Wahkiakum County shares river border, but has few direct ties

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Oregon is visible across the Columbia River from the ferry dock on Puget Island, Wash., in Wahkiakum County. The ferry between Puget Island and Westport is the only direct transportation link between Wahkiakum County and Oregon, as well as the only continuously operating ferry on the lower Columbia River.Columbia County shares a border with six counties — three in Oregon and three in Washington.

Few would blame you if you can’t name them all, although most of these six neighbors are obvious.

To the south, almost three-tenths of Columbia County’s workforce commutes to Multnomah County; more than one-sixth works in Washington County.

To the northeast is Cowlitz County, just across the Lewis and Clark Bridge from Rainier. The city is frequently considered part of the Longview, Wash., metroplex, together with Kelso, Wash.

To the west, Clatsop County is a short drive from Clatskanie, and the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Wauna is a major employer for the area. Although the mill is in Clatsop County, it has a Clatskanie address.

To the east, Clark County has no direct transportation link to Columbia County, but as it shares a border along the Columbia River east of Sauvie Island and St. Helens, emergency responders in the two counties often work together. It was deputies from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office who located a drowning victim from Scappoose in the river two months ago.

But Columbia County has one other neighbor that seems to rarely be mentioned: small, lightly populated Wahkiakum County, which shares a short riverine border with Columbia County north of Clatskanie.

Asked what he knows about Wahkiakum County, Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller answered, “Not too much.”

“We’re loosely attached to them, just by virtue of geography, in a couple of different ways,” Heimuller said, naming fishing issues and a circuitous transit link between Cathlamet, Wash., the Wahkiakum County seat and only incorporated community, and Rainier by way of Longview.

In fact, the only direct surface transportation link between Wahkiakum County and Oregon is a ferry, which makes hourly trips across the Columbia River.

Ferry system

The ferry Wahkiakum shuttles up to 12 cars between Puget Island, an agricultural community connected to Cathlamet by bridge, and Westport in Clatsop County, just one mile west of the Columbia County line. The Wahkiakum is the only continuously operated ferry between Washington and Oregon still in service.

“We have a number of our people who work across the community ... who rely on this ferry to get to and fro,” said Wahkiakum County Commissioner Blair Brady.

Brady said many Wahkiakum County residents who work at the Wauna paper mill, which is visible from the ferry dock, commute across the river by ferry.

Recently, the ferry suffered a couple of serious mechanical issues. On Oct. 23, it began taking on water, prompting the county to take it out of service and bring it to the Port of Astoria for repairs. Then, on its way back from Clatsop County, the ship’s port engine failed. It was cleared to return to passenger service on Wednesday, Nov. 6, the county announced via its official Twitter feed.

“That does affect the travel of some Columbia County residents,” Heimuller said of the ferry outage on Oct. 30.

People attempting to travel between Wahkiakum County and Westport while the ferry was out of service had to take a lengthier route, either via the Astoria-Megler Bridge or the Lewis and Clark Bridge, Brady said.

A call for comment from Georgia-Pacific officials on how mill operations were affected by the ferry outage was not returned.

The aging ferry is actually slated to be replaced in 2015.

The Wahkiakum has served since 1962, and Brady said he expects its replacement to serve about the same length of time.

While a bridge between Puget Island and Cathlamet replaced a second ferry that used to link those communities in 1939, Brady said a bridge between Puget Island and Oregon is prohibitively expensive. A second ferry link directly to Columbia County is likely not feasible either, he said, with the state of Washington and Wahkiakum County footing the bill for existing ferry operations as it is.

“It would be lovely to see if Oregon would like to ever offset some of our costs,” Brady said.

The new ferry is expected to have about double the capacity of the Wahkiakum, as well as room for emergency vehicles and potentially even a passenger bus, although Brady said he is unsure of the “practicality of that.”

“We’re not looking to encourage traffic on the ferry,” Brady remarked. “The road system is really not designed for it.”

Border county

Brady has a point. With a total population estimated by the United States Census Bureau at about 4,000, and a land area of just 264 square miles, Wahkiakum County has small roads, with Washington State Route 4 — a two-lane highway for much of its length — as its only major thoroughfare.

“We do not have a traffic light in the entire county, which we’re proud of,” said Brady.

Wahkiakum County also lacks for shopping opportunities, Brady said. The county has no strip malls, he observed.

“Being the border county that we are, y’all get a lot of our shoppers because of our tax situation,” Brady said, referring to the phenomenon of Washington residents fording the river to avoid the state’s sales tax. He suggested Wahkiakum County’s lack of reliance on sales tax revenues to begin with helped it weather the economic recession, as it was not seriously affected by the downturn in purchasing.

Neither Brady nor Heimuller were able to name any specific intergovernmental agreements between Columbia and Wahkiakum counties. Columbia County has agreements with several of its other neighbors that have come before county officials in recent months, including contracts with Clatsop and Cowlitz counties to house juvenile offenders and the transfer of accused murder Daniel A. Butts from the Columbia County Jail to a facility in Multnomah County at his lawyers’ request.

“Oftentimes, we get IGAs that have been in place for 25 years, and we don’t know whether they’re there or not,” Heimuller said. “So we certainly could have [them].”

The counties do participate in a regional group to advocate for gillnet fisheries on the Columbia River, which Brady said is of significant interest to Wahkiakum County.

Beyond that, Brady indicated he would like his county to explore more ways to work with its neighbors.

“We’re open to that, because I think the regional approaches, particularly with healthcare and law enforcement, are going to be the future,” Brady said.

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