“Without a navigable channel, we are going to lose our fishing, we are going to lose our recreation, we are going to lose our tourism, and the economic fallout from that will be huge,” declared Curry County Commissioner Chris Paasch.
Paasch’s warning came during a discussion of issues affecting the Rogue River at the Aug. 7 Curry County Board of Commissioners meeting in Gold Beach.
“The (Rogue) has received an inordinate amount of rock coming down it the last several years.” Paasch said. “We’ve started to look into how we can make changes to that and how we can correct it.”
Paasch said he contacted U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s office several times to prompt the congressman to speak with the Department of Transportation, instead of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to free up the permitting process for dredging.
“I’m afraid for the public,” Paasch said during a subsequent phone interview. “A boat could be unaware of the shoal in the (Port of Gold Beach) entrance and hit it at 20 to 30 knots, and people could suffer serious injuries.
“The losses sustained … because of the loss of recreation and fishing are devastating to the lifeblood of this county. The revenues lost cannot be regained. This river needs some attention and we need to restore it to its former greatness.”
The Corps of Engineers is in charge of keeping the Rogue River open from the mouth to the port’s business entrance, said Paasch. “The Corps of Engineers should keep the traditional channel clear up to Elephant Rock,” he said.
“That would traditionally ensure that the river flows freely and the mouth stays open.”
Dredging work conducted at the mouth of the harbor last month has “made it worse than it was. Someone from the federal level signed off on it, but the work wasn’t complete,” Paasch said.
In a video presentation during the commissioners’ meeting, Paasch showed drone footage of the Rogue River estuary area. First in the video was an overhead view of the former Mailboats property, which used to run a fleet carrying mail and tourists upriver.
The property’s docks were in a channel that had been 6 to 8 feet deep. In Paasch’s video, which was shot at a +1-foot tide, there was no visible channel. The pilings that moored the dock now were surrounded by sand.
Visible just downstream in Paasch’s video presentation was Lex’s Landing, an RV resort for fishermen on the north bank of the Rogue just upriver from the U.S. Highway 101 Patterson Bridge.
Larry Prestininzi, owner of Lex’s Landing, testified that when he arrived here in 2002, the winter-time river flows would need to be at 90,000 cubic feet per second to breach the concrete at the resort’s fish-cleaning stations. In 2008-09, he said, that number had dropped to 60,000 cubic feet per second.
“In the last few years since they took the dams out, a lot of this aggregate is moving down,” Prestininzi said. “This has been doubling every year in about the last five or six years.
“We have the premier salmon fishing river on our western seaboard. This is the place to fish, and the salmon are our livelihood in this county. There’s nowhere for these salmon to acclimate. The fishing is really slow this year.
“The water is 74 degrees in front of my place, a 20-degree difference from the ocean.”
Curry County Sheriff John Ward said the channel formerly went to the north of Elephant Island. He characterized fishing in the bay this season as “pretty slow, with a lot of moss” needing to be cleared frequently from bait rigs because the “water is so warm.”
“If something isn’t done in the next couple years, you won’t be able to get in and out of this port at all,” Ward said. “I agree and wholeheartedly support what the commission’s trying to do.”
Paasch next showed video of the entrance to the port, reporting that one of Jerry’s Jet Boats with passengers once tried to maneuver at low tide through the narrowed navigation channel and nosed into the gravel. It needed to reverse and repoint to negotiate a route out of the port.
Another portion of the video showed a large gravel bar, only slightly under water, covering nearly the entire width of the river in the area in front of The Landing restaurant and boat dock on Jerry’s Flat Road. Local resident David Barnes testified that at minus tide, the shoal in front of The Landing actually became an island, leaving only two small channels on either side.
He told the commissioners that only 18 fish were caught during the Curry Anadromous Fishermen’s three-day fishing derby held Aug. 2-4. “That’s down about 80 percent from last year,” said Jim Carey of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach, responding to a Pilot question regarding the number of fish caught in the derby.
“This is in the disaster category,” Commissioner Court Boice said. He has been a jet boat pilot and lived on the river his entire life.
According to the commission’s testimony, the Port of Brookings is having similar problems. Wintertime debris measurements normally have shown 4,000 tons coming down the Chetco River. This year, the debris was estimated at 40,000 tons in the Chetco estuary.
“While we are doing things for the Rogue, we probably need to do it for the Chetco, too,” Commissioner Sue Gold said.
Meanwhile, Lower Rogue Watershed Council coordinator Kelly Timchak offered her organization’s resources to the commission because that group collects water-quality data with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in the estuary and has a stakeholder group representing a variety of communities.
Timchak said recent temperature measurements in the estuary showed the water was “actually quite cold.”
“I wish people weren’t so adverse to changes and differences, because I know 60 years is a long time, but it’s not.” Timchak said. “I’m not against doing something. I just say let’s think about it before we do it.
“Because I have photos from 1939 forward and anyone can look at them. That river has been full of sediment before, and (then) not full of sediment. There’s giant gravel bars and there’s no gravel bars.”
“We would like to have help from the watershed (council),” Boice responded.
Responding to The Pilot’s queries regarding the Army Corp of Engineers’ dredging operations this year, Public Affairs Specialist Jeffrey Henon said:
“In order for the corps to dredge a location, we need both authorization and funding from Congress. We are authorized to dredge the Rogue River entrance, Gold Beach boat basin and access channel. We do not have authority to dredge further upriver.”
For that matter, the Corps of Engineers does not have funding for any additional dredging in 2019, said Henon.
The cost to dredge the boat basin entrance and access channel is about $2 million, which is separate from the Corps of Engineers’ typical annual dredging of the Rogue River entrance. Funding requests to Congress are made two years in advance.
“The shoaling (gravel bars) that occurred in front of the Gold Beach boat basin was unexpected,” Henon said. “Due to the urgency, we were able to find some funding for emergency dredging. But this isn’t always possible.
“We worked with the Port of Gold Beach to determine the highest-priority area to focus on with the limited funding we had.”
A spokeswoman with Congressman DeFazio’s office said he is working on bipartisan legislation that may offer a solution.
DeFazio chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. According to his office, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund collects more revenue from shippers than Congress has appropriated for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. H.R. 2440, the Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act, would unlock billions in already collected fees to maintain federal ports and harbors.
Approximately $9.3 billion collected already is in the U.S. Treasury and not being used for its intended purpose, said DeFazio’s office.
He is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting from 5-6 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Curry Public Library in Gold Beach, and 10:30-11:30 a.m. Aug. 28 at the Chetco Community Public Library in Brookings. The topic will be transportation and infrastructure issues, which covers local port matters.