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Retreat or Fight? Fastest Erosion on U.S. West Coast Chews at Southwest Washington

This will probably be the next in a long series of homes to fall into the sea at Washaway Beach, Washington. Photo by Tom Banse.

September 27, 2016 - 7:00 am

The Washington State Department of Ecology says the fastest erosion on the West Coast is happening at aptly named Washaway Beach. That’s located between the southwest Washington towns of Grayland and Tokeland. Coastal erosion threatens not just homes and a vital highway, but now the multi-million dollar cranberry industry too.

Most places threatened by erosion try to fight back. As correspondent Tom Banse reports, the erosion at Washaway Beach is so rapid, to retreat or fight is in question.

Transcript:

First the ocean took a clam cannery. Then a lighthouse, a Coast Guard station and homes slipped into the waves. Then the ocean washed away the cove that gave the community of North Cove its name. The coastal erosion at this spot: unstoppable for decades. The school succumbed. Then the Grange hall, a post office and more and more homes. Now cranberry grower David Cottrell worries about his bogs. They begin slightly more than half a mile from the present shoreline.

David Cottrell: “Like New Orleans, when the water goes over the top of a dike that you’ve been looking at all of your life, which it’s never done before, it’s hard to imagine the consequences. I don’t know what is going to happen. But I know it’s going to be hundreds and hundreds of acres of land that gets flooded with saltwater.”

Saltwater would kill the fresh water-dependent cranberries.

The Grayland, Washington area has long been one of the centers of cranberry production in the Northwest. Third generation grower Cottrell says Native Americans harvested wild cranberries around here long before white settlers arrived.

David Cottrell: “This is something that has been here thousands of years. If it is lost, it’s not coming back.”
“There’s nothing like fresh cranberries,” added Connie Allen, Cottrell’s wife. “Those came perhaps from this farm right here.”

The rerouted state highway SR 105 serves as a dike and the last line of defense for the low-lying cranberry bogs. There’s a thin strip of land dotted with homes on the other side. That’s shrinking as the tidal channel at the entrance to Willapa Bay migrates north and cuts into it. Winter storms combined with tidal forces chew off an average of 100 to 200 feet per year. Retiree Jim Northup has calculated how long before the rapid erosion reaches his place, a block and a half removed from where other homes now teeter on the brink.

Jim Northup: “I figure my cabin has got between three to five years. In December, I’ll be 81 years old. So I don’t know which one is going first. It don’t make much difference. I’m not worried about it.”

Tom (slightly amazed): “You have a really good attitude about this!”

Jim Northup: (with a big belly laugh) “Well, what can you do? Who is going to help this?”

Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Ayers has observed reactions like that and more, everything from hopelessness and doom to people full of fight. Ayers voiced determination to take on Mother Nature after listening to a new assessment from a consultant hired by the county. The coastal engineer reported the tidal channel is now holding steady just inland from Washaway Beach.

Lisa Ayers: “With enough money, you can do just about anything. So if we get our package together, a good product, and take it where we need to take it, we may be able to get some help with that. But at least it is not where I felt before it was almost impossible to do a whole lot. I mean it looks like there is some attainability with some of it. That does make me more hopeful.”

The cranberry growers want to fight back too. So the local conservation district this fall will use state grant money to dig a trench at the foot of an old dike and dump in tons of rock to create a buried revetment. That means there will be an armored shoreline in place when and if the waves come. David Cottrell calls it a welcome “Band-Aid.”

David Cottrell: “One may not be able to win, but we can play to stalemate is what I’m seeing right now.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation is drawing up plans to reinforce the sole highway along this stretch of coast with more armor rock. A sand berm out in the bay paid for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the Shoalwater Bay Indian Reservation is holding up. Still, tribal leaders have resolved to move uphill over the long term. Unlike people and homes though, cranberry bogs can’t be moved.