Humboldt Bay harbor being dredged, but economy dry amid COVID-19

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Mixed clouds drift over Woodley Island Marina and Humboldt Bay. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard file)

Posted April 20, 2020

A heavily sediment-layered portion of Humboldt Bay is being dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, marking a victory for harbor officials amid huge economic losses from the coronavirus pandemic.

The harbor’s Eureka Channel is supposed to be 27 feet deep but shoaling, or sediment buildup, has rendered it as shallow as 10 feet in some parts. But the Army Corps of Engineers is dredging the area back to normalcy and paying a contractor $22 million to reconstruct the harbor’s jetties.

“It’s a little bit of good news in these days of sadness,” said Larry Oetker, executive director of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District.

Harbor-adjacent businesses have lost money during the pandemic. Oetker said the district will give those businesses additional months to pay their rent with no late fees. But he added that the district’s 400 leases comprise the majority of its yearly revenue.

“When this emergency goes away, we want our industry to come back strong,” Oetker said, adding that the ongoing dredging will ensure the channels are open for fishermen to immediately resume their season.

The dredging and jetty reconstruction are a huge boost for the cash-strapped harbor district, which announced a deficit of more than $700,000 during a meeting last year. Oetker said Humboldt Bay is receiving far more help this year than most other rural regions around the country.

“Congressman (Jared) Huffman and the Army Corps have been working together,” he said. “He’s been phenomenal with helping the district to secure these funds… He definitely came through.”

Oetker took “responsibility” for the district’s gaps in federal assistance during his early tenure as executive director, since “my background is not in port management and I was on a steep learning curve.”

“Eventually, I reached out to the Army Corps and said, ‘Look, I need some guidance — how does your system work?’ ”

Rep. Huffman said Thursday the harbor’s needs have occupied a large portion of attention as shoaling built up over the years.

“It’s a constant process of being a squeaky wheel for my district,” Huffman said. “There’s been a number of years where I’ve done all of that, only to be disappointed in the work plan that came out.”

But this year, the plan included “more of my priorities than I’ve seen before,” he said.

Economic loss from the virus is “my entire radar,” Huffman says, and the harbor’s concerns are high on the list.

But securing funding for the harbor is a “hard-won” victory, he said, adding that the Army Corps of Engineers recognize Humboldt Bay especially needs a functioning harbor.

“I think (the Army Corps) appreciate that it’s still a very vibrant, working waterfront,” Huffman said. “They consider the economic loss if things become un-navigable.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

Source: times-standard