On Thursday the safety committee of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District called for an emergency meeting to address the issue of shoaling in the bay due to severe winter storms.

 

The harbor district, responding to results of soundings performed by the Army Corps of Engineers that found the bay shallower than at any other point in its history, called for an emergency declaration. But the district does not have the authority to declare an emergency.

 

Among the greatest concerns related to the shoaling is the impact it could have on the weekly deliveries of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels that are delivered by Chevron. On Friday morning, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release addressing conditions on the bay, the emergency declaration and any impacts to fuel deliveries.

 

“Please note that under the California Disaster Assistance Act, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District does not have the authority to declare a countywide state of emergency,” the release stated. “Only the sheriff and the board of supervisors have the authority to make such a declaration. The hazardousconditions created by shoaling do not currently affect Chevron’s ability to bring fuel into Humboldt County and we are not currently experiencing a fuel crisis.”

 

There are two types of dredging performed on Humboldt Bay, and the most important dredging is to keep the main channel deep enough so that larger ships can cross the bar. To ensure commerce on the bay thrives, the channels must be kept clear enough to allow for the free flow of shipping and the latest series of winter storms have created a dangerous spot as ships enter the bay.

 

“There is no solution outside of dredging and it’s definitely affected our deep draft vessels,” said harbor pilot Tim Petrusha on Friday. “We probably won’t see any big ships for a while, no log carriers or chip carriers, they are not able to enter the bay right now. The corner where it’s shoaling is rougher than normal and that creates more hazardous conditions getting in and out and that’s for any boats, not just commercial boats.”

 

The county board of supervisors are well aware of the issues surrounding dredging on the bay and in January, the County Administrative Office issued a letter addressed to the Corps of Engineers requesting emergency dredging due to the shoaling.

 

First District Supervisor and board chair Rex Bohn echoed the need for urgency in addressing the shoaling because of the impacts it has on the commercial activity and ongoing commercial development of the bay.

 

“The declaration of an emergency goes through our office and I understand Larry (Oetker) is still new at the job and maybe he pulled the trigger a little quickly,” Bohn said on Friday. “No harm, no foul; shoaling has been a long-term problem and it’s been exacerbated by the winter storms. It’s something that must be addressed because our harbor has great commerce and getting goods in and out is key to that commerce. I have made multiple trips to Sacramento to plead with the Army Corps of Engineers and next week I’m going to Washington, D.C., and it’s at the top of my list of priorities.”

 

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The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District voted unanimously at a special meeting yesterday to declare a state of emergency due to increased sedimentation in the channel into Humboldt Bay that is causing dangerous conditions and imperiling the county’s fuel supply.

 

The vote came after the district received the results of depth testing by the Army Corps of Engineers, which found that the 48-foot deep channel is currently at about 21 feet, filled with sediment that washed out of the Eel River during storms last month. The shallowing of the channel is creating large cross waves and “extremely large sneaker waves” around Buoy 9, an area known as “Rock and Roll Alley,” according to a staff report. The conditions are imperiling local recreational and commercial fishing boats, as well as the commercial shipping industry, including the fuel ships that deliver 6 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel to the Chevron fuel dock every nine days.

 

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The North Coast climate assessment warns of higher temperatures, prolonged dry seasons, more extreme weather events and a decrease in river streamflows. Tuesday morning, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will get an up close and personal look at the report.


The board will hear a climate change assessment coordinated by University of California Berkeley professor Theodore Grantham, a Eureka High School graduate, on the impacts climate change will have on the region. The assessment includes input from local cities and counties across the North Coast region as well as tribes and state and federal agencies.


Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson placed the climate assessment on the agenda and he hopes the report will better inform local governments and residents about the importance of addressing impacts from climate change.


“I saw this as an opportunity to bring this forward so more of the public can be aware of the information available,” Wilson said Monday. “The report has some modeling more specific to our area. We are continuing to update our General Plan process and our zoning maps with a focus on hazards like sea level rise and wildfires. This information is important.”


The potential for increased fire risks in local forestlands is a concern as is sea level rise that will impact communities and properties along Humboldt Bay and that sea level rise will have a direct impact on how local governments plan for future developments.


“Humboldt County has approved a number of flood plain developments where in essence we are saying ‘it’s OK to build on the plain as long as you build 2 feet above the 100-year flood level,'” said Jen Kalt, executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper. “We can’t plan for these things by looking in the rearview mirror anymore. We have to plan moving forward in a time of abrupt climate change.”


The assessment also points out residents might not see a change in the amount of rainfall the region gets but the nature and timing of that rainfall could change with periods of heavy rain during the winter months and then periods of extended drought during the drier months.


The heavier rains could lead to more erosion and then to landslides along with flooding. Streamflows will decline during the dry season combined with increased flows during winter.


“One thing is hard not to notice in the new report is the changes are happening faster than we previously projected and what we are watching for are the fastest changing patterns,” Kalt said. “Just from casual observation, our springs and falls are a lot drier and it seems we are getting the rainfall in a tighter window of the year. How does that impact inland streams where coho salmon spawn? If the rainy season is changing, what other impacts on the environment, the fish, the rivers will we see?”


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If everything goes as planned, fresh fish raised in tanks on the now blighted former pulp mill site will be making its way across the West Coast in four years, opening up new avenues for economic development in a region still reeling from downturns in the once mainstay lumber and fishing industries.

 

At least that is the realistic best hope of officials with Nordic Aquafarms, the Norwegian company behind the proposed land-based facility that looks to ultimately produce some 25,000 tons of farmed fish a year here on the North Coast.

 

The clock was set in motion Feb. 11 with the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District's decision to sign a 30-year lease with Nordic amid concerns that the deal was ushered through without public input.

 

Touted for the potential to bring millions of dollars to the local economy and employing at least 80 people — the fish farm has its share of supporters, including Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass, who said the proposal would be one of the largest economic investments in the county "since the end of the 20th century."

 

"This opportunity represents, to me, the rebirth of the peninsula," she said.

 

Others, like Humboldt Baykeeper Executive Director Jennifer Kalt, one of the "stakeholder groups" that Nordic has been talking with in the recent weeks, are taking a measured approach as the process unfolds.

 

"What the company representatives have said to us, so far, has potential but there's no specifics of what they actually plan to do," she said. "So, we'll be waiting until there is actually something to look at."

 

Kalt, like others, questioned why the harbor district deemed it necessary to call a special meeting late Friday afternoon for a Monday afternoon closed session discussion on the lease.

"Unfortunately, the harbor district didn't make the lease available until after it was signed," Kalt said. "We would have appreciated an opportunity to review and comment on it before the commissioners approved it."

 

"I realize the harbor district is desperate to turn the pulp mill into a positive, but it could have waited a few days," she continued. "Why the rush?"

 

Members of the fishing community also raised concerns about the timing, the lack of specifics on the project and the lease and potential impacts to their industry, with one noting Nordic gave a "great presentation" but "there's a huge amount of unknowns."

 

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The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, & Conservation District voted unanimously to approve a $20,000/year, 3-year “Option Period” for the company to secure all the necessary permits, and a 30-year lease agreement with two 10-year options for its former pulp mill site in Samoa, giving Nordic AquaFarms / California Marine Investments, LLC site control while it develops plans and pursues permits for a land-based fish farm. A signing ceremony was scheduled immediately following the public hearing at 1:30 pm. 

Despite assurances that their goal is "full disclosure," the Harbor District did not provide the lease agreement in advance of Monday's public hearing, which was announced Friday afternoon, unnecessarily creating a climate of distrust rather than an opportunity for meaningful public input.

Photo of the site by Jennifer Savage, 2014