PORT OF STOCKTON

The Port’s Big Sand Hassle

September 19, 2017

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The Port of Stockton's Jeff Wingfield stands atop a mountain of sand and sediment at Rough and Ready Island dredged from the channel - about 200,000 cubic yards, enough to fill a line of dump trucks stretching from Stockton to Oakland.

The Port of Stockton’s Jeff Wingfield stands atop a mountain of sand and sediment at Rough and Ready Island dredged from the channel – about 200,000 cubic yards, enough to fill a line of dump trucks stretching from Stockton to Oakland.

STOCKTON – Forget the dunes of north Africa: You could almost film the next “Star Wars” desert planet scene at the Port of Stockton, where about 15 acres of open land has suddenly disappeared beneath a pile of sand up to two stories high.

Not only is it a sight to behold, but the sand heap is one of the more interesting untold stories from last winter’s floods.

Rivers upstream of Stockton were running so fast and furious that they tore away at the shoreline, bringing massive amounts of sediment into the San Joaquin River and the Delta, where slower currents allowed the dirt to drop to the bottom of the channel and form “shoals” or hidden sandbars.

That’s no big deal, unless you’re one of the largest inland ports on the West Coast and you need a river deep enough to accommodate oceangoing cargo ships.

In only a couple of months, the river channel that officials try to maintain at about 35 feet deep had been reduced to 29 feet deep in places. To avoid running aground, ships had to lighten their loads, which is less efficient and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per trip.

The mountain of dredged sand stretches nearly two stories high, one of the more interesting untold stories from last winter's floods. "It started to become a concern and safety issue for pilots and the  Coast Guard." said Jeff Wingfield, and environmental manager at the Port of Stockton.

The mountain of dredged sand stretches nearly two stories high, one of the more interesting untold stories from last winter’s floods. “It started to become a concern and safety issue for pilots and the Coast Guard.” said Jeff Wingfield, an environmental manager at the Port of Stockton.

“We said, ‘We’ve got a serious problem here,’ ” said Jeff Wingfield, an environmental manager at the port. “It started to become a big concern and safety issue for pilots and the Coast Guard.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for keeping the channel clear, agreed to do emergency dredging months earlier than they would normally start. That pile of the sand on Rough and Ready Island is the fruit of their labor — about 200,000 cubic yards, enough to fill a line of dump trucks stretching from Stockton to Oakland.

Most of the sand came from a relatively small area where the upstream San Joaquin River dumps into the shipping channel. The river makes a sharp left turn there and it’s a notorious problem spot for shoals, so much that engineers long ago built what they call a “sediment trap” there — basically a hole that is even deeper than the rest of the channel and is intended to catch most of the muck.

But this year, even the sediment trap filled up. And that made officials nervous.

“One shoal is all it takes” to disrupt shipping traffic, Wingfield said. “Your channel is only as deep as your shallowest point.”

If nothing had been done about the sediment filling the channel, officials might have had to shut it down, a disaster for a busy port that last year was visited more than 230 times by ships from around the world, carrying 3.9 tons of cargo worth about $1.5 billion.

If nothing had been done about the sediment filling the channel, officials might have had to shut it down, a disaster for a busy port that last year was visited more than 230 times by ships from around the world, carrying 3.9 tons of cargo worth about $1.5 billion.

The amount of water coursing into the Delta also made things more difficult this winter. The giant ships displace so much water that the rivers at times came close to sloshing over the tops of the levees and onto farmers’ fields. So for a while, ships stopped coming in at high tide.

The volume of water also made it harder at times for the pilots to steer around shoals. One mistake and they could run aground or break through a levee.

No such disaster happened, and the emergency dredging has deepened the channel back to about 31 feet. That’s still about 4 feet shallower than port officials would like, but the dredging that they routinely do even in non-flood years will begin soon and should improve conditions even more, Wingfield said.

If nothing had been done, he said, it’s conceivable the port might have had to shut down the channel. That could have been disastrous. Last year the port was visited more than 230 times by ships from around the world, carrying 3.9 tons of cargo worth about $1.5 billion.

And as for all of that sand? Port officials haven’t decided for sure what they want to do with it, but they’d rather have it sitting on their land than lurking at the bottom of the river.

In the past the port has donated tens of thousands of cubic yards of dredged sand to the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, but the port’s new supersized sandbox is too far away to make that economically feasible this time.

But the sand might be useful as fill material in a construction project.

Or for filming the next “Star Wars.”

“We’ll find a good use for it,” Wingfield said.

– Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com.
Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.

 

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