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Posted on: December 12, 2019

Major Waterfront Infrastructure Maintenance Project Underway

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), in partnership with local sponsor Port of Bellingham, has started a major waterfront infrastructure project to restore the Squalicum Waterway to its authorized width and depth.  The project is anticipated to last approximately 45 days. 

The Squalicum Waterway is critical maritime infrastructure for the regional economy supporting over 2000 jobs and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in gross annual revenue.  Regular maintenance dredging is required to remove heavy sedimentation deposited from the Nooksack River.

The USACE awarded the contract to Curtin Maritime Corp. of Long Beach, California, for $2.2 million. During the works, approximately 254,000 cubic yards of material will be dredged from the waterway and taken by barge to permitted open water disposal sites.

“Maintenance dredging of the Squalicum Waterway is long overdue,” said Bellingham Cold Storage President Doug Thomas.  ”The federal channel was last dredged in 2004 and ongoing sedimentation has created a navigation hazard threatening the economic viability of waterfront industries like Bellingham Cold Storage which rely on a fully maintained channel.  Over the past several years, vessel loading restrictions have forced us to utilize a makeshift system of loading product onto a floating barge in the middle of Bellingham Bay at considerable added expense.  This system was not sustainable and the economic development potential of our working waterfront has been compromised by increasing limitations in functionality within the Squalicum Waterway.  Bellingham Cold Storage is the first significant cold storage port facility for fish coming out of Alaska and this maintenance project will help local waterfront industries increase inbound cargo, grow exports, maintain and create good paying jobs and further develop our regional economy”     

The Port and Bellingham Cold Storage worked together for many years to secure the federal funding necessary to maintain the Squalicum Waterway, but have been challenged by the way a Harbor Maintenance Tax on shippers intended for waterfront maintenance projects is distributed by the Federal Government.  Since the Harbor Maintenance Tax was imposed on importers and domestic shippers in 1986, much of the revenue has been swept from harbor maintenance projects to pay for other federal priorities. 

“Every ship that comes into the Squalicum Waterway pays a Harbor Maintenance Tax which is supposed to be used to maintain federal channels, but for too long this money has been swept away and used for other purposes” said Port Commission President Bobby Briscoe. “Our government really needs to understand that without proper maintenance of federal channels like the Squalicum Waterway, industries like Bellingham Cold Storage will shut down and put thousands of people out of work.”

“Not all states have federal waterways or understand the importance of maritime commerce to our national economy” said Port Executive Director Rob Fix.  “Our region is well served by U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and U.S. Representatives Rick Larsen and Suzanne DelBene who fight hard to ensure Harbor Maintenance Tax collections are used as intended to support ports and strengthen our region’s global competitiveness.  Our congressional delegation was instrumental to helping us secure the federal funding necessary to complete this project.”

In response to federal funding challenges for waterfront maintenance projects, the State of Washington appropriated $750,000 to support the Squalicum Waterway project. “Without a contribution from the State of Washington, this project would not be happening” said Fix. “Senator Doug Ericksen has been a huge champion of our working waterfront and helped us secure the state funding we needed to offset federal dredging costs and make this project happen.”  

The Port and Bellingham Cold Storage also received help securing federal funds from the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA). PNWA is a collaboration of ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals who combine their economic and political strength in support of navigation, energy, trade and economic development throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Whatcom County’s economy is heavily dependent on marine trades.  According to a report published by the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, over 6,000 jobs are created or supported by the marine trades representing 7% of Whatcom County’s total workforce.  Bellingham Cold Storage is the largest portside cold storage facility on the West Coast, serving a worldwide customer base.

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