SEASIDE - The sewage treatment plant in Seaside was originally built hundreds of feet away from the Necanicum River, safe from flooding. For six decades, it has quietly cleaned the waste water from the city's showers, sinks and toilets.
The facility, rebuilt in 1986, is located in the remote northwest corner of town on Franklin Street and is mostly ignored by residents. Neighbors occasionally gripe about the stench, but that is all.
Two or three years ago, city employees realized the plant was no longer quite so far away from the river.
Or as safe.
A shift of the channel in the winter of 1996 resulted in a powerful current flowing directly into the sand bluffs north of the plant. The Necanicum's gradual erosion swept away the anchoring vegetation, along with several hundred feet of land. About a year later, the river broke through a large spit armored by a developer that protected the plant from wave action. The sand bluffs were exposed to both river and waves. Even the plant's own water, released into the Necanicum after purification, could flow around to attack the sand.
In 2004, another 800 feet was lost, leaving only 80 feet between the plant and the river.
Moving againThe Daily Astorian began a study of the river's changing contours in March. Since then, Seaside Public Works Director Neal Wallace has reported the river has shifted again, north toward Gearhart. In the past year, only five feet have eroded.
Wallace is not complacent, however. "We don't have that many five feets to give up out there any more," he said.
Successive photos, including several available today on The Daily Astorian's Web site, show the river's channel has continued to move away from the plant. But a smaller spit that helped protect from wave action in March is disappearing, and the higher high tides still lap at the sand bluffs sheltering the facility.
"The concern here is high tides and big storms," Wallace said. He worries that in a bad storm, waves could wash over the spit, over the bluffs and into the plant.
The only safeguard is an underground rock wall built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1949. It was constructed to protect the plant at another time when the river got too close. The wall is still intact, but Wallace is not sure it will hold against the forces of river and waves. The Corps used boulders that were only about two feet across to build the wall. He has filed for a Corps project to build another protective wall or create some other safeguard, but is not hopeful for funding this year.
The reason? Hurricane Katrina.
"My guess is that funding pool is going to dry up rather quickly this year," said Wallace, predicting many major Corps' projects for the Gulf Coast. "We'll count our blessings and keep an eye on our sewer plant."
He said the important factors are the size of the bluff and where the river channel is flowing. He is less concerned about waves washing against the bluff. "It's been fairly stable since we got the river channel to move away," he said. "That constant running of water by the sand really raised havoc with us."
He said the bluff will crumble eventually. "It's an open, exposed, steep sand embankment," Wallace said. "It doesn't take much wave action lapping at those sand banks."
Not an emergency - yetIf the rock wall collapses and the river starts damaging the plant, Wallace is sure the Corps will find funding to save Seaside from a sewage crisis.
"We get into an emergency situation, I'll make my presence known," he promised. He has previously stated that if he has to, he will do the work without waiting for permits and accept the fines or other penalties that result. However, he wants engineers to have time to plan and "really truly fix the problems out there."
Wallace is confident about the safety of nearby homes, especially because landowners installed a rock wall along their stretch of sand in the past.
Mayor Don Larson said Wallace has been keeping the council informed of the situation. "We are aware of it, the Corps is aware of it; we're not going to be hit suddenly," he said. "We are probably able to cut through some of the red tape with the Corps. Hopefully that will bring us some relief if there is an emergency out there."
City Councilor Diana Schafer agreed, and said the council has confidence that Wallace is in control of the situation. "Of course, we were really scared last year," she said. "We got a little respite, but we're not out of the woods yet ... We never know what that river's going to do."
Wallace said the channel of the river and several smaller spits and land features shift constantly. "It's a very dynamic situation out there," he said. "I think that's why the Corps of Engineers would really like to get in here." He called the intersection of the Pacific Ocean, the Necanicum River, the Neacoxie and Neawanna Creeks and the estuary "an engineer's dream."
"This area here is definitely subject to wave action," he said. "On a good high tide with some reasonable wave action, you could probably board right across and land at the high school."