Dillingham Harbor annual dredge going quickly this year

May 30, 2017

Harbor Master Jean Barrett expects to put the infrastructure into place by early next week, after crews finish pumping out an estimated 80,000 cubic yards of sediment.

This year 43,000 less cubic yards of mud was dredged compared to last year.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

Each spring a company under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges an average of 90,000 cubic yards of mud out of the Dillingham harbor. The Corps estimates that if this was not done for just a few years, the harbor would become unusable to the hundreds of commercial fishing vessels that port in Dillingham.

This year the dredging, which normally takes about a month, is going more efficiently.

“They put a new motor and new pump into their dredge that they keep here – a larger pump, larger pipe for outflow," city port director Jean Barrett said of the Alaska Marine Excavation crew. "It’s picked up some speed, a lot more efficient dredge than it’s been in the past.”

The pipe this year is 12 inches wide, compared to the former 10-inch wide pump, Barrett said.

The six-person AME crew has been dredging the Dillingham harbor 24 hours a day, seven days a week since May 19. Barrett expects they will wrap up around June 3, shaving a third off their usual work time.

Also contributing to the efficiency this year is a lot less mud. Last year crews pumped out a record high of 123,000 cubic yards; however, this year Barrett estimates that figure will be closer to 80,000 cubic yards. That change may be due to the colder winter than the two years prior.

“The mud will solidify in the river better, also in the harbor, and we wouldn’t get that much mud," Barrett said. "Last winter although it wasn’t real cold, it was cold enough to make the mud consistency change.”

This is the first of a three-year, $1 million contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has been awarded since 1988. Before that the Corps did the work themselves, going back to 1958.

The mud is pumped underneath the harbor road to a disposal area 250 yards offshore. The powerful tidal currents of the Nushagak River sweep most of it away. But the same forces will bring more mud into the harbor, part of a “recycling program” as Barrett calls it.

This is a point of controversy, as some local residents feel the pumped material is contributing to a changing channel in the Nushagak River and muddier beaches nearby.

“I’m sure it’s not helping it, but I don’t think it’s the main culprit," Barrett said. "This river’s been changing every year, since the beginning of time, this river’s been changing.”

Barrett said he is hopeful the mud can be put to better use, as a plan is in the works to use the mud to create new land nearby the Bristol Bay Native Corporation land.

In fact, mud resulting from dredging helped create the PAF boat yard. But bringing the silty material inland and allowing it to dry is an expensive proposition, with so far no one willing to invest to build the necessary infrastructure.

“We just gotta get the right people in the same room together to get that ironed out," Barrett said.

Barrett said he plans to put the harbor’s arms and floats into place as soon as dredging is complete, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

Reach KDLG fisheries reporter Caitlin Tan at fish@kdlg.org or 907.843.2240