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Inside the DIY Movement to Fight Coastal Erosion

by Elijah
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For as long as David Cottrell could remember, his hometown had fallen into the sea. In the early 1960s, when Cottrell was three years old, an abandoned U.S. Coast Guard station teetered over the waters of the Pacific Ocean in North Cove, Washington. By mid-decade, the station was gone, along with a post office, a schoolhouse and one of the state’s first lighthouses.

As the buildings of North Cove melted into the ocean, many of the town’s residents also melted away, loading their wooden houses onto trucks and retreating inland. With each tidal wave, those left behind were reminded that it was only a matter of time before their homes too would collapse.

Yet there was a life to be earned here. For the next 55 years, Cottrell would work on one of 70 family farms that together supplied 60 percent of the state’s cranberries on the 800 acres of swampy land just inland from North Cove, behind Highway 105. The highway provided a vital transportation link and served as a natural dike, but like the land around it, its future was uncertain; Highway 105 had already been moved once due to rising waters, in 1995, and a 2015 estimate from the Washington State Department of Ecology suggested that even in its new location it would be underwater by 2030. A seawall to hold back the ocean would cost tens of dollars. millions of dollars.

With his livelihood and his community on the brink, Cottrell felt he had “nothing to lose.” One day in 2016, he walked to the end of North Cove’s main ocean road, Blue Pacific Drive—at the end a mess of crumpled asphalt culminating in a 15-foot drop into the ocean—and threw $400 worth of basalt boulders across the edge. in a last-ditch effort to combat erosion. Against all odds, it worked. Where there was once only a churning ocean, seven years later there is a new beach, complete with dune grass, driftwood and a thriving ecosystem.

Cottrell’s success sparked a grassroots movement, with people from the local Native American Shoalwater Bay Tribe, citizen volunteers, and members of the local drainage district joining together to form an action group that worked on beach restoration projects along 2 miles of nearby coastline. For George Kaminsky, a coastal engineer with the state Department of Ecology, Cottrell’s work may have revolutionized the field. “He never tried to take credit for it,” he says, “but David contributed something that was of enormous benefit and actually saved the community.”

Founded in 1884, North Cove is nestled behind Cape Shoalwater, an ever-shrinking spit of land that winds its way toward the northern end of Willapa Bay. Here, a perfect storm of conditions has turned it into the fastest eroding coastline on the US West Coast, earning it the nickname ‘Washaway Beach’.

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