ILWACO, Wash. - A test of using Columbia River dredge spoils to rebuild eroding beaches on the south end of the Long Beach Peninsula is getting under way.

For nearly a decade, winter waves have been chewing away at Benson Beach in Fort Canby State Park. By mid-century, this erosion is expected to gallop past North Head, consuming all or most of the beach that accreted west of Seaview and Long Beach during the first half of the 20th century, according to the Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study.

Study authors believe the only hope of slowing this erosion lies in convincing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake massive reform in how it and its contractors dispose of millions of cubic yards of dredge spoils removed from the river each year.

Representatives of a coalition of economic and political interests gathered at Benson Beach Friday to celebrate a first drop in the endless buckets of sand that will be required to launch this reform and counteract erosion.

At a cost of $775,000, starting this week about 43,000 cubic yards of sand will be pumped over North Jetty by Illinois-based NATCO Construction's Sugar Island, a 300-foot hopper dredge. Sand depositing will take at least four days to complete but may take longer, depending on weather and sea conditions.

Each year the corps removes between 4 million and 5 million cubic yards of sand from the mouth of the Columbia River and deposits the material at several ocean disposal sites, where it is permanently lost from what scientists call the littoral system, the near-shore region where waves and currents are capable of depositing sand on the beach.

This will be the first time the Corps has placed any of this dredged sand directly on Benson Beach.

During the operation, the Sugar Island will maneuver alongside the jetty, attach to a 300-foot pipe and pump sand from the hopper to the beach. Crews on land will spray the sand onto the beach below the 7 1/2-foot elevation line. The public is being asked to stay back from the work area while construction is under way.

Mike DeSimone, assistant director for planning, Pacific County Department of Community Development, was credited by Pacific County Commission Chairman Bud Cuffel and others with helping bring the Benson beach project to reality.

"How that sediment's managed is key to this county, as well as to Grays Harbor County and the other coastal communities," DeSimone said in an earlier interview.

The Benson Beach project will determine if conditions will allow use of equipment and see if larger-scale dumping will do any good, he said, noting that the amount of sand being pumped in the test is not in itself sufficient to make any difference in counteracting erosion. DeSimone said it's hoped the project also will help answer "What's carrying capacity of Benson Beach? We don't want to build a big mound right there; we just want to get the sand there so it starts working its way back up the coastline."

He said the county has two goals: to maintain a healthy beach and maintain adequate crab and fisheries habitat for fishermen. "Those two issues are vital for our economy: Healthy beaches and healthy habitat for the crabbers."

Proponents of deepening the Columbia River navigation channel to 43 feet to accommodate deeper-draft vessels, which provided $550,000 in funds for the Benson Beach test, were out in force to draw explicit connections between the benefits of beach nourishment and channel deepening.

"We all need dredging," said Lanny Cawley, Port of Kalama, Wash. At the same time, upriver ports are conscious of the damage that dredge dumping may have on crabbing grounds at the river's mouth. "We don't want to see some other economy adversely affected by what we do."

Larry Paulson of the Port of Vancouver said his port and others view the river as a regional asset and are willing to look for ways that benefit the communities they serve and the communities downriver.

"The Benson Beach project is important not only because the beach will be nourished but even more so because we will be demonstrating and evaluating potential long-term ways to keep dredged sand in the littoral system through beneficial uses while maintaining the Columbia River channel for safe commercial navigation," said Dave Hunt with the Columbia River Channel Coalition, in written remarks.

Hunt said channel-deepening supporters are committed to working on keeping dredged sand in the littoral system in the future, to be "faithful servants of the sand."

The Corps of Engineers, which resisted performing the Benson Beach project for several years despite strong congressional, state and local support, also is now firmly on board, according to its representative.

"We are pleased to be working with the coastal communities on this demonstration project," said Doris McKillip, project manager for the Corps. "Keeping sand in the near shore is a priority for the Corps of Engineers. We will continue to work with all the involved parties to find the best cost-effective solutions for keeping this resource in the near shore area."

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