PORTLAND, Ore. — During violent winter storms, waves taller than the length of six king-sized beds stacked end-to-end (40 feet) can meet the Columbia River as it makes its way out to the Pacific Ocean. This concentrated colliding of water makes crossing the bar incredibly dangerous, according to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. So precarious, in fact, that this channel had a nickname, “the graveyard of the Pacific,” at least until the U.S. government built critical infrastructure to reduce some of the risk.
Since the late 1800s, the U.S. sought to reduce the destruction these waves cause at the mouth of the Columbia River and gave that mission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District. The Corps built a system of three jetties, Jetty “A,” North Jetty and South Jetty, from 1885-1939 to protect shipping. But those waves are wearing, and the jetties need constant care to ensure the dependability of an estimated $21 billion worth of goods that flow up and down the river annually.
The Corps has been rehabbing the jetty system for the last several years (completing work on Jetty “A” in 2018 and North Jetty in 2019) and just started work on South Jetty in June. On Aug. 31, the Corps, the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), the U.S. Coast Guard and several members of Congress gathered to commemorate that progress.
“By rehabilitating this jetty, we ensure reliability of this door, this gateway to the Columbia River,” said Kevin Brice, Portland District deputy district engineer. “The amount of wheat, the amount of soybean, the amount of material that goes through this jetty system to the world is extremely important.”
The Corps estimates that it will complete rehabilitation on South Jetty by 2024 and will use 400,000 tons of stone. The group was able to see some of the work as contractors placed rock in the background. So far, the Corps has placed more than 14,000 tons of stone at South Jetty.
“These jetties, whether folks realize it or not, they are not just a simple line of rocks stretching out into the ocean,” said Kristin Meira, PNWA executive director. “They really are what is keeping this entire, mostly export gateway, intact,” she continued. “Over 40,000 jobs are reliant on these jetties doing their work.”
Lack of jetty maintenance could impact those jobs, because even with their protection, “the Columbia River Bar is the world’s most dangerous entrance to a major commercial waterway,” according to Portside the Port of Portland’s monthly periodical.
Senator Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Jaime Herrera Beutler attended the event to see what their legislative funding efforts were supporting.
“The jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River are a marvel of engineering that sustains the shipping, navigation, and fishing industries throughout the region,” said Bonamici. “I have consistently called for full funding for the needed rehabilitation of this critical infrastructure. It’s exciting to see the work beginning where the mighty Columbia meets the Pacific.”
The Corps is spending $140 million to rehabilitate the 6-mile-long South Jetty.