Port managers, U.S. and state congressmen and scores of concerned citizens met Wednesday in Brookings to discuss ideas to obtain port-dredging funds since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared last year that the agency no longer has money to dredge most of Oregon's ports.
"If we don't come up with a way to dedicate money, we're going to spend the summer risking our lives trying to operate," said Chris Aiello of the Port Orford Ocean Resources Team (POORT). "We need some solution by next summer. I suggest you gentlemen get to work. We need it now."
A standing-room-only room addressed U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, State Sen. Jeff Kruse and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. John Kitzhaber's offices. Most of them agreed there are things they might be able to do to help the ports, including making permitting easier and continuing their work with Congress to get funding.
Several new ideas were introduced, including consolidating with other ports to have more clout at the state and federal tables.
The newly formed Five Ports Group, including the ports of Brookings Harbor, Gold Beach, Bandon, Port Orford and Umpqua, has already formed to do so at a more regional level. And while DeFazio said that's a great start, he also suggested they work with bigger ports from areas as far-flung as Louisiana and the Great Lakes.
"This is not just about these five Oregon ports," DeFazio said. "This is not just about Oregon ports. This is not a one-state problem, or a tri-state problem. It's the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes region."
Another idea could be to include "21st-century solutions" such as incorporating wave energy technology into jetties to generate energy and simultaneously flush silt out, others said.
Ports should work to forge alliances with the state to obtain grants. They could pool their resources and purchase their own dredging machines. Protecting upstream tributaries and estuaries could improve the "gravel-churning" river waters.
Or, as DeFazio has been working on, Congress could agree with him to allow the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to truly serve as a dedicated source of funding for harbors, instead of siphoning it to unrelated projects.
The Army Corps has a $62 billion backlog on infrastructure-related projects on dams, levees, reservoirs, ports and locks throughout the nation, leaving Oregon's smallest ports without any funding to dredge their ports.
Army Corps Col. John Eisenhauer told DeFazio last year that small ports along Oregon's coast combined do not fit criteria -international tonnage coming into the ports -for those dollars.
In 2010, the Army Corps reported that 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at U.S. ports were constrained due to inadequate channel depths. Despite a backlog of dredging projects, only about half of the money collected in that fund recent years has been used for that purpose.
DeFazio signed onto a bill last year by Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, that proposed to change that. But the final bill signed into law instead included much weaker language that indicated funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund 'should' -instead of the original wording, 'shall' only go to dredging and ports efforts, according to The Advocate, a Baton Rouge, La., newspaper.
"As is always the case in legislation, the difference between 'should' and 'shall' is incredibly significant," a column from August 2012 reads.
The smaller ports bring in millions of dollars to the state, as well, and provide a livelihood for thousands. Salmon fishing in Brookings brings in 51 percent of all that caught along the Oregon coast last year, said Port of Brookings Harbor Manager Ted Fitzgerald; crab is king in Port Orford, noted Port of Port Orford Manager Sam Scaffo.
Some argued to the panel that fishing is the last economic driver remaining since forests have been all but removed from the portfolio.
Of more immediate concern in Port Orford is that ,at low tide, very little water flows through the channel. The situation there, fishermen and port officials told the panel, has gotten to the point where they risk their lives every time they try to go to sea.
"We have been hearing, 'We want innovative ideas -but wait!'" said Tom Calvanese, a member of Citizens to Keep the Port in Port Orford, another advocacy group. "I'd prefer not to wait until we have something tragic happen at the dock. I'm not willing to wait until someone dies. I don't find that acceptable."
Tyson Rasor, ecosystems project manager with POORT, said fishermen have broken bones in their hands and masts on their vessels trying to dock at Port Orford. He said he puts the lives of researchers in danger every time he heads to sea.
Obtaining permits for dredging has also become increasingly difficult over the years, with more oversight committees and hoops through which to jump. Elected officials on the panel said they would be willing to work with agencies involved to see how that process might be streamlined.
Jeff Griffin, a representative from Kitzhaber's office, said there are "unallocated bonding" monies available in the governor's budget for which ports might be eligible.
Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman suggested those seeking funds venture into non-traditional arenas, such as economic development, or if new technology such as wave energy can be included, they could seek "green technology" funding.