The Swinomish Channel will get the dredging it needs to avoid becoming impassable, thanks to almost $2.3 million in federal funding allocated for the work.
The channel was expected to silt over by 2015 without dredging, putting hundreds of jobs at risk and making it inaccessible to thousands of boaters who use it annually to get to and from the San Juan and Gulf islands.
But funding for the dredging was included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ work plan for 2012, which was provided to Congress this week. That was welcome news to Patsy Martin, executive director of the Port of Skagit.
“The Swinomish Channel is a vital inland marine waterway for this region,” she said. “Over 500 jobs depend directly on that waterway as a transportation corridor. It must be maintained.”
In recent months a coalition including the Port of Skagit, the town of La Conner, Skagit County, the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, state lawmakers, Indian tribes and a few local businesses has been working together to secure funding to dredge the channel.
Martin said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Lake Stevens) has been “very, very supportive” of those efforts. On Tuesday, Larsen’s office issued a press release emphasizing his support for funding the Swinomish work.
“This funding is a major boost for Western Skagit County, which depends on the Swinomish Channel as an economic driver,” Larsen said in a statement.
“The channel is overdue for maintenance, but this substantial investment will make sure it is fully dredged this year. I am pleased the Army Corps has recognized the value of this investment.”
In late December, the Army Corps, which is responsible for maintaining the channel, received $30 million in additional funding to maintain small harbors around the country. But given the Swinomish’s relatively low amount of commercial traffic, there was concern that dredging the waterway might be put off in favor of other projects.
Boaters have been reporting shoaling in the Swinomish Channel for months, leading the U.S. Coast Guard to include a regular warning about traversing the waterway in its Local Notice to Mariners.
Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said the group was “elated” to learn of the funding.
“The Swinomish Channel has been a high priority for our association,” she said. “This funding will restore critical access for commercial, recreational and tribal users of the waterway.”
The 11-mile artificial channel, which connects Padilla Bay in the north to Skagit Bay in the south, was completed in 1937. It is authorized to a depth of minus 12 feet below mean lower low water, but silts in quickly from heavy sedimentation and must be dredged at least every three years to prevent it from filling in.
The channel was last dredged in 2008 and was due for additional dredging last year. In the past, the dredging has been included in the Army Corps’ budget. But the Corps began restricting funding to projects with more than 10 million tons of waterborne commerce a year, and the Swinomish Channel did not meet that requirement.
A 2010 study commissioned by the Port of Skagit found that without dredging, the channel will fill in to a depth of minus two feet at the north end and the same depth in the south end by 2019. That would render the waterway impassable for virtually all vessels and potentially causing the loss of more than 500 jobs in the Skagit Valley, according to the study.
The dredging is expected to be done sometime during a “fish window” — a period of least impact for fish — between July 16 of this year and Feb. 14, 2013.