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Port Creates Swinomish Channel Maintenance Fund

Burlington — The Port of Skagit Board of Commissioners has voted to create a permanent fund devoted to maintaining the Swinomish Channel as a navigable waterway. Initially, the port will apportion $400,000 that had been designated for channel dredging in the 2012 capital budget to the new Swinomish Channel Maintenance Fund.

Earlier this month the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it has included funding for the Swinomish Channel dredging in its work plan for fiscal year 2012. The Corps’ announcement capped a four-year effort by the port and others to obtain federal funding and permits for the channel.

Last fall, when federal funding was still in question, the port commissioners committed to pay a $400,000 share of the dredging cost, with the remainder of the cost to be obtained from federal and other local sources. The money in the port’s new fund is now available to put toward future maintenance needs of the channel.

Patsy Martin, executive director of the Port of Skagit, pointed out that though this year’s dredging by the Corps will address current sedimentation problems in the channel, the waterway must be dredged every three years in order to maintain it at the authorized depth of -12 feet MLLW. And there is no guarantee that federal funding will be available the next time the channel needs dredging.

“We made a commitment to the citizens of the port district that this $400,000 would go toward keeping the channel open, and that is what we are going to do,” said Bill Shuler, president of the port commission. “As long as there is a question about the future of federal funding, we have to be ready and able to pay our share. This is the prudent thing to do.”

The Swinomish Channel provides a critical link for the Coast Guard, commercial and private vessels between Saratoga Passage and the San Juan Islands, by a faster and safer route than Deception Pass or around Whidbey Island. The channel provides access to the La Conner waterfront, the port’s La Conner Marina, Swinomish Tribal commercial facilities and several private marinas, and it is used by recreational boaters and for log and barge towing.

Allowing the Swinomish Channel to silt in and become impassable for virtually all vessels could cause the loss of more than 500 jobs in the Skagit Valley, according to an economic study of the issue commissioned by the Port of Skagit. Marine businesses and boaters utilizing the Swinomish Channel generate approximately $92 million per year for the local economy, the study found.

The Port of Skagit has led efforts to keep the Swinomish Channel open since dedicated federal funding for dredging the channel was eliminated in the mid-1990s. In recent months, a consortium of local stakeholders -- including the Town of La Conner, the Ports of Skagit and Anacortes, the Upper Skagit and Swinomish tribes, Skagit County, Dunlap Towing and the Shelter Bay community -- has formed to consider a permanent solution for funding channel dredging.

If you are a reporter seeking information about the Port of Skagit, please call Linda Tyler, Community Outreach Administrator, at 360-757-0011 or email LindaT@portofskagit.com