Operation under way to remove sand, silt and sediment from Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara Harbor closed Wednesday for a few days to allow for the emergency dredging of thousands of cubic yards of sand, silt and sediment deposited in the harbor by a storm-created “historic” ocean swell that occurred earlier this month.
The emergency dredging operation could continue through Saturday, after which the harbor will reopen to mariners, including commercial fishermen, Mike Wiltshire, the city’s waterfront director, told the News-Press Thursday.
“That’s the situation we’re in right now,” he said.
He added that Pacific Dredge, the company contracted to remove the unexpected sand and sediment, has put its equipment across the harbor’s mouth, potentially through Saturday morning, “so the harbor is essentially closed to no or limited access.”
The company would have to stop its operation and decouple its piping “if Harbor Patrol had to get out to tend to an emergency,” Mr. Wiltshire said.
He said he recognized the economic impact the harbor’s “hard closure” will have on the commercial fishermen who rely on it, but stressed the city has no choice given the current emergency situation.
“I understand there will be some frustrations at their inability to get in and out of the harbor. This is their livelihood,” Mr. Wiltshire said. “But this is a very unique emergency situation. It has to be done at some period of time, and this is that period of time, in order to remedy this situation as soon as possible.”
Since the Jan. 5 swell, the now-shallow harbor has been difficult to safely navigate, Mr. Wiltshire said.
“With all that infill, all of the harbor entrance is a lot shallower after the storm,” he said, so harbor officials initiated what Mr. Wiltshire called a “soft” closure.
“We posted notices to the mariners to let them know of the hazardous conditions,” he said. Harbor Patrol vessels have been available to escort all mariners, including commercial fishermen, into and out of the harbor, and “a lot of them do so on high tide.
“That’s been the condition for the last couple of weeks, but behind the scenes we’ve been working with the Army Corps of Engineers to initiate the emergency dredging process,” he said.
The Army Corps picked Pacific Dredge, the company that’s done regular dredging of the harbor the past three years, to handle the emergency dredging, which involves removing 30,000 cubic yards of sand to create a navigable channel 100 feet wide by 12 feet deep, Mr. Wiltshire said.
“It’s purely just to get the harbor back to use,” he said. “We want to widen it as fully as possible for all vessels in harbor.”
The Army Corps will fund and manage the emergency dredging operation, just like they do the regularly scheduled dredgings that occur every year, he said. “They foot the bill so that’s very lucky for us.”
The next regularly scheduled dredging will take place in three to six weeks, and involve the dredging of 120,000 cubic yards of sediment and sand from the harbor bottom, he said.
According to Mr. Wiltshire, the huge swell responsible for the current situation measured 20 to 25 feet high about a mile out to sea, and 15 to 18 feet when it came toward shore, “infilling” the harbor with sand and sediment.
Ordinarily, the ocean, “left to its own devices,” would create a series of smaller swells over a couple of years to deposit that much sand and sediment to fill the harbor — and it happened on one night.
“All of the impacts were due to the Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 swell,” he said. “A lot of it happened overnight. Coupled with a high tide, it brought a tidal surge into the harbor. It’s really rare for the wharf itself to be breached by a unique and historic swell.
“Dredging is just sort of a fact of life here,” he added. Normally, sand moves down the coast “and it’s natural for it to move in and fill the harbor entrance. But with a unique storm of this kind, it moved in in a much shorter time period.”
Pacific Dredge showed up last Friday to begin setting up the emergency dredging operation, which involved running a large pipe to remove the sand and deposit it on East Beach, and plugging into the harbor’s electrical infrastructure, Mr. Wiltshire said.
The company brought in a large barge on Sunday, and they “initiated the dredging yesterday afternoon and evening.”
Meanwhile, the natural and city-built sand dunes and their associated iceplant are gone because of the storm, bringing the beach at the waterfront “right down to its bedrock,” and exposing the historic rocks normally buried by the berms.
That should improve over time, however, as waves wash more and more sand onto the beach, he said.
But Mr. Wiltshire warned that the threat is not over.
The huge swell earlier this month was indeed unique and unusual, he said, but the city usually experiences large swells in February and March, too.
“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “We have to keep an eye on natural swells. We still have some winter to go.”