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Sandbar sucks the wind out of Hood River

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Windsurf.jpgHOOD RIVER — Hood River has a new “island” — an impudent, sprawling 30 acres of sand, debris and anxiety smack dab in the middle of things at the mouth of the city’s namesake river.

Born suddenly in November from torrential storms, this nascent delta has surprised, confounded and even bemused developers, city leaders, port officials and curious onlookers. It could kill a multi-million waterfront hotel development, wreak havoc with Hood River’s multitudes of windsurfers and kiteboarders, and keep cruise ships from ever pulling into the city again.

The new land mass has completely blocked access to the vacant Nichols Boat Basin, where cruise ships have docked, and where Bob Naito has his development plans. Naito, of Portland-based Naito Development, says his project, worth $10 million to $12 million, called for 60-75 hotel rooms, 50-60 condos and a recreational marina — until the new delta clogged the basin.

“We’ve had no positive feedback on dredging” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says Naito. “If the Corps won’t dredge, then I’m trying to figure out what else to do.” Without the marina, Naito says he is not sure the project would be unique enough to make it financially viable.

The island is such new real estate that ownership is still being sorted out, but “it looks like the Department of State Lands; and the port owns some of it,” according to Port of Hood River executive director Michael McElwee. He says the cost to dredge this massive amount of debris would be “extremely high and the net benefits low compared to other dredging needs in the Northwest.” He adds that federal assistance to dredge the channel to the Nichols Boat Basin “will not be forthcoming. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that dredging will occur in the immediate future.” 

McElwee says the boat basin will be unusable for at least a year, “maybe forever.” That also means that cruise businesses such as Cruise West, Fantasy Cruises and American Safari Cruises can no longer make a Hood River port of call. But the loss of the cruise stops, up to 35 per year, is not a significant economic impact because cruise customers didn’t spend any time (i.e., money) in port, he notes.

What could be significant is how the delta has changed the launch areas for kiteboarders and the 10,000 windsurfers who visit Hood River every year and help fuel its $70 million tourism economy. Until the storm, the port-owned spit, used by kiteboarders, and the event site, used by windsurfers, were separate areas. But the delta now connects the two sites, according to McElwee, and has blocked off more than half of the immediate water access from the event site.

Kiteboarders are used to nature constantly changing the spit, but this is a bit beyond. “I was shocked to see the huge size of the sandbar,” wrote one blogger on ikitesurf.com. “What will the conditions be like this summer? It was difficult for me as a beginner last year to try to keep out of the way of the more advanced people. Now will we be forced to merge with the windsurfers at the event site?”

Hood River City Councilman Arthur Babitz, a windsurfer, says that the arrival of the new island (he suggests naming it Kiteland) has left everyone scratching their heads. “No one is sure what to worry about,” Babitz says, referring to the safety questions surrounding the launch sites. 

McElwee says all parties are working to figure out solutions before the recreation season is in full swing in May. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what to do because “we won’t know the final configuration [of the delta] until the high water comes this spring. Stay tuned. It’s a dynamic environment.” He says funding is being sought for an environmental study of the lower areas of the Hood River. But in the end, “it’s a natural river doing its thing.”

Whether you call it Kiteland, or as Bob Naito suggests, Nichols Island, the new real estate arrived at a time when Hood River’s waterfront is undergoing more changes than just those planned by Mother Nature, including using the expo center for commercial use and the creation of a six-acre family park, to break ground this fall.

McElwee says the future of Hood River’s waterfront is finally beginning to unfold, and for the moment, that includes Anxiety Island. Undaunted by the sudden appearance of more waterfront acreage, he sees a silver lining in the cloudy water. Says McElwee enthusiastically, “This could create a whole new venue for recreational use on the waterfront.”

— Robin Doussard

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