In Our View: Tightening The River Spout

Corps intensifies planning for repairing Columbia River jetties

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As humankind has learned over the course of several millennia, it is folly to attempt to control Mother Nature. But it is possible for people to work with nature for their benefit.Take, for example, an unfolding plan to shore up three jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers currently is taking the first steps in a $257 million project that will keep the mighty river manageable for decades to come.

We're glad to see this project gaining momentum because it protects a huge component in the local, regional and national economies.

As the drainage point for rivers from seven states and one Canadian province, the Columbia serves as an unending ode to nature's power. Without the type of delta found at the mouths of most major rivers, the river that serves as our cultural and economic lifeblood could be unnavigable if not for the jetties.

Construction of a 6.5-mile south jetty began in 1885 and took more than 30 years to complete. A 2.5-mile north jetty was finished in 1917. Together they have spent decades keeping the river moving on a swift and narrow path, reducing the accumulation of silt and allowing sediment to be distributed by the ocean on the back sides of the jetties, out of the shipping channel.

So far, so good. The jetties have been instrumental in the development of the region's multibillion-dollar shipping industry, but now they are in need of assistance.

Over the past eight decades or so, the dam system that has developed along the Columbia also has worked against the jetties. Much of the silt that once flowed down river and fortified the base of the structures is now being trapped behind dams, allowing the river to erode the foundations of the jetties. And with eroded jetties, silt will settle in the middle of the river and block the shipping channel.

Such a travesty would also block the local economy. The Columbia River is the Northwest's gateway to the world and its path to economic prosperity. In 2009, it was estimated that 40,000 jobs in the region were dependent upon Columbia River maritime commerce, while another 59,000 were influenced by it.

That is the overriding reason that we applaud the project to strengthen the jetties. But on top of that, the plan is simply a fascinating tribute to ingenuity.

In many ways, the whole of human existence can be whittled down to a desire for humans to control and alter and adjust to their environment. The thought of taming the wildness that once was the Columbia River must have seemed daunting, yet somebody devised a plan to do so, and somebody else put forth a Herculean effort to make it happen.

The results have influenced the lives of the people in this region for well over a century.

The jetty project, which is scheduled to begin this summer, is expected to take seven years. Corps officials also are exploring a second round of repairs to be completed by 2030 that could push the total cost of the project to around $500 million. That's not cheap, but it's a small price considering the consequences of inaction. As Geir Kalhagen, chief executive officer of the Port of Longview, said in a statement: "The jetties not only protect the Columbia River navigation channel, but also the port's ability to facilitate international trade and remain the economic engine of our community."

And sometimes a good engine needs a bit of a tuneup.