When the Yaquina dredge pulled into the Port of Brookings Harbor earlier this month, port Director Ted Fitzgerald was surprised.
“I’ve always been known as a whiner,” he said. “And I’ve been whining. We’ve been leading a big push between here and Salem, mostly on behalf of Port Orford, to (obtain funds for dredging).”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ officials have said for the past year the agency has no money to dredge Oregon’s smaller ports, including those in Curry County: Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford.
Port Orford fishermen were also surprised — and a bit angry — to learn of the dredging operations in the Port of Brookings Harbor.
The situation is particularly dire in the formerly deep-water port, where boats must now be hauled out by night as the channel is too shallow to navigate.
“Everyone else gets emergency dredging,” said Chris Aiello, a fisherman in Port Orford. “You guys (Brookings) gets dredged. Gold Beach gets dredged. How many times does Port Orford get left out? We should’ve been first on that list.”
It’s not just economics, but safety, Aiello said.
“I put my life and entire boat at risk,” he said of the dangers of taking the boats in and out of the water. “And the dredge season is half over — what am I supposed to do this December? It kind of works for everyone but Port Orford.”
Fitzgerald has no idea how the Corps determined Brookings Harbor was next on the priority list, he said in answer to a question at the port meeting.
“You’re asking questions that deal with the dark art of federal funding,” he said with a laugh. “Our problem is not as drastic as Port Orford and Gold Beach. How they determine which ports get funding. … The last thing I heard was the federal government was out of money. The next thing I hear is, ‘We’ve got $500,000; we’re coming down.’”
Fitzgerald said the Port of Brookings Harbor might have been given higher priority because it brings in the biggest hauls of salmon in the state and the second largest of crab, exceeded only by the crab catch in Port Orford.
“You ask the Corps how they do it (prioritize ports) and they won’t tell you,” Fitzgerald said. “I know. I’ve asked.”
The funding might have come from a water resources bill approved by the U.S. Legislature in May and allocated money to small, shallow-draft ports.
That bill was crafted after a meeting in February during which port managers, U.S. and state congressmen and scores of concerned citizens met to demand a solution before this summer.
Legislators, port directors, and numerous other fisheries and elected officials have been working to secure money and come up with solutions. Ideas presented at the February meeting included working with ports in similar situations throughout the nation, pooling resources to purchase dredge equipment for use at the regional level, applying for grants and even using wave energy to flush silt from basins, channels and bars.
Brookings Harbor had its basins dredged last summer using a new technique involving pumping gravel and sand through miles of pipeline from the port to an EPA dump site offshore. That operation was needed as a final cleanup from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
In the interim, other smaller ports were ignored.
And last week, the Yaquina loomed into view over the horizon toward Brookings. It worked the channel for two days and just as mysteriously disappeared out to sea.
Fitzgerald is unsure how much material the dredge removed from the channel, but typically it’s about 35,000 cubic yards.
“All I know is the Yaquina showed up and dredged our bar and channel,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just glad they showed up.”