Winter storms have desposited several feet of silt in the entrance channel to Humboldt Bay. File photo.

The entrance to Humboldt Bay Harbor is dangerously shallow at the moment — so shallow that commercial ships are unable to traverse the channel leading to local docks. Commercial fishermen, whose boats don’t draft as much, are still able to get in and out of the bay, but a shallow channel means dangerous conditions, with waves breaking against their craft. 

It’s so bad right now that if the channel silts in much further, Humboldt County’s fuel supply, most of which comes in by barge, could be at risk.

That was the message delivered at an emergency meeting of the Humboldt Bay Safety Committee held earlier this afternoon, at which member reviewed new channel soundings that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released yesterday. The soundings confirmed what the committee members have been suspecting — that recent winter storms have caused the channel to silt up to an almost unprecedented degree this year.

The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District is set to officially declare a state of emergency at another emergency meeting that has been scheduled for 4 p.m. today.

“The fact that no one has gotten hurt so far is a miracle,” said Harrison Ibach, a commercial fisherman and president of the Humboldt Fisherman’s Marketing Association, at the meeting of the Safety Committee earlier this afternoon.

Committee member Pete Jackson, who oversees the California Redwood Company’s wood chip export facility, told his fellow commissioners that his company had two ships lined up to come and pick up product next month. But those ships cannot make it into the bay as things stand, and so will have to be postponed or canceled. 

Most troubling of all, to many, is the worry that gasoline barges from the Bay Area might soon be unable to cross the bar. In his report for the Harbor District’s emergency meeting today, CEO Larry Oetker notes that “approximately six million gallons of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel traverse the Humboldt Bay Bar every nine days,” and that if the channel continues to fill those supplies could be cut off.

However, representatives from the barging firms told the Safety Committee that they are still able to get in and out of the channel, and that they had at least some wiggle room available if channel conditions get worse. For instance, they said that they could simply ship less fuel, meaning that their barges wouldn’t draft so much water.

At the end of the meeting the committee’s members, most of whom represent various industries and regulatory agencies with interests in the bay, voted unanimously to urge the Harbor District to declare an immediate “life-threatening” state of emergency. They hoped that the county Board of Supervisors and others would soon follow suit.

The hope is that such declarations will prod the Corps of Engineers — the federal agency responsible for maintaining the channel — into getting a dredge to Humboldt Bay as soon as possible. The Corps dredges the channel every year, usually in the summer months, but there is a strong feeling among locals that waiting that long would court disaster to the local fishing industry, bay-related international commerce and the long-term reputation and viability of the port.

“I think it’s very important that everybody realized this is a very serious situation,” said Safety Committee chair Leroy Zerlang.