Boaters planning to travel through Washington’s Swinomish Channel during their summer cruising will need to plan carefully and might even consider an alternate route.
The 11-mile channel will finally get the dredging it is overdue for, but the work isn’t expected to start until sometime in August — when boating season in the Northwest is well under way. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the channel dredging, anticipates putting the project out to bid next week and starting the work in August, said John Pell, the Corps navigation specialist handling the dredging project.
The work must be done during a “fish window,” a time of year when dredging and other in-water work can be done without harming aquatic life, which opens in mid-July. Dredging will start at the south end of the channel, where shoaling is the worst.
The shallowest spot is at the south end near Goat Island between Coast Guard Buoys #6 and #8. The depth there was measured at 6.5 feet (mean lower low water) during a 2010 survey, Pell said. The Corps plans to survey the channel in the next couple of weeks to see which areas are in most need of dredging, he said.
A 2010 study commissioned by the Port of Skagit found that without dredging, the channel would silt over by 2015. Boaters have been reporting shoaling in the channel for years, and the U.S. Coast Guard recently began including regular warnings about the waterway in its Local Notice to Mariners, advising that depths of up to two feet below what is charted have been observed in the south end of the channel near La Conner.
The channel, which runs from Padilla Bay in the north to Skagit Bay in the south, silts in rapidly from heavy sedimentation and needs dredging at least every three years. It was last dredged in 2008 and was due for additional dredging last year. The matter got entangled in federal politics for a time, but in February close to $2.3 million in federal funding was allocated for the work.
Though it’s not considered a heavily trafficked commercial waterway, the Swinomish Channel is a critical thoroughfare for about 25 marine businesses in the area. More than 500 workers depend on it for employment, according to the Port-commissioned study. The channel is also used by thousands of recreational boaters annually traveling to the islands and points beyond to avoid crossing the more hazardous Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The Port of Skagit is hoping the dredging schedule won’t discourage boaters from passing through the channel and visiting the Port-run La Conner Marina. Boaters can call the marina at 360.466.3118 for current channel conditions, Port spokesman Carl Molesworth said.
The marina has about 15 rendezvous scheduled this summer, more than usual, and Molesworth takes that as a good sign.
“It’s not like the channel is blocked for the summer. It’s still navigable,” he pointed out.
“One way or the other, we have to keep [the channel] open because that’s our investment. Otherwise, people don’t use the marina and it goes away.”