It starts with rain in the Cascades. Water licks up a speck of sand near a mountain creek and launches it downstream.
Along the way, that bit of sand joins about a billion others. It joins dropped tree leaves in Duvall, pebbles from the river banks in Monroe and the mud sloughed off from farms as the water rushes by Snohomish.
By the time that grain of sand arrives at the mouth of the Snohomish River, it’s part of a dark, roiling mass of slurry that slows and settles along Everett’s waterfront.
That sediment costs taxpayers millions of dollars to remove and could become a lot more costly if the amount continues to grow. Unchecked, the river sediment would grind commerce on the Snohomish River to a halt and landlock one of the largest marinas on the West Coast.
Not much can be done — except to dig up the stuff and move it.
The first known person to consider meddling with all that sediment was Henry Hewitt Jr.
In 1892, he wanted to create a freshwater harbor at the mouth of the Snohomish River. A financial panic the following year put that project on hold.
The Army Corps of Engineers took up the project four years later. It didn’t go well. There wasn’t enough money to do the project right and engineers underestimated the sheer amount of sediment. Over the next several decades, dikes would be built, breached and rebuilt.
Meanwhile, all that sludge was being pumped up and piled just off the waterfront — the beginnings of Jetty Island.
The Port of Everett took over in 1929. Planners for the city of Everett and the Port continued to draw and redraw plans for the jetty well into the 1970s. They wanted industry.
The people of Everett wanted a park. The Kiwanis Club built a sun shelter in 1965 and tried launching a ferry to and from Jetty Island. That idea had to be abandoned — too much sediment clogged the route to the island.
By the 1980s, the port was working with community groups on a plan to use clean sediment to build a protective berm and extend Jetty Island. What had been a bane was suddenly a benefit.
Today, Jetty Island is a wildlife conservation area and a sandy oasis thousands of people enjoy each summer. Sediment is still used to replenish and reinforce it.
Using the jetty as a dumping spot for sediment won’t solve this problem: The Snohomish River never takes a day off and all those grains of sand keep coming.
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For the Port of Everett, sediment remains a pricey problem.
The 10th Street Boat Launch, the state’s largest, has been closed for two weeks while workers scoop about 30,000 cubic yards of the stuff. Compare that to a decade ago, when workers dredged 5,000 cubic yards from the same place.
If they didn’t do the work, sediment would clog the launch, making it impossible for boats to maneuver at low tide. Last year, the Port was forced to shut down lanes on 22 days for this reason, said Graham Anderson, a Port senior planner.
With fuel costs up and more material to move, that work is getting more expensive. The project is expected to cost about $600,000. The Port has asked its city and county partners for help.
The Port has another $1 million in dredging planned for later this year in its three marinas.
Not far from the marina, another crew hired by the Army Corps of Engineers is busy scooping out a rectangular 20-foot deep hole in the river channel. The hole is a man-made settling basin four football fields long designed to collect and hold what the river drops.
The Corps is responsible for clearing a channel that extends from the waterfront six miles up the lower Snohomish River. Each year, the Corps oversees dredging operations at different points along that channel so the river remains navigable for commercial vessels and anglers alike.
On the waterfront, a worker high atop the barge sits in a control booth like an airplane cockpit. He pushes and pulls levers and a gigantic clamshell bucket attached to a crane lowers into the water, grabs mouthfuls of black sediment and drops them onto a waiting barge.
When the barge is mounded full, a tugboat pushes it into the middle of the Sound, where it’s released. By Sunday, the crew hopes to have finished removing an estimated 340,000 cubic yards of material. That project, paid for with federal money, costs $1.75 million.
Both crews are working round the clock trying to meet Sunday’s deadline — the date federal and state agencies say dredging needs to stop so salmon aren’t harmed. That’s just one of a long list of federal and state rules both agencies have to follow, including strict environmental requirements.
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We may win this battle against the sediment, but Mother Nature will win the war.
The mountains are slowly being dismantled and transported to Puget Sound — one grain of sand at a time, said David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington. He studies how erosion shapes the world.
It’s hard to know if the uptick in the amount of sediment is here to stay, he said. Higher than normal rainfalls and flooding are partly responsible. Humans are responsible too: development speeds erosion.
Fighting the river is an uphill battle, he said, but what choice do we have?
After all, he said, moving sediment is a lot cheaper than moving the city.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, email@example.com.
How the story was reported: Tom Murphy, an anthropologist at Edmonds Community College, shared his research on the history of Jetty Island. Steve Neels, a superintendent with General Construction of Seattle, provided a tour of a derrick barge working on the waterfront. Hiram Arden of the Army Corps of Engineers explained dredging.
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