Despite studies indicating that deepening the navigation channel into Grays Harbor would not cause significant impacts, concern remains around one industry: Harbor shellfish growers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting last Thursday to take comments on a project to deepen the channel to its legally authorized depth of 38 feet. The channel was deepened to 36 feet in 1990, but the Port of Grays Harbor asked the Corps in 2005 to consider deepening it again. In 2009, the Corps determined there was a federal interest in doing so, and the process of updating the Environmental Impact Statement began.
Brady Engvall, owner of Brady’s Oysters, said he’s worried about the indirect impact on shellfish growers.
“You have to understand, in order to grow oysters, to have productive shellfish beds, they have to be protected from wind and waves,” Engvall explained. For that, many growers rely on spits to shelter their beds.
“So in 1990, shellfish growers commented on the deeper draft project,” he continued. “Our concerns were deepening, widening and straightening (the channel) would bring more energy (from water currents) into the bay. As more energy came into the bay, these fragile sand dunes, which we call spits, would eventually be eroded way. Our protection would be lost. So what happened was exactly what we commented on in the deep draft project.”
Engvall said after the channel was deepened to 36 feet, Whitcomb Spit near the mouth of the Harbor was largely washed away, and about 200 acres of oyster beds were lost.
He called on the Port and the Corps to do more studies on the impacts on the shellfish industry.
“Without the study, we’ll never be able to make our case before the Corps, the Port and possibly the court,” Engvall said.
Ron Figlar-Barnes, a former Port Commission candidate, concurred.
“Brady and the oyster growers here, the shellfish growers, they deserve being here. This is their home, too,” he said. “It’s taking the livelihoods of other individuals to support the Port.”
“We’ve been studying this, reviewing it for a number of years,” Port Commission President Stan Pinnick said.
Pinnick said he was confident the Corps would address all the concerns before moving the project forward.
On Engvall’s comments, he said, “I’m aware of his concern and it’s a valid one.”
Port Commission Secretary Chuck Caldwell said he wasn’t aware spits had washed away. He said he planned to go out and take a look for himself. “They’ve been there for years,” Caldwell said. “If they’re gone, there’s a reason for that.”
Scott Brown, a coastal hydraulic engineer for the Corps, said he was aware of changes in the spits, and the possible contribution of the channel depth to those changes. “It’s certainly a factor,” he said. “We know the wave energy is changing.”
Only one speaker favored the project unequivocally. Ole Mackey of Port Machine Works, Inc. in Aberdeen said deepening the navigation channel would be vital for the Port and Grays Harbor community to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized marketplace.
“It was a good thing then, it’s better now,” Mackey said of the two efforts to deepen the channel, citing the increased diversity of Port business. “We have to participate in the world markets, and this is our opportunity to move forward.”
Project Manager Josh Jackson said deepening the channel would improve efficiency at the Port significantly — to the tune of $4.4 million every year. Right now, many vessels can’t be loaded to their full capacity, or have to wait on the tides — sometimes for days — in order to move in and out of the Harbor.
“It matters because it reduces the efficiency of shipping, it increases the costs of shipping, which ultimately increases the cost of the goods being shipped,” Jackson said.
He reiterated several times that the deepened channel would only allow existing vessels to use the Port more efficiently, not allow any new types of vessels to come in. The economic analysis relied only on current Port commodities, not proposed crude oil shipping.
Corps experts on hand to answer questions said the salinity of the water in the Harbor would not measurably change with two feet of additional depth, and the water level in the flats would not change. The use of clamshell dredges should keep impacts to less than 1 percent of the total Dungeness crab population, they said.
Project documents are available online at http://1.usa.gov/MS6jUw.