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USCG seeks to federalize Rice Island anchorage

As the president of Columbia River Pilots, Jeremy Nielsen is no stranger to the narrow and sometimes unforgiving waters that flow between the mouth of the Columbia and Portland.

The river is a designated marine highway — and as on any highway, Nielsen said, travelers need stops to rest, fuel and do maintenance out of the flow of traffic. For commercial ships, anchorage grounds have long served that purpose. But as vessel traffic and size have increased in recent years, anchorage capacity has lagged, spurring concerns for safety along the waterway.

A series of U.S. Coast Guard proposals could put three more on the map.

The proposals, which were originally published in late December, seek to establish a federally designated anchorage ground near Rice Island — an island created from dredged material on the Washington-Oregon state line just south of Altoona in western Wahkiakum County. Two other anchorages would be designated farther upriver near Port Westward and Crims Island near Clatskanie.

“Having federalized anchorage grounds designated by the Coast Guard significantly reduce the risk of grounding and collision, which could result in significant environmental and economic impacts,” Petty Officer 1st Class Travis Magee, a Coast Guard public affairs specialist, said in an email.

Designated anchorage grounds are especially important during low water events when vessels need to wait for the next high tide to move out of the river, Magee said. They’re also critical amid stormy winter weather, when vessels often have to wait to safely cross the Columbia River Bar.

While ships have been using the three proposed anchorage grounds for years, federalizing them could make a difference in a few key ways.

Federal designation would give commercial vessels priority for anchoring and would allow for the Lower Columbia Region Harbor Safety Committee to set guidelines for the sites under individualized safety plans. It would also lay the groundwork for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do maintenance and potentially add stern buoys to the sites. When a vessel drops its anchor, waves and wind can cause it to swing out into the navigation channel. Stern buoys help minimize that tidal swing.

“Because we have tidal influence in the river, every time the tide shifts, the ships also shift on their anchors if they’re only connected by that one point,” Lt. Carlie Gilligan said. “So the stern buoys allow a connection from the stern as well, so it’s essentially like having an anchor on the front and back.”

Last week, the Coast Guard reopened the public comment periods for both the Rice Island and Port Westward proposals, after announcing a similar extension for Crims Island last month. The proposals have already yielded comments from a variety of stakeholders, including individuals and leaders in the maritime industry, like the Columbia River Pilots, Columbia River Bar Pilots, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association and the Maritime Fire & Safety Association.

On certain days at the peak of grain season, Nielsen said the river will fill up with ships — and with no federally designated anchorages between Astoria and Longview, those ships have limited options for making a stop.

He sees the proposals as a welcome change.

“We have limited space in the river system, there’s only so many docks ships can go to, or already designated anchorages, if they’re full,” he said.

While the proposals have generally been met with support, some people have expressed concern over potential noise and pollution at the Crims Island anchorage ground. Nielsen said he sees federalization as a benefit to nearby residents. Ships will likely continue anchoring at the sites regardless of whether the proposals pass — but federally designating them would allow for more conversation around regulations and guidelines.

“Having that federal designation allows some parameters to be put, because now it’s a federally controlled anchorage,” Nielsen said. “Otherwise, it’s just a place in a river where a ship just happened to drop anchor.”

The public comment periods for the Rice Island and Port Westward anchorage grounds close on June 7. The comment period for Crims Island has already closed. The Coast Guard will adjudicate comments and use them to inform its rulemaking process.


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