It's time for the Corps and others to develop a sediment management planStrange to say, but much of the Lower Columbia's history and economy involves sediment. We are reaching an important milestone in how we think about and manage sediment. We are beginning to treat it as an asset.

This was not always the case. In the century following 1792, when Capt. Robert Gray became the first captain of European descent to cross the Columbia bar, sediment was an enemy to be overcome. The shifting shoals and sandbars of the estuary made for treacherous navigation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carried out work that can fairly be called heroic. The Corps tamed the estuary and bar, establishing the river's south channel as the key point of access for the Columbia region.

With the benefit of hindsight we can observe many consequences, winners and losers. One unforeseen result was the creation of accreted beach and dunes on the Long Beach Peninsula starting early in the last century. Perhaps more deliberately, the north side of the estuary in essence became a vast sediment disposal and holding area.

Move ahead another century and consequences continue to play out. With jetties blasting fine sediments out into deep waters and the Corps dumping much material out of reach of the wave system, erosion is marching north along the peninsula. Millions in expenses are being racked up as Washington State Parks relocates campgrounds and utilities as a major part of its flat land disappears at Cape Disappointment. Studies show Clatsop beaches are also in jeopardy.

Thanks to a five-year state-federal study, we know this region is at the point of noticing a tremendous deficit in sediment. In other words, there isn't enough arriving on beaches to sustain them.

Into this situation, the Corps and upriver ports blindly rode with their plan to take many additional millions of cubic yards of sediment out of the beach-building system while further filling in remaining bays on both sides of the river. Economic benefits flow upriver, while the people and habitat of the estuary get leftovers.

State environmental agencies, this newspaper and others have strenuously advocated a regional sediment management plan, treating this beach-building material as a valuable resource instead of as garbage dumped on crab and lost to beaches.

The Corps of Engineers is showing signs of hearing this message. It conducted a workshop last week in Ilwaco, Wash., to help establish a framework for addressing sediment issues. This is commendable.

It's time to set animosity and old fights aside as we come together to grapple with a set of issues that will literally determine the shape of this region for decades to come. But we must ensure the Corps and its allies aren't merely selling us a bill of goods while conducting business as usual.


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