Empire editorial: Dredging up a costly, but convenient idea

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

It's a fanciful idea, and rather a nice one: Dig up the northern end of Gastineau Channel so pleasure craft and fishing boats alike can get from downtown Juneau to Auke Bay and beyond without circumnavigating Douglas Island.

It's also been tried before, and it doesn't last for long. Dredging a waterway presents the same limitations for Southeast Alaska as it does in the interior United States or anywhere else, for that matter. Once you start, you have to keep it up or nature will again take its course.

Gov. Frank Murkowski proposes spending $7 million to dredge the channel and study dredging another near the mouth of the Stikine River. One look at a map show the obvious convenience that such a project would create. Boaters now spend three or four hours chugging around Douglas, and a direct route would be nice. More than that, it could be lucrative for some commercial fishermen, particularly those with catches to deliver at Taku Smokeries/Fisheries downtown. At least for those who aren't fishing Taku's namesake inlet, to the south, a portal from the north could be a coup. But this is a case of major public investment to a eliminate a nuisance for a few. That is, it's an expensive subsidy without obvious public returns.

The expense is more than just what the administration proposes to spend opening the channel. If the cost were $7 million on a one-time expense, it could be seen as a bargain. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has studied the issue, finds that maintaining the channel would cost $1 million a year. The Mendenhall River and associated streams aren't going to quit dumping in the channel, and the waves won't quit acting on the mud.

Then there's the issue of the channel's ecology. The mud out there is not a desert, but a place for tiny life forms that help sustain both aquatic and terrestrial animals at the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. Indeed, the slight width and depth of the channel itself makes for regionally unique recreational opportunities, as evidenced by the fly fishermen in waders who spend lunch breaks stalking Dolly Varden and other fish on the flats. These values take on added weight when compared against the future dollar costs of continuous yearly dredging.

A wider, deeper channel past north Douglas surely would be convenient for many. But in no case does it appear to be cost-effective.

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