Mission: Secure dredge funds

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 25, 2013 10:38 pm

Peter Defazio
Peter Defazio
Participants of the Oregon Kitchen Table study say they have little appetite for cutting more from the county budget — but results indicate there is no clarity about how other revenue would be raised.

The only thing respondents overwhelmingly agreed on is that Curry County is on the wrong track, said Wendy Willis, who helped head up the project.

“The citizenry has failed to acknowledge, or has ignored, the reality of the current county services funding crisis,” a general synopsis of comments indicated. “That failure is demonstrated in the failure to pass funding measures on past ballots.”

The county has until March 2 to decide if it will put a tax measure on the May ballot. In the meantime, commissioners agreed, they have a lot of citizen education — and trust-building — to do.

The Kitchen Table Project is a collaboration of state and local agencies — using Curry County as a pilot project — to assess public opinion about county services. It was also crafted to test the waters regarding how different funding scenarios — property or sales taxes — would sit with voters, considering the county faces a $3 million budget shortfall.

“The dearth of dredging at Oregon’s small coastal ports isn’t a result of intentional neglect by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” DeFazio said. “For the last two decades, every administration, Republican and Democratic, has zeroed out funding for small port dredging in Oregon, failing to fund even the most critical dredging projects.”

Last November, 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.

House Republicans banned direct funding, or earmarks, in 2011 – a process through which DeFazio had been successful in obtaining Army Corps of Engineers funds to dredge ports. The elimination of earmarks and tight Army Corps budgets have reduced dredging operations needed on the coast, in some cases, creating dire situations.

Fishing in Port Orford, for example, represents 30 percent of the area’s economic activity; the channel has not been dredged since 2010. Silt accumulation there has resulted in a channel depth of about 2 feet, rendering it virtually inaccessible to boats.

“These ports are critical lifelines that fuel local economies,” DeFazio said. “They keep hundreds of fishermen working; they keep communities alive.”

“We have lots of ideas, just very little money,” said Gary Anderson, manager for the Port of Port Orford. “We’ll be there to see what the best avenue might be.”

He’s heard conflicting opinions about the use of a floating dredge, and also hopes to work with the state to redesign the jetty, whose design exacerbates silt collection there.

“Maybe he has some funding ideas,” Anderson said. “He’s well aware of the problem; he’s been very helpful to Port Orford in the past. I’d like to see a solution to the problem.”

“When the feds come down here, you want to root for the Port of Port Orford and they tell you you need to speak out about your own ports,” said Port of Gold Beach Manager Debbie Collins. “It’s hard to do when you see someone else in really bad shape.”

DeFazio also wants to explore new ideas stakeholders might have.

“It’s clear that after 20 years of these budget battles we desperately need a new approach,” DeFazio said. “This meeting is an opportunity for stakeholders and the public to present ideas and forge a long-term solution that ensures these ports get the dredging they desperately need.”

Port of Brookings Harbor Manager Ted Fitzgerald will present his idea to merge dredging operations in the area to reduce costs to all involved.

“I’ve been talking about forming a consortium to share expenses,” he said. “If we work together, we can address our needs.”

That consortium, which would includes Brookings, Gold Beach, Port Orford, Coos Bay and most recently, Umpqua, hopes to conduct a dredging-needs survey, Collins said.

“Just on the (Rogue) river itself; the jet boats get 30,000 people a year,” she said. “There’s a pretty big impact. A lot of people are concerned about the ports.” 

The port in Harbor used FEMA funds to dredge the last of the debris the March 11, 2011, tsunami brought into the channel. But instead of vacuuming the material onto land, as is typically done, silt and cobble were transported via a mile-long pipe over the ocean waves to an EPA-approved dump site. The operation removed an estimated 28,000 cubic yards of debris.

It had never been done before, and with the exception of a couple weak links in the 12-inch diameter pipes during rough waves that caused the pipes to break apart, it was deemed highly successful.

Even as the vacuums were chugging away, Fitzgerald stood on the north jetty and wondered aloud why the dredging operation couldn’t just hop up the coast and help Port Orford.

“In the southern part of the state, it’s really not cost effective to hire contractors from long distances away,” he said. “All the ports are underfunded, and we haven’t been able to address dredging needs for many years.”

DeFazio has used his seniority to secure funding for dredging in the seven small ports in his district. In 2009 and 2010, he obtained more than $16 million for projects in Brookings, Gold Beach, Port Orford, Bandon, Coos Bay, Umpqua and Siuslaw.

DeFazio has led the fight to ensure funds deposited into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund are spent on harbor-related infrastructure projects and do not sit idle in the fund. He is sponsoring similar legislation in this Congress, believing that smaller ports must receive their fair share from the fund.

Other ideas have run from an admittedly facetious idea to host a sand castle-building event last summer to bring silt from the channel onto the beach to the barely workable, and other suggestions are few and far between.

“All I’ve heard of is increased lobbying efforts to get federal funds,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know how effective that would be with the fiscal outlook of the federal government. I’m just looking for a Band-Aid that’ll get us through the next few years. And I don’t see it working unless everyone works together.”