On The Waterfront Now

A national symposium provides a fresh view for Humboldt’s oceanfront future


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They came from Portland, Maine, and Portland, Ore., from the Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Keys. They came from all walks of water-dependent life: commercial fishermen from San Diego, nonprofit conservationists from the Puget Sound, urban planners from Maryland and many more. From up and down the eastern and western seaboards came government engineers, policy makers and scientists along with private consultants, ship builders and entrepreneurs. All were among the several hundred people who gathered in Tacoma, Wash., late last month to talk about ways to protect and improve working waterfronts and waterways.

Over the four days of the Third National Working Waterfronts & Waterways Symposium -- the first one ever held on the West Coast -- this diverse group of folks met in conference rooms to share stories, information and ideas. They gave PowerPoint presentations and mingled, munching on corn chips and hummus. They heard talks from panels of experts, a speech from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and, at a seafood banquet, a song of blessing from a Puyallup Tribe elder.

The Journal was there, along with a few others from Humboldt County, and the symposium provided a rare opportunity to view our local waterfront in a national context. Oceanfront communities big and small are facing the same inter-related challenges, trying to strike a balance between commerce, the environment and public access in the face of globalization, environmental declines and rising sea levels.

And here's the surprising picture that emerged: Sure, Humboldt County has its challenges, and we could certainly learn a few things from what's being done elsewhere. (You'll find some examples below.) But in many ways our harbor- and ocean-related activities can serve as a model for getting along, showing how planning and collaboration can prevent paralyzing conflict.

This is no mean feat given the legacy of different, often conflicting uses along Humboldt County's 100-plus miles of coastline (as the Aleutian geese fly), and particularly in and around our harbor, the second-largest natural bay in California. Whether it's the North Coast stakeholders group that hammered out a unified proposal for the Marine Life Protection Act or the collaborative planning effort that could expand aquaculture in Humboldt Bay, people in Humboldt County have been solving problems better than we sometimes imagine. Which is a very good thing, considering the challenges on the horizon.




It was a cold, gray morning in Tacoma, and wind gusts were tossing frigid mists outside the Hotel Murano while Sarah Garcia stood in one of the beige-carpeted conference rooms to deliver one of the more captivating presentations of the week. Garcia, who has soft features and a calm authority, is the director of economic development for the port of Gloucester, Mass. Like Humboldt Bay, Gloucester's port has a long and colorful history, dominated by working fishermen, and that history is often invisible to visitors. (The big exception was The Perfect Storm, the book and movie about Gloucester fishermen who were swept to sea during a hurricane.) "People say, ‘Gloucester is like a veiled woman; she could be beautiful but you're not sure,'" Garcia said.

In an effort to unveil her, the port authority came up with an idea for an interactive harbor walk that leads tourists and locals in and out of the working waterfront, up to the town's civic center, stores and museum and down the city's Sicilian main street before looping back to the waterfront. The tour is enhanced not only by 42 little pillars with informational plaques (called "story moments") but also with short, entertaining videos that can be viewed on a smart phone or tablet.

Garcia explained how it works: You download a free app (which cost the port authority $20,000 to have developed) and then scan a QR code at the entrance to the "HarborWalk." Up pops a YouTube video with a friendly female narrator who instructs you to point your phone at a nearby parking lot and shake it. Suddenly, on the screen, the drab parking lot fills with confetti, followed by a montage of images from a festival called Fiesta, which takes place on the spot each June. And with that, the tour has begun.

Each video directs you to the next stop, where you can watch another short video. One tells you about the annual Greasy Pole competition, where contestants (often inebriated) attempt to walk across a long, slippery power pole suspended above the bay and grab a flag at the far end before splashing into the water, 20 feet below, to the wild cheers of revelers. The video shows highlights and slip-flail-splash lowlights set to opera music.

Another clip directs you to a dory, a 16-foot rowboat, that's stationed on a pier. You can work the oars and blow a conch shell while watching the harrowing tale of Howard Blackburn, a fisherman who survived a brutal storm in a boat that size in 1883. The 2 ½-mile walking tour covers the history, economics and cultural events of the port. "We wanted to tell the whole story," Garcia said. And since it was launched last August, the project has started to change that story. "A commercial business owner said he saw business go up 20 percent after the walk went in," Garcia added.

Jim Brennan, a Seattle-based landscape architect, was impressed by Garcia's presentation. "That was so intriguing, and I thought that kind of approach for Eureka was an interesting idea," he said in a follow-up phone interview. Brennan got to know our county seat after the city hired him to revitalize its channel dock and boardwalk, which now include new pedestrian plazas. He also designed the Eureka Fisherman's Terminal building.

Brennan said that a similar harbor walking tour in Eureka could highlight the city's Victorian architecture, Native American history, the bay's industrial history, the Madaket harbor cruise and more. Videos could show highlights from the kinetic sculpture race and the Perilous Plunge. And the city could promote the whole thing to both locals and travelers.

"There really are an awful lot of tourists on Highway 101 coming through the redwoods," Brennan said. "It's just a matter of how you capture them, bring them off of the 101 and into Eureka, because it really is a delightful place." He'd driven through the city for years without realizing it sits on the water.

Eureka is currently trying to bring more people to that waterfront by landing a tenant for a seafood café in the fisherman's terminal building (a business in Shelter Cove is reportedly interested) and permitting a hotel next door. Community Development Director Robert Wall said the city is finishing up an environmental impact report for the hotel.

A challenge for the city, Wall said, is that so much waterfront land is zoned coastal-dependent industrial, which means it's reserved for businesses that depend on the waterfront. That has frustrated other business applicants hoping to locate there. (Lost Coast Brewery was one recent example.) "But you have to balance that with the importance of [that zoning]," Wall said. He explained that there's only so much land to go around with the deep water and port facilities that can support coastal-dependent industrial use.

While the city so far lacks a formal walking tour, it's making progress on walkability with the recent completion of a section of new trail that leads south from Truesdale Avenue (near the Bayshore Mall) and along the Elk River waterfront to Herrick Avenue at the south end of Eureka. Wall said that environmental work is underway for two more sections of the "Hikshari Trail" that will extend it another 2 ½ miles to the boardwalk on C Street. The plan is for the trail eventually to extend all the way to Target on the northeast edge of town.




A favorite phrase among speakers at the conference was "the triple bottom line." Again and again, in talking about different types of projects, presenters mentioned this three-pronged approach, which incorporates the "three pillars" of modern project planning: people, planet and profit.  

It came up during the full sessions held each morning, when coffee-fueled participants gathered at round tables in an enormous conference room and learned about big-picture concepts such as the National Working Waterfront Network, a collaborative problem-solving alliance whose early projects include economic and environmental work in Trinidad Harbor.

The three pillars stood tall later each day, during smaller sessions that ranged from tips on getting mitigation credits for removing creosote-treated harbor pilings to advances in seawall engineering, climate change issues, conflict resolution and more.

The term's ubiquity reflects a growing acknowledgement that social, ecological and economic values don't have to conflict -- that, in fact, they're inseparable when it comes to activities on working waterways and waterfronts.

The tone was set on the symposium's first night with a screening of Ocean Frontiers, a documentary about new approaches -- and unlikely alliances -- in ocean management. And here's where one validation of local practices came in (though not explicitly): One of the film's four segments tells the story of Iowa farmers who learn that nitrogen and phosphorous from wayward fertilizers have been leeching into the Mississippi River and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico where they've created a dead zone the size of Massachusetts.

In an attempt to remedy the problem, the concerned farmers (and they were concerned, after taking a fishing field trip to see the damage) have taken a trick from Arcata's playbook: building wetlands to create natural filtration systems. (One farmer was especially proud of the long-neck swans that had found his ponds -- reminiscent of the egrets and herons that perch at our local filtration ponds in the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.)

This sort of collaborative approach is the specialty of John Hansen, an Oakland-based nonprofit organizer who gave a presentation outlining his work as coordinator of the West Coast Ecosystem-Based Management Network. That's another term -- "ecosystem-based management" -- that came up frequently, and like the "triple bottom line" it refers to interconnectivity between nature and human activities. Hansen's network is a partnership of eight community-based initiatives focused on achieving environmental goals while considering social factors. They range geographically from a restoration plan for southern California's Santa Monica Bay to an environmental protection effort in northern Washington's San Juan Islands.

Just about smack-dab in the middle is the Humboldt Bay Initiative, a collaborative effort that in the past six years has helped the Humboldt region land more than half a million dollars in grant funding, plus thousands of in-kind hours from local groups. The agencies involved came up with a strategic plan to address sea level rise, combat invasive species and promote sustainable development.

The successes came in part because more than 80 participants -- from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers to HSU, local nonprofits, the Wiyot Tribe and more -- have agreed to a set of shared goals. And the approach is guided by the principles of "ecosystem-based management."

"So instead of only conservation goals there are often socio-economic goals as well," said Becky Price-Hall, a watershed coordinator with the City of Trinidad who's helping lead the initiative.

The sea-level rise project started with a meticulous inventory of Humboldt Bay's shoreline by environmental planner Aldaron Laird (see "Aldaron's Walkabout," Jan. 5, 2012). Now, local governments are using a $250,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to figure out how to deal with the planet's expanding oceans, which are projected to rise at least six inches by 2030 and a full foot by 2050.

Dan Berman, director of conservation for the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, said that new high-resolution elevation maps, created with laser imaging technology, will help Eureka, Arcata, the county and other jurisdictions predict the impacts of rising seas. The 101 corridor between Arcata and Eureka is one particularly vulnerable spot, along with the Jacobs Avenue levee on Eureka's north side and Hookton Slough near College of the Redwoods. And each of those areas is managed by a different government.

"We need to have a coordinated approach to how we handle this," Berman said.
"We'll sit down with the planning and public works staff from governments around the bay to figure out what this means for policy."

On another project, Price-Hall is working with Craig Benson, a watershed coordinator with the Redwood Community Action Agency, to improve water quality and salmonid habitat in Trinidad and Humboldt bays. She said that the strategic plan developed through the Humboldt Bay Initiative helped grease the wheels for a grant from the California Department of Conservation, which is funding the project.




Another hot topic at the symposium was marine spatial planning, or MSP (the acronyms were flying). This refers to a process for mapping out who's using a given waterway when and where. It's like a land-use map for the ocean, and it allows for informed decision-making that balances ocean activities such as energy, recreation, conservation and industry.

"We in Rhode Island consider marine spatial planning a way to plan our own destiny," said Jennifer McCann during her symposium presentation. McCann, who works for the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, explained how MSP helped the state governor work with scientists and fishermen to find a good spot for the offshore wind turbines he wanted built. "We're considered the Saudi Arabia of wind," McCann quipped.

MSP has also been used in the development of marine protected areas on both coasts, including the underwater ocean parks established here in California through the Marine Life Protection Act. And on that issue, people from Humboldt can speak with authority. Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, CEO of the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, drove up to Tacoma to talk about her experience with the MLPS initiative.

"Tribes were not consulted in the formation of the law," she told a room-full of symposium attendees. Tribal leaders on the North Coast heard that tribes in the rest of the state had been left out of the process entirely. "We asked for the process to slow down and began meeting with other stakeholders," Hostler-Carmesin said.

She explained how, through a long process of collaboration and compromise, the North Coast region managed to develop a unified proposal on the location of marine protected areas -- a challenge that has proved elusive in other coastal regions.

After returning home to Trinidad, Hostler-Carmesin said that she was impressed with how the symposium wove together many of the difficult challenges she faces daily. The Trinidad Harbor is home to 17 commercial crabbers, and it has a modest but important salmon season beginning on May 1. Hostler-Carmesin talked about the difficulty of balancing environmental stewardship with economic development to the satisfaction of government regulations and tribe members.

People, planet, profit.

The triple bottom line was also addressed by Harbor District Commissioner Mike Wilson, who impressed symposium participants with his presentation about expanding mariculture in Humboldt Bay. He explained how students at HSU helped identify more than 2,600 acres of potential area for expanding oyster farms in the bay, and how the district then brought together oyster farmers and environmental groups before moving ahead.

Last month the Harbor District submitted applications to pre-permit 300 new acres for mariculture, which it could then lease out to interested farmers. "So if we make it through this permit process we'll basically double the jobs on Humboldt Bay related to shellfish culture -- and the revenues," Wilson explained to his audience. (For more see "The World Is Yours, Oyster Farmer," April 5, 2012.)

One person impressed by the project is Paul Dye, the Nature Conservancy's director of maritime conservation for Washington state. "I thought that was a wonderful example of thinking proactively about who you want in your bay, and then doing something at the public level that facilitates that," Dye said.

Dye believes that as marine industries consolidate and fewer people make their living on the water, coastal communities on both shores have been losing their connection to the ocean.

"A good fishing and aquaculture industry will support waterfront infrastructure and keep that working waterfront alive," he said. "And I believe that it needs to be there for coastal communities to care about conservation and the ocean."

Perhaps the most ambitious plan for our waterfront (not counting the east-west rail project, which is still just an idea) is also being spearheaded the Harbor District. That would be the potential purchase and transformation of the decommissioned Samoa pulp mill into a marine research and innovation park ("Reincarnating the Pulp Mill," Jan. 31, 2013). The current vision includes a multi-use dock, an aquaculture business park and a renewable energy research and innovation center managed by HSU's Schatz Energy Research Center. But so far, the Harbor District hasn't committed to purchasing the mill, and the environmental challenges that would come with it.

With that project, like so many others, Humboldt County will continue searching for harmony between people, planet and profit. We'll keep arguing about trails and rails, big box stores and dioxins, fishing regulations and tribal rights. But it's helpful to realize that the same arguments are happening in lots of other coastal communities, and that when we're at our best we can sometimes reach consensus.


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