Reps urge Obama to fund port dredging

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer November 23, 2012 10:39 pm

Oregon’s five Northwest Delegation members, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, have sent a letter to President Obama asking for funding to dredge the state’s small ports, including the Port of Port Orford.

The letter highlights the local, regional and national benefits small ports provide and the critical role they play in their communities.

Fishing in that area supports about 30 percent of the area’s economy, said City Councilman and County Commissioner-elect David Brock Smith. He noted that the port maintenance fund budget has been slashed, and that if nothing changes, the only small ports to be dredged will be in Portland and Coos Bay.

The Port of Port Orford is unique in that it has no harbor so it is directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean. It is also the only port on West Coast that uses a dolly dock to retrieve boats out of the water once they enter the port. 

According to port officials, it hosts 60 commercial fishing vessels that employ 120 individuals. Their catch value was $5 million last year. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon State University have also based research operations there to study the new Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. 

The Army Corps of Engineers this summer announced there wasn’t enough money to fund dredging of the port, which must be dredged every two years due to silt build-up.

Ironically, the silt builds up because of an Army Corps project that extended the jetty to protect the port there.

“Administration after administration, regardless of party, has failed to budget needed funds for even the most modest of dredging projects in this area despite having research in hand that clearly demonstrates its own past construction work exacerbates the need for ongoing dredging,” DeFazio wrote in a letter to the Corps this summer. “We have had to fight nearly every year to secure funds in the congressional budget process for this work.”

The port there hasn’t been dredged since 2009, and now the channel is about two feet deep, preventing boats from coming into harbor except on high tides. That, too, can present maritime dangers, if mariners decide to stay in the ocean until the next high tide and the weather changes, Smith said.

“Enough is enough,” DeFazio said earlier this month. “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.”

“In fiscal year 2013, most of the small ports on the Oregon and Washington coasts were zeroed out in the Administration’s budget,” said Natalie Whitlock, membership manager of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. “Now that we’ve entered the second year without earmarks, the pain is starting to set in.”

She said in the 2012 and 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations bills, both the House and Senate recognized the lack of funding, and both included $30 million of operations and maintenance funding specifically for small ports.

Congress even included in the 2013 bills language directing the Office of Management and Budget to provide more funding for the nation’s small ports. 

The letter submitted Nov. 20 reinforces this message. Fiscal year 2014 funds are released next February.

“Northwest small ports, their tenants and supporting businesses provide family wage jobs and economic development activity in communities struggling to achieve an economic recovery,” Whitlock said. “Despite the important role they play in our region and nation, their affiliated federal navigation channels and jetties remain vastly underfunded.”

“Whether it’s maintaining jetties or dredging harbors, keeping coastal ports open for business is a federal obligation,” Wyden said. “Ensuring that ports such as Port Orford remain operational helps drive the local economy, save existing jobs, create new jobs and generate economic development at a time we need it most.”