Can America Keep Its Waterways Working?

By Ryck Lydecker

Our nation's maritime infrastructure is suffering from insufficient funding to maintain dredging efforts, protective jetties, ports, and other crucial navigation improvements.

Photo of rebuilding a jettyIt takes car-sized boulders and giant cranes to rebuild a jetty.

The Tillamook County Creamery Association must be the only dairy farmers' cooperative in the country that displays a two-masted schooner under full sail and with "a bone in her teeth" as its advertising logo. There's a good reason cows and canvas go well together in this dramatic reach of Oregon's ocean coast. The settler-farmers of the 1850s, their fertile valley hemmed in on three sides by rugged mountains and vast forests, looked to the ocean to get their goods to market, and so they built a 40-foot schooner to do it.

Like the other river-mouth inlets along this rugged coast, Tillamook Bay's out-flowing waters conflict with ocean tides and currents, leading to a build-up of dangerous shoals made all the more treacherous during Pacific storms. A single 5,400-foot rock jetty built in 1915 on the north side of Tillamook Inlet provided mariners some protection sailing in and out of the Port of Garibaldi until 1979 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built another jetty on the south-side, 5,500 feet long. The twin jetties served two functions, buffering onshore seas to protect the entry, and concentrating harbor outflow to scour a channel. The Pacific Ocean, after all, is unforgiving.

"These jetties take a beating from ocean storms and we've lost over 900 feet of the south jetty since it was built," says Val Folkema, a commissioner with the Port of Garibaldi. "As a result, the Tillamook Bay bar is getting more and more treacherous, and that's a real threat to our recreational and commercial fishing fleets. In the past seven or eight years alone, 17 lives have been lost out there."

For Folkema, it gets personal; her husband Jeff is a commercial crabber who has to navigate the inlet in his 26-foot boat to tend traps five to 10 miles offshore. Their two sons work on the water as well and, as a family, they operate Garibaldi Marina, roughly a mile inside the inlet. Tillamook, in the local Native American tribal language here, means "many waters" for the five rivers that flow into it.

"The big thing about working out of this port is that you can't cross the bar on an ebb tide," says Jeff Folkema. "Tillamook Bay is big and you've got all that water pushing to get out, so if there's any swell on the ocean the waves just jam up at the jaws out there. Say you've got a six-foot swell and a six- or seven-foot outgoing tide," he explains. "You definitely want to mind your Ps and Qs because it's going to jump up to about a 10-foot breaking sea over the bar. On the south jetty, to make it safe, we need them to at least do what they did to the north jetty a few years ago."

Photo of Oregon's Tiillamook Inlet jettiesPounding Pacific waves have taken a toll on Oregon's Tiillamook Inlet jetties. Meanwhile, federal funding to maintain waterway infrastructure nationwide is suffering as well.

That original harbor improvement, now nearly a century old, had lost just shy of 500-feet on its outer end by 2004. The Corps of Engineers completed design work to cap the last 100 feet and prevent further deterioration, but could not get the additional funds necessary to complete the work. Then in 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the so-called "stimulus bill" or "The Recovery Act") and the project qualified as "shovel ready." Thus, in 2010, the Corps repaired 300 feet of the North Jetty at a cost of $16.1 million. But with the fiscal climate in Washington, D.C. these days, that's hardly likely to happen again, according to Kevin Greenwood, port manager.

"Luckily, the North Jetty planning had been done, and while they couldn't extend it to the original length, the Corps was able to put a 100-foot cap on the outer end," Greenwood says. "But that also means there's about 200 feet of what engineers call "relic rock" beyond it, and if you're a boater you may see the end of the jetty but not realize until it's too late that dangerous rocks lie below the surface.

"We have a huge amount of recreational boating traffic in and out of here, so if the federal infrastructure, that being the jetties or the channel, fails, that can have a huge economic impact on our region," Greenwood explains. "Twenty-two percent of all recreationally caught ocean salmon in Oregon are landed here, making Garibaldi Number One in the state."

Greenwood says about 250 jobs depend on the port and its federal infrastructure, which generates $10 million annually for the local economy. According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, outbound bar crossings totaled 20,334 in 2010, with commercial traffic accounting for just fewer than 2,800. That ratio is fairly similar in many of Oregon's small ocean ports. Unfortunately, the federal infrastructure situation is all too similar as well.

Between The Rocks And A Hard Place

Unfortunately, Meira explains, the Corps of Engineers budget has been dwindling, in real dollars, over the years and, like every other place there's federal navigation infrastructure, they're struggling to find adequate funds for jetty repair. "For us, the jetties are huge construction projects and they're not getting any cheaper to maintain, with costs of fuel, labor, and transportation all rising," she explains. "Rocks that are appropriate for the kinds of jetties we have on the Oregon coast can only be procured from certain quarries, where the boulders are large enough and have the density that the engineers require. Just sourcing the material can be a challenge."

Meira goes on to describe the all-too-familiar cost-accounting conundrum that ports and waterways, once heavily commercial but today catering primarily to recreational boating and fishing, face across the country: "The Corps uses tonnage as its budget basis and the kinds of tonnage they count favors deep-draft ports. So a port like Garibaldi, where they have significant commercial and recreational fishing, can't compare to containers or wheat or other kinds of cargo moving on deep-draft systems," she explains. "Small ports are continually at a disadvantage in the budgeting process but we keep pointing out that local fishermen and others are relying on that infrastructure to be there. In many communities, that fishing fleet is all they have left because timber is gone."

Going It Alone

The situation in Tillamook Bay and along the Oregon Coast is symptomatic of problems that confront commercial-navigation interests, and recreational boaters alike, in much of the country. Waterway infrastructure deterioration compounds itself, year to year, in the face of ever-fewer federal dollars to maintain locks and dams, dredge shallow-draft channels, and keep recreational harbors operational and safe.

In many parts of the country, navigation projects once funded through the "earmark" process, now halted by Congress, go begging, but in some areas the locals have resorted to digging into their own pockets, at least to find stopgap dollars. In Ventura California, for example, with maintenance dredging zeroed-out in the Corps budget this year, threatening the port's fishing fleet and its 1,500 marina slips, commissioners voted unanimously to spend up to $15 million in port funds to maintain a safe and navigable harbor entry.

In North Carolina, municipal and county governments pooled resources with state dollars to get five dangerous ocean inlets dredged (

On Lake Michigan, one small port isn't waiting around for Uncle Sam either. "The federal government has left us on our own, and that being said we're not going to sit and cry about it, we're going to do the job ourselves," Russell Dzuba, the harbormaster of Leland, Michigan, told an ABC-TV News affiliate on April 30. Local officials and business leaders mounted a fundraising campaign earlier this year and as a daily blog, The Leland Report, put it: "The economic health of Leland is on the operating table." By the start of boating season, the campaign had raised $60,000 in local donations to dredge the harbor. That's admittedly far short of the $175,000 to $200,000 required, but the harbor is vital to the Leland economy, as Great Lakes boaters spend money at local businesses in this town of 2,000, so it's a start — and a statement.

"From the Fourth of July to Labor Day, it's non-stop traffic thorough the harbor and boaters drop a lot of money in our town," Dzuba explained. "But we can't pay for dredging every year." He said the township would have to agree to a promissory note to pay off the dredging tab at season's end, "When we've had a chance to make some money."

Ultimately, Dzuba and officials at the 50 other member municipalities that make up the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition say it's the federal government's responsibility. The good news on that score is that the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, derived from a tonnage tax on international cargo (largely containers shipped through major ports, and ostensibly dedicated to the maintenance of navigation infrastructure) carries a balance of about $6 billion. The bad news is that only a small portion of that money is ever spent as intended — about $758 million in the current fiscal year. (At the current spending rate, the balance is projected to rise to $7.11 billion by the end of fiscal year 2013.) Coupled with declining appropriations from the nation's General Fund, it means the Corps of Engineers must pick-and-choose from among projects on its growing maintenance backlog list. But there's mounting pressure on Capitol Hill from an alliance of commercial waterway organizations (called Realize America's Maritime Promise) to put all Harbor Trust Fund monies to work through the Corps of Engineers' Operation and Maintenance (O&M) budget. As Kristen Meira puts it: "That money is supposed to be spent on coastal O&M to include the kind of jetty repair we urgently need here in Oregon. We have to continue to push for full use of those receipts. That's an effort everyone's been able to rally around, both deep-draft and small ports."

Photo of construction of the north jetty at Tillamook BaySince the construction in 1915, the north jetty at Tillamook Bay had lost over 500 feet to storms by 2010 when repairs commenced. It took 1,100 boulders weighing 25 to 52 tons, to cap it and prevent further damage.

Follow The Money

Since the 1820s, when Congress directed the Corps of Engineers to build a canal connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, and clear snags from the Mississippi, the federal government has had responsibility for maintaining waterway infrastructure. Today, the agency's Civil Works program has responsibility for 12,000 miles of waterways, 221 locks (60 percent are beyond their 50-year design life), 156 inlets, and some 900 harbors, although only 150 or so get routine maintenance. Today's budget of about $4.7 billion has shrunk from $7.5 billion in 1970 and the challenge, according to one senior Corps official we interviewed, is how to prioritize projects with the funding the agency does have. The Civil Works program, in fact, faces a "perfect storm" of rising demand for cargo movement, aging infrastructure, and declining budgets, Michael Mazzanti, Chief Of Operations, told a Congressional Waterways Caucus briefing last September.

Congress is getting the message, and in fact, there's legislation in the Senate that would tap the full $6 billion in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for dredging. In April, five Democratic senators called on Senate appropriators to include money in the Corps of Engineers' budget specifically for shallow-draft (defined as less than 14-feet) and low-commercial-use ports. In a March 22 letter, Washington's Sen. Maria Cantwell joined Oregon's Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, to succinctly state the challenges that face harbors such as Garibaldi, Oregon, and Leland, Michigan. "Without adequate funding, the navigation channels leading to these ports and the jetties protecting these communities will crumble," they told the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Nonetheless, waterway improvements, or even maintaining current conditions of the waterways boaters depend upon, could still require creative solutions, cautions BoatUS President Margaret Podlich: "Recognizing that the maintenance of channels and harbors has traditionally been a federal responsibility, as recreational boaters we now face the reality that in many cases the dollars that are available aren't likely to be put to use where we need them most, at least in the near term. We all know that a vibrant boating culture has developed around waterway infrastructure nearly everywhere in the country, and so it's increasingly important that policy makers hear that message, too.

"In these tough economic times, recreational boaters and sport anglers still pump much-needed dollars into waterfront communities," she added, "so it's in everyone's interest — that is, it's in the nation's interest — to find solutions to the waterway infrastructure crisis." 

— Published: August/September 2012

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