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Retreat Or Fight? Erosion Chews Away Southwest Washington Coast

The Washington state Department of Ecology says the fastest erosion on the West Coast is happening at aptly named Washaway Beach -- located between the southwest Washington towns of Grayland and Tokeland.

Most places threatened by erosion try to fight back. But the erosion at Washaway Beach is so rapid, the question now is to fight -- or retreat.

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 has been unstoppable for decades. The school succumbed. Then the Grange hall, a post office and more and more homes.

Coastal erosion threatens not just homes and a vital highway, but now the multi-million dollar cranberry industry too. Third-generation cranberry grower David Cottrell worries about his bogs. They begin slightly more than half a mile from the present shoreline.

"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,” Cottrell said. “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.”

The last line of defense for cranberries

Saltwater would kill the fresh water-dependent cranberries.

The Grayland area has long been one of the centers of cranberry production in the Northwest. Cottrell said Native Americans harvested wild cranberries around here long before white settlers arrived.

"This is something that has been here thousands of years,” he said. “If it is lost, it's not coming back."

"There's nothing like fresh cranberries," Cottrell's wife Connie Allen added. "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.

"I figure my cabin has got between three to five years,” Northrup said. “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.”

"What can you do?” he added with a laugh. “Who is going to help this?"

‘Playing to a stalemate’

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.

"With enough money, you can do just about anything,” Ayers said. “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 (that) 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."

"One may not be able to win, but we can play to stalemate is what I'm seeing right now,” he said.

Engineering options

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.

Representatives from a wide range of government entities gathered at the Shoalwater Bay tribal center on Wednesday to hear a synthesis of recent scientific research on the remarkable erosion at Washaway Beach. Afterwards, Ayers led a discussion about whether and how to respond. The upshot was a consensus to pursue funding for geotechnical and engineering studies to lay the groundwork for potential erosion control alternatives.

Pacific County has virtually no money to throw at the erosion problem, Ayers said. Even if it did, she said spending public money to protect private beachfront properties would be of dubious legality. The government would need to establish a public interest -- for example, protecting a nearby county road -- to build seawalls and so forth.

In his presentation Wednesday, coastal engineer Vladimir Shepsis with the Coast & Harbor Engineering Division of Mott McDonald divided the roughly five miles of shoreline threatened by erosion into three zones. He reported that tidal channel migration appears to have stopped along the eastern and central shoreline zones, which abut the Tokeland Peninsula, Shoalwater Bay reservation and a shore side stretch of highway.

To address the continued hammering from storm waves, he said beach replenishment, shoreline armoring or groins could be considered. Shepsis held out less hope for the seaward zone where structures have long been falling onto the beach. The natural forces at work there may be too great.

"We need to get our priorities and then choose how to move forward," Ayers said in her wrap up of the meeting.

Some of the agencies represented at Wednesday's discussion included Pacific County, the Pacific Conservation District, Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, Washington State Department of Transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology and Washington Sea Grant.

No owners of beachfront properties spoke up at the latest briefing, but an overflow crowd came to an earlier community meeting in late March to seek information or demand action.

‘The first storm is going to knock it over’

A late-September walk along Washaway Beach found several homes teetering at the edge of an eroding, sandy bluff. Makeshift shoreline protection is evident where people have tied together piles of driftwood and bleached stumps with rope to armor the base of the low bank. Moveable concrete barriers and warning signs block residential lanes that could otherwise lead inattentive drivers to launch over a precipice.

Resident Tom Burchard said the utility company had already shut off the electricity to his property, where the ocean-facing side of the main home hangs in thin air over the beach below.

"The first storm that hits the bank, it's going to knock it over I'm sure", Burchard said with an air of resignation.

He said he recognized the inherent risk when he bought the property for dirt cheap just a few years ago. "I love this place, definitely one of a kind. It should be some kind of park all the way through," Burchard said.

The homes that fell into the ocean in recent years were usually uninsured because no companies would write policies in the doomed neighborhood. Erosion at what was also known as Cape Shoalwater has been documented for more than a century. In total, the coastline at North Cove has retreated by more than one mile in that time.

The predicament cannot be blamed on rising sea levels due to global warming. Geologists say the Washington coast is being uplifted at roughly the same slow pace as sea level rise thanks to the collision of the North American tectonic plate with an oceanic plate.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.