To understand the significance of yesterday’s Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group luncheon, one must think back to the 2007 version of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. At the time, the district’s meetings were largely unscrutinized by local media and attended by so few members of the public that speakers rarely bothered to stand, much less walk to the podium and state their names, official-style. Small town politics ruled this agency that happens to wield a great deal of power over one of Humboldt’s most treasured and valued resources.
And then the dredging controversy spewed forth. Over time, sediment fills the bay’s channels vital to our area fishermen. Without scouring the channels of this muck, boats end up aground, compromising both safety and business. Dredging the bay is nothing new, but what pushed this time into the forefront of public consciousness was the financially strapped district’s intention to slop the dredge soils onto the sands of Samoa Beach instead of the offshore EPA-sanctioned Humboldt Open Ocean Disposal Site (HOODS).
Public concerns over bay toxins and the inherent conflict of piping sludge onto one of Humboldt’s more popular beaches dominated both district meetings and those of the California Coastal Commission. Ultimately the Coastal Commission granted the permit for the beach disposal – with the strict warning that this was never to happen again. Wrists sufficiently slapped, the project went ahead, marring Samoa Beach with black waste that gobbled up a truck unfortunate enough to get stuck in it, inconvenienced dog walkers and joggers, and generally uglified the area for a few months.
Since we don’t have baseline data for the area, any lingering results from the dredge spoils are unknown. Things seem fine, according to follow-up observations. The more obvious effects are with us today in the form of a whole new slate of commissioners being elected over the years since, plus a new CEO – changes that symbolize an evolution the district had long resisted. Also, the continued success of Humboldt Baykeeper, a nonprofit propelled into existence due to the “Conservation” part of the Harbor District’s mission being underattended to.
Transition wasn’t easy. Memories of inept consultants hired to explore rail-port options linger. The future of Humboldt Bay as an international port siphoning off Oakland’s extra Made In China imports struck some as the One True Way and others as a fantasy impeding actual possibilities for healthy development. It wasn’t that the old board members were malicious – their hearts were in the right place, no doubt – it’s just that place ceased to exist in about 1994.
Most folks nowadays, even if they disagree on the details, prefer a future different than repeating the failed past. Fortunately, those folks apparently include the undeniably politically diverse board of Harbor District commissioners and the new CEO – “new” after a year on the job.
Which brings us to the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group. You can get a quick sense of which side of time they’re on here. Essentially, they want the railroad back. (Need some history on the North Coast Railroad Authority? Recently in the news here and as the subject of a great piece by NCJ’s Ryan Burns.) Anyway, they held a lunch featuring aforementioned Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation CEO Jack Crider. Crider, level-headed as they come, discussed where we’ve been, where we are and where we might be able to go, navigating the political terrain as deftly as an experienced bar pilot coming in through the harbor entrance.
- The district absolutely appreciates the support of the HBHWG.
- The district boasts several new assets: a rescue boat, a fire boat and side scan sonar (if the Rutabaga crown hadn’t already been salvaged, the district could’ve likely found it!).
- The concept of an RV Park on Woodley Island, which has sparked significant controversy, is still being explored as a revenue enhancer, as long as it would have zero impact on commercial fishermen.
- Shipping peaked in the 1990s; we’re currently exporting logs and woods, importing gas, diesel, logs and chips; the cost of running the harbor far exceeds the income generated through it.
- The main causes for the harbor running in the red are the past dredging debt, especially the debt service, and the cost of maintaining bar pilots as required to exist as a working port.
- The district is exploring other options for the next dredging round, which must take place within the next four years; temporary in-bay storage is the leading contender, but depends on many factors, including convincing the Army Corps. of Engineers to agree to haul off the spoils.
- The old mill, last known as Freshwater Tissue, might be the key to a sparkly new future for the district, the bay and the entire Humboldt coastal community – outside of the land contamination, it’s a perfect fit for aquaculture, research, recreation and shipping possibilities.
- The district has hired BST Consultants out of Washington at a cost of $19,500 to ascertain the preliminary cost and feasibility of rail restoration, both from the south and east-west.
When asked about port prospects without rail service, Crider emphasized that we currently have “tons of opportunities – but no facilities.” With a good dock, he continued, much could be done to benefit small business owners. “Rail would be great,” he acknowledged, “But if [the service] can’t be consistent….” If the Freshwater Tissue deal goes through, Crider finished, “We’d have a great facility.”
The Humboldt Bay Harbor Recreation and Conservation District Board of Commissioners meets on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. in the Woodley Island Marina Meeting Room.
For more on the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group, e-mail Susana Munzell.