Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) was said to have "blasted" Col. John Eisenhauer of the Army Corps of Engineers Thursday for failing to help Port Orford dredge its port of sand.
The channel is 750 feet long, 150 wide and, until recently, 16 feet deep. In the past two years, sand has accumulated, reducing the depth from 1 to 2 feet; at low tide, one can walk from the end of the jetty to the port.
DeFazio has asked Eisenhauer to meet at a yet-to-be-determined date with local, county, state and federal officials to come to a long-term solution for dredging.
The Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have the funding to dredge small ports, said Eisenhauer, who is the commander and district engineer of the Portland district of the Corps.
Adding to the difficulty of obtaining funds, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives placed a ban on earmarks, which DeFazio has used to get funding in the past.
He berated the Corps engineer, saying the Corps 500-foot extension of a breakwater in 1968 to minimize wave damage is to blame for the sand accumulation and therefore, the Corps should be held to a "higher obligation" in its solution.
A 1981 study indicated that while breakwaters are often beneficial, they must be built on a certain kind of soil, or other remedial action andndash; dredging andndash; must be taken later.
"Enough is enough," DeFazio said. "These federal funds are essential to keep our ports open and safe and to ensure Oregon's coastal communities are able to thrive."
"It's irresponsible for the federal government to walk away from its long-standing obligations to maintain smaller ports without working diligently to find a long-term solution for these communities. Coastal communities can't wait any longer. We need a plan now."
"All the engineering models in the world didn't account for problems that were going to occur," said Port Orford City Councilman David Brock Smith. "It never needed to be dredged until 1969."
The jetty began capturing sand on northward currents and, until 2009, the Corps dredged it to keep the channel open.
"They've been good about fixing it every year, year after year, by taking the sand out," said Port of Port Orford commissioner Sam Scaffo. "Now what are we going to do? I don't know."
DeFazio dismissed the Corps' contention that the port does not compete well under the Army Corps' criteria for national economic significance. He said he also understood the Corps has asked state and local entities to find their own solutions.
They plan to, as the port is critical to the town's economic survival, Smith said.
Later this month, fishermen will conduct a "propeller wash," by tying their boats up to the seawall, lifting their engines and revving their propellers in an attempt to whisk the sand back out to sea.
"It sounds kind of silly," Scaffo said. "But it is a bona fide technology. You can cut somewhat of a channel, a small, little, narrow thing. We've just never tried it on a scale like this before. But crab season opens at the end of November."
This summer, a group called Keep the Port in Port Orford even held a community awareness rally and invited the public to the port to build castles using sand they dug from the channel. It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, Scaffo said, but more than 300 people showed up.
"There are small answers," Scaffo said. "We could team up with the Port of Brookings Harbor. We could get into buying equipment, but we don't have that kind of money. It's kind of scary."
Smith acknowledges money is in short supply.
"The Port Maintenance Fund budget was slashed," he said. "Next year, the only ports to be dredged will be Portland and Coos Bay. There is no foreseeable dredging in any other ports in the near future."
Life without a port?
Smith and others in town worry about the future of Port Orford without a port.
The fishing industry alone brings in about 30 percent of the immediate area's income.
"The reason those dollars are important is that those dollars are new money," Smith said. "If you go to Ray's, you spend your money and they pay their employees. This comes from outside the area. It's millions of dollars."
Its effects can rage through town like a winter storm.
"Everything is intricately connected," Smith said. "These boats come with families. If the boats have to move to Newport or Brookings to go crabbing, they take with them their children andndash; students. Based on state calculations, that's $6,000 a student. You lose 10 students, you lose a teacher."
The shallow channel also limits the amount of time fishermen can ply their trade.
"They only have a four- to six-hour window to go fishing because of the tides," Smith said. "They have to get back in before the tide goes back out. It creates a serious economic challenge for sports fishermen."
That's not enough time for fishermen to get out to the bountiful Orford Reef, either.
Consequently, maritime safety could become an issue, Smith said. If a boat captain decides to go to sea and return on the next high tide 12 hours later, he risks facing a change in weather.
"The weather around here can whip up really fast," Smith said. "If a storm whips up, you're stuck in the elements. You can't come into safe harbor, and we're a harbor of safe refuge."
Scaffo laughed when asked what the community will do, particularly in light of tight finances.
"Isn't that the question," he said. "We haven't hit that silver bullet to remove the amount of sand the Army Corps can."
One idea they've contemplated is the solution the Port of Brookings Harbor used this summer to dredge sand from its boat basins. It involved sucking sand brought in with last year's tsunami and pumping it a mile out to sea in 12-inch diameter pipes. The port ran into its share of minor problems, but the solution andndash; the first of its kind in the nation andndash; has resulted in deep, clean basins,
Friday, cranes lifted a boat from its trailer at the Port of Port Orford and lowered it into the rising water, as they have every morning for years to get the boats out fishing and earning money. At night, the process is reversed.
"But when you put them in the water, there has to be water," Scaffo said. "There are literally times now, right where that crane puts a boat down, you're looking at dry sand. It's just shrinking and shrinking. Left unchecked, it'll be nothing."