailer and begin learning how to operate the equipment. "When it's blowing that hard, the crane can't lift these vessels. It's too dangerous. But that also costs us time, and we don't have a lot of that to clear out the gravel bar in the harbor. On top of that, the dredge still has to go on to work at three more of our ports before the salmon runs start."

Laura & SoCo Get To Work

Gold Beach is one of five shallow-draft harbors in the South Coast Ports Coalition, and together they share use of a new state-owned dredge in a do-it-ourselves program that started in October 2015. The goal is to carry on maintenance in the federal channel where the Army Corps of Engineers leaves off, and stretch non-federal dollars farther — and deeper. The Port of Bandon, some 60 miles up the coast at the mouth of the Coquille River, had first dibs on the dredge in the pilot program, and it had its harbor dredged by early winter.

Once Gold Beach finished dredging, Laura and SoCo (for South Coast), plus 3,000 feet of dredging pipe, would move on by truck to Siuslaw, Brookings Harbor, and Port Orford. The coalition's goal is to complete all harbor-maintenance work before the salmon runs slam the dredging window shut for the season. Meanwhile, the Army Corps would be playing catch-up on work it couldn't perform last year, due to weather, in the federal channel at the constantly shoaling inlet to the Rogue River.

"It can be pretty dreadful out there," reports Clemens, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman with 30 years of service, much of it on the Oregon coast. "Late last summer, we had four to five feet of depth on the river bar in places, and that allows very little vessel traffic. It's supposed to be at least 13 feet all the way through." A storm off the ocean, he adds, can quickly turn this inlet into one of the most dangerous that he's seen. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Coast Guard operates a station at Gold Beach, Clemens says, and when the seas pipe up, as they quickly can in summer, the station will restrict bar crossing for vessels below a certain size.

"Before Memorial Day, we could have six- to eight-foot breaks on the bar, and with no restrictions. Somebody who doesn't know the water that well is liable to cross the bar and get in serious trouble. Occasionally, a transient cruising boat heading up to the Strait of Juan De Fuca will duck in here," Clemens adds. "But this port is almost all driven by fishing, since we have a very healthy salmon fishery in the estuary. It's not uncommon to have 150 sportboats fishing on the river. We also have world-class bottom fishing in the ocean, but too often you just can't get out to fish it unless the Corps can keep the river-bar channel maintained."

That's what the Corps allocated $670,000 to do at Gold Beach this year, while Laura and SoCo, using port funds for fuel and other costs, take care of the rest of the harbor — and the other four harbors in southern Oregon.

Follow The Money, If You Can

The big federal spending bill that Congress passed last December included a $149 million appropriation to the Corps of Engineers for dredging shallow-draft commercial harbors nationwide. But in a new approach to Corps funding allocations as authorized by the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, the spending bill for fiscal year 2016 set aside $48 million for work at "small, remote, or subsistence navigation projects," meaning harbors.

"Oregon's Congressional delegation requested that the Corps allocate $9 million of that for nine Oregon ports," reports David Kennedy, of BoatUS Government Affairs. "The Corps approved and included the ports of Garibaldi, Port Orford, Toledo, and Depoe Bay, all of which have commercial traffic in addition to small-boat marinas, along with the five coalition ports that depend primarily upon recreational boating to sustain their economies."

BoatUS worked with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, in concert with recreational and commercial maritime interests, to advocate those changes in the 2014 law. Now the Corps is authorized to dredge some shallow-draft ports that have little or no commercial traffic and therefore don't pay a tonnage tax into the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which covers the lion's share of channel dredging nationwide. The law also includes a Congressional directive to allocate money to the Great Lakes network of shallow-draft harbors, but so far, little has changed for boaters on America's sweetwater seas.

It's A Question Of Priorities

"Come visit Portage Lake this summer," says the website LakeLubbers. "If you come by boat, call ahead to the local marina and check the depth of the channel: [it] sometimes becomes too shallow if the sand hasn't been dredged out recently, and large boats can't make it in stormy weather."

When Chuck May walks out on the ancient bulkheads along the channel running from Lake Michigan into the small-boat harbor at Portage Lake, in Michigan, he can hear the waves sloshing up below his feet. The relentless erosion around the rock-cribbing structure is evident as much as 20 feet inside the wall, threatening a collapse into the channel that would obstruct entry to this federally designated harbor of refuge.

When the bulkheads will finally collapse is anybody's guess, but the extremely low lake levels of a few years ago that exposed the pre-World War I timbers didn't help. Now the lake level is back up in the normal range, but the sand just keeps shoaling in the entry. This is the same inlet in which Chuck May watched in 2007 as an angry lake pound a million-dollar racing sloop into a total loss.

The Chicago-Mackinac Race competitor Barracuda, a Beneteau 47 that was bound for home after the race, tried to take shelter from a northwest gale pushing six- to eight-foot seas through the entry. Although the chart showed a 12-foot channel, and no Notices to Mariners had been published, according to reports, about the shoaling that had existed there for at least two years, the four-foot actual depth stopped Barracuda short. The vessel turned broadside to the seas, gave up her keel to the sandbar, and was pounded for hours in the entry.

Leland Michigan shoaling at harbor entryLeland, Michigan, one of Lake Michigan's top cruising destinations, faced crisis shoaling conditions at its harbor entry as this March 2016 photo shows. (Photo: George Stevens)

After witnessing that tragedy and learning more about the chronic channel-maintenance shortfall besetting most recreational harbors, May in 2008 founded the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition with the aim of fixing the problem. Today, May's group includes a network of 85 harbor cities and towns that have passed formal resolutions committing to "advocate for a more equitable, sustainable, needs-based system to allocate funds for adequate maintenance of small Great Lakes harbors." While the recent changes in Corps of Engineers funding policy as well as 2016 budget numbers were encouraging, May says recreational harbors still can't get dredged, although his group hasn't given up.

"Of the 122 ports on the Great Lakes, 98 are unfunded right now," May reported in late February. "Twenty-two commercial harbors account for the entire $143 million Corps dredging budget for 2016. That's the priority of the Corps, although to dredge the 80 recreational harbors that so desperately need it would take only about $12 million.

"So we're not talking about big money here, at least in Washington, D.C., terms. But what we're up against is priorities that just don't include us," May continues. "The Corps built of lot of these small ports as harbors of refuge 40 years ago, but it can't maintain them. In storms, these lakes can kick up 10- and 12-foot seas. So right now it comes down to a question of how far are you going to have to run for shelter? And how long can the economies in these small ports last when boats can't moor there or get in and out, even in good weather?"

What Should A Boater Do?

It's always a good idea to call your local TowBoatUS operator over the VHF to ask if there are changes to depth in any questionable bars or inlets you're about to attempt. Though BoatUS towers are not infallible, they are helpful and know a great deal about local conditions. To learn more about the shallow-draft dredging crisis on the Great Lakes, visit www.BoatUS.com/gov. 

Ryck Lydecker retired from our Government Affairs and BoatUS Magazine teams in 2013 but continues to write about policy issues and other feature topics.

— Published: June/July 2016


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