It’s usually Malibu that makes the news — every winter you see images of a storm that causes a multimillion-dollar beach house to slip and slide. Closer to home, there is one town where entire blocks have disappeared under winter waves without fanfare. It’s called North Cove, Wash. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because much of the community — the post office, school, the Grange Hall, the clam cannery — are gone, gobbled up by the hungry Pacific Ocean. If you have heard of this place, you may know the town by its nickname: Washaway Beach.
It isn’t all underwater.
“If we lose this land, we lose land our ancestors walked on 10,000 years ago,” Charlene Nelson says, strolling in front of a spick-and-span village and pointing west over a braided wetland that glints golden at sunset.
As the tribal chairwoman makes clear, people have lived in this corner of Southwest Washington for thousands of years: members of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. There are homesteaders who staked their claim on this glorious spot south of Westport four generations ago, the cranberry farmers. There are retirees who have lived here for a few years. And there are free spirits who just got here, picking up waterfront property for the price of a used car.
Everybody wants to stay forever.
What’s new is that these disparate groups are banding together to try to save the place they call home. Something else that’s new is the scope of erosion. It’s cut inland so far that it threatens State Highway 105 and the multimillion-dollar cranberry industry that lies on the other side of the highway. As the community sees it, having two economic lynchpins under threat could be a good thing. More about that in a minute.
What you need to know first is that North Cove is the most quickly eroding place on the West Coast, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. Storms coupled with high tides nibble at the shoreline. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers believe man-made projects have contributed to the erosion. The dredging of the entrance to Willapa Bay has shifted currents, while dams built on the Columbia River and non-native species that were planted for erosion-control in nearby coastal communities have starved the sand dunes that used to protect this beach.
No one knows this better than Geri Benson.
“The difference in a 30 to a 50-foot wave could change the course of my life,” she says while calmly working on one of her many art projects in the colorful living room of her cozy home.
Benson lives near the epicenter of erosion — a ghost town neighborhood where the neat grid of North Cove streets abruptly falls into the sea. One beach-house dream in particular hangs by a thread; the next storm may pitch the rambler over the sandy cliff where it now teeters in space.
When Benson, a corrections officer, retired to North Cove with her husband a few years ago, the ocean was farther away. Now, her husband has passed away and the ocean is in the backyard. Despite the uncertainty, there is no place she’d rather be.
“It brings me life — the sound of the ocean when you sleep,” Benson says. “You know, I could see myself growing old here.”
There’s a house near Benson’s that gives her — and the entire neighborhood — hope for the future. It stands alone, surrounded by water on three sides. The homeowners have continuously put down rocks to armor the land against the waves.
This is the first time that we’ve gotten all the major players coming together, looking for one solution to our one common problem.
“They’ve now become this peninsula out there, and there were a lot of knowledgeable people who said ‘It will never last.’ But, that house has been like that for 11 years,” says cranberry farmer David Cottrell. “If they hadn’t done that, I don’t think anyone would believe that we could do what we are planning to do.”
Cottrell is one of the leaders who have rallied the community to take on Mother Nature.
“This is the first time that we’ve gotten all the major players coming together, looking for one solution to our one common problem,” he says.
And a solution has never been more desperately needed. The waves are now licking at the edges of State Highway 105.
“The road itself is acting like a dike,” explains Nelson. “It actually protects our sacred tribal lands, our historical lands and protects the cranberry bogs, which are also historical lands.”
If waves breech the highway, saltwater would flood the low-lying cranberry farms that stretch for miles, all the way north to Grays Harbor. Saltwater would not only kill the cranberries, but it would change the map of Washington, according to Cottrell.
“It would basically make Westport an island with Grayland as a little tail. That’s a pretty powerful image. It’s hard to get your head around even if you live here.”
Armed with that dire possibility, the community has gained the ear of the county. Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Ayers helped arrange public meetings in which homeowners, the tribe and cranberry farmers have made their case to representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Department of Transportation. The county has also hired an engineer to propose what could be done to stabilize the land.
“I think ‘fight’ is a good description of what is going on,” says Ayers. “There is a lot of community spirit. The next step is that we’re putting a package together to go to our state Legislature — [to] get some funding.”
We are not giving up. We are going to keep working to save our homeland, our children’s children’s land.
The Shoalwater Bay Tribe is leading the way in this effort, in part because it has succeeded in getting the Army Corps of Engineers to restore a sand dune on Graveyard Spit, a $7 million project which provides a measure of protection for the reservation.
The goal is that something similar — but bigger in scale — could shield the larger area from pounding waves and tidal surges.
“We are hoping that the Army Corps of Engineers will come out and nourish the beach,” Cottrell says. “Put enough sand out there to rebuild the dunes so that every 10 or 15 years, with a little bit of addition, we can hold that line.”
In the meantime, Cottrell is taking matters into his own hands. He got a small grant to reinforce the beach below the cranberry fields using rocks as armor — similar to the strategy that the one homeowner has utilized so successfully. The project will protect cranberry fields but could also save buildings, including Geri Benson’s home. However, it is not meant to be the final fix.
“We are getting some Band-Aids on the worst holes in the hopes that we can hold the line until federal agencies can do the job right,” Cottrell says.
Will the Band-Aid hold? Will government agencies step up? As the winter storm season begins here on the northwest edge of America, the citizens of North Cove refuse to simply wash away.
“We are not giving up,” Nelson says. “We are going to keep working to save our homeland, our children’s children’s land.”