WARRENTON - Even as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works to bolster the wave-torn South Jetty with short-term repairs, engineers are looking into dealing with long-term problems that could, in the worst-case scenario, breach the jetty and stop all shipping on the Columbia River.
The jetties have received more extensive damage than usual, says Dave Hunt, executive director for the Columbia River Coalition, because of heavy winter storms.
"We've been having five-year storms almost every year," Hunt says.
The storms are pushing the large rocks around and causing holes that require immediate attention, as seen with the repairs currently happening.
Deeper waters on the ocean side of the jetties have also increased the impact of the waves. Currently, all three jetties - the South and North jetties and Jetty A - are significantly shorter than they once were.
"From a layman's point of view, it's past time to be working on it," said Columbia River Bar Pilot Thron Riggs.
The South Jetty has several holes in the top portion, one of which is receiving immediate attention, but repairs are needed along the whole barrier. At the end of the jetty, which is nearly a mile shorter than it was originally, the rocks have been pushed away, leaving only the concrete base.
The long-term repairs involve some reinforcement on the top of the jetty, but also some structural support below the water line.
The jetties help keep the heavy ocean waves from affecting boats on the Columbia, and also direct the flow of the river. By repairing the jetties, they can more effectively direct the water flow and maintain the depth of the channels, which would then require fewer maintenance dredgings.
"Once the jetty is fixed, this should not require near the level of annual maintenance," Hunt says.
If the jetties were to be breached, the channels could fill in with sand and would be impossible to maintain, stopping any shipping through the Columbia.
The project will not happen for two years, Hunt says, because the research on the jetties has only just begun.
Once Corps engineers have determined the extent of the damage, and a repair plan, the funding will need to be acquired. Hunt says that funding may be difficult because it comes from the same federal money directed to areas like New Orleans.
"We need to build as much enthusiasm and passion to fix the jetties as soon as possible," Hunt said at a presentation last month to the the Southwest Pacific-Peninsula Rotary Club in Long Beach, Wash.
Hunt said that the jetty improvements will benefit everyone working along the river, but crab fishermen are concerned.
Dale Beasley, a member of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association agrees that the jetties need repairing, but wants the Corps to deal with some of the "unintended consequences" of the jetty repairs.
"We support maintaining an effective jetty system on the Columbia, but there are some consequences in dealing with that that have been neglected in the past," Beasley said.
He would like to see an outside party research the river to determine a broader plan looking at various aspects, including dredging, the jetties and how this affects the waves.
Beasley is concerned about loss of sand in certain areas of the mouth that are not being filled and causing waves to hit the jetties even harder.
Beasley and other crab fishermen have protested the Corps' dredge spoils disposal sites. By dumping spoils in shallower waters, he says, the Corps created dangerous boating conditions.
"If you build too big of a mound off shore you're going to make a navigational hazard," Beasley said.
"There's going to be an impact of amplified waves from that mound."
Beasley would like the Corps to place the dredging spoils in an area that helps maintain and replenish the eroding coastal sands.
The Corps has been looking at a study to see if placing sand spoils in another location could replenish the eroding sands. The project is planned for the Benson Beach and has not yet been started.
"We're not quite sure what's causing the erosion," says Mike McAleer, public affairs specialist for the Corps. "Building in some sand might protect, but it's too early to call anything."
Jim Bergeron, president of the Port of Astoria Board of Commissioners, agrees that a more comprehensive plan is necessary for the Columbia, and would like to see action that alleviates the wave impact to the jetties.
"If something isn't done to attenuate those waves, these complete fixes and emergency fixes are going to have to occur more and more frequently," Bergeron says.
He would also like to see the Corps work on replenishing the eroding sands. Bergeron notes that many people, like Beasley, would like to use the sand that is collected from dredging.
"Sand is a valuable resource," Beasley says. "And we've got to put it where it can do the most good with the least impact."
Bergeron and Beasley both note that the Corps is limited by what they call a "least cost" policy, which prevents them from making a long-term plan.
McAleer says that the policy looks at the benefit and cost for a project, and determines how much can be done for the least amount of money to keep the jetty functioning.
Bergeron would like the Corps to expand their outlook for the long term.
"It doesn't make any sense to go do least cost this year and find out that you've got to rebuild the jetties in half the time that it used to take you and then find out that you've got to put millions of dollars on the shoreline," Bergeron says.
Research on the jetties and the sand deposits are still under way.
"We're early in the study," McAleer says. "We're not holding back, but we're just so early into the process that it's hard to tell."