Mayor ready to do jail time for dredging

Barbara Leff

DEPOE BAY — Declaring her intent to save the town’s harbor from an onslaught of muddy silt, Mayor Barbara Leff said she would do anything — including jail time — to dig the harbor out of trouble following a futile plea for help to federal officials.

“We’ve done all the political things we can to get the harbor dredged,” stated Leff in the wake of a Sept. 21 meeting with Congressional proxies and top managers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Now it’s time for some creative approaches.”

Harbor authorities say silt spilling from an overloaded check dam is raising the seafloor of the six-acre harbor, leaving the state’s largest charter fleet at the mercy of tides to reach a key fuel dock.

It is just a matter of time, they warn, before the port becomes unusable to hundreds of commercial, charter and private boats that rank it above Yaquina Bay for sport fishing and whale watching, according to state fish and wildlife data.

The meeting, organized by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Portland office, drew about two dozen “stakeholders” to the town’s 80-year-old community hall. Many local and state leaders hoped the Portland-based Army engineers would bow to calls for emergency dredging, but that was not the case.

“From the Corp’s perspective, we have to work within the rules and legal constraints,” explained Kevin J. Brice, deputy district engineer for project management, after the meeting. “From a national perspective, Depoe Bay is a small harbor. Tonnage of cargo is the metric, and Depoe Bay doesn’t compete well.”

Depoe Bay was the only port on Oregon’s west coast that failed to get federal dredging funds in 2018. Officials would not commit to dredging the harbor in 2019, either. Corps officials estimate the cost of dredging the harbor and check dam at $900,000.

“The budget process is complicated,” said Brice, a civilian who works for the Army colonel in charge of Oregon ports and waterways, including the Columbia River. “We cannot predict when the funding will be available to dredge Depoe Bay. We’ll continue to request funds, and do the best we can in presenting the picture.”

Field agents for Congressman Kurt Schrader took notes at the event, which was closed to the press. Stacey Jochimsen, an aide to Sen. Merkley, said the meeting was called “to get everybody on the same page after reading an article in the News-Times.”

State Rep. David Gomberg called the meeting “an excellent conversation,” but some of those attending didn’t like the script. Fish plant operator Geoff Mulfino blasted regulatory roadblocks that dissuade the city from undertaking the dredging itself, arguing that an inexpensive gold dredge could do the job of clearing a channel to the gas dock.

“The problem is the tailings, and all the permits and EPA regulations that go along with it,” he said, condemning the paperwork and potential penalties for circumventing the bureaucracy. “This is a simple thing, but they’ve got to drop all the rules for drums and space suits.”

Senator Merkley issued a comment following the meeting, saying he was “disappointed” the port had not been dredged despite his best efforts to obtain funding.

“My office is dedicated to working with the community to find a solution to the immediate dredging issue,” he stated, “and to ensuring this critical maintenance of all Oregon’s small ports is adequately funded.”

The mayor said she was left with no answers to the crisis, which cuts to the core of the town’s tourist-based economy.

“We can’t wait,” she said. “We’ll grab buckets and dig our way out, if that’s what it takes. At this point, I’ll go to jail if I have to.”

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