When David Cottrell was about three, his father drove him down a short road toward the beach in their home town of North Cove.

It was the early 1960s. The Cottrells owned, worked and lived on a cranberry farm on this part of the south Washington coast. The small, unincorporated settlement, founded in 1884, sat along an embayment behind Cape Shoalwater, a claw-like spit that curled into the north end of Willapa Bay, where an estuary opens into the Pacific. Between this powerful inlet and forested uplands, the cranberry trade had thrived for nearly a century.

At the end of the road, there it was. A big white building, part of an abandoned coast guard station, half over the bank’s edge, cracked open, in the water. The structure was the latest casualty of coastal erosion – relentless, unsparing, seemingly unstoppable – that was devouring the town.

That night, Cottrell couldn’t sleep. And the sense of the ocean creeping closer – “When is it coming for my house? Could our house go in the water?” – has been lurking in his mind ever since.

A man and a woman hold hands as they walk through a field of purple plants
David Cottrell, a cranberry farmer, leads North Cove’s largest-ever anti-erosion project. He and his wife, Connie Allen, are part of a citizens’ group collecting donations to pay for projects. Photograph: Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times

These days, Cottrell leads North Cove’s largest-ever anti-erosion project. In the last few years, he has created barriers – long berms of piled stones and accreted sand – that keep the waves at bay. The project, a dynamic revetment, now runs nearly 2 miles along the Willapa’s north shore.

The experiment, so far, appears to be working. As of last year, the cove had seen a roughly tenfold reduction in the erosion rate – a promising break with historical patterns – according to the Washington state department of ecology. Property values had risen as the high tide line migrated seaward.

Coastal scientists and engineers, in the US and Europe, have been following Cottrell’s work. In the age of climate change and intensifying coastal storms, nearshore communities face an uncertain future. If Cottrell’s experiment succeeds in the long run, the technique could be imitated in places that cannot afford to wall off rising waters with costly construction.

“It goes beyond North Cove and Washington state and the north-west,” said George Kaminsky, a coastal engineer at the state department of ecology who has been assisting and tracking Cottrell’s work. “It goes internationally, this approach of using cobble – small rocks or gravel – to dissipate energy and preserve beaches in places that don’t have a lot of resources to build expensive structures.”

A woman stands in front of a house that has canted sideways, its supporting walls and beams destroyed.
North Cove became famous as the west coast’s fastest-eroding spot, earning the name ‘Washaway Beach’. Photograph: Westport South Beach Historical Society

Washaway Beach

North Cove became famous as the US west coast’s fastest-eroding spot, its epithet, “Washaway Beach”, denoting decades of loss and dread. Year after year, winter storms, tidal currents and ocean-borne waves kicked North Cove’s feet out from under it and forced the town to retreat north-east.

A deepwater channel that runs the length of the cove, across the Willapa bar, periodically advances toward the town. Waves get larger over the channel, crash in a narrow zone and scour away the land. The contents of North Cove flush out into the ocean. Some years, the town saw its shoreline move inland well over 100ft.

Meanwhile, a jetty system up north that trapped sand since the early 20th century; the planting of sand-seizing dune grass on other beaches; the damming of the Columbia River lowering the sediment supply – all of these may have prevented North Cove’s beach from recovering as the seasons wore on.

A small white house with a light tower adjacent sits on the edge of a cliff which has eroded away beneath it.
The Willapa Bay lighthouse began to crumble starting in 1940 as erosion ate through the bluff beneath it. Photograph: Westport South Beach Historical Society

By the mid-1960s, the coast guard station of Cottrell’s memory had disappeared. So had a lighthouse, schoolhouse, post office and several summer homes. Residents pleaded with government officials, petitioned US presidents, sought emergency funding, vaunted North Cove’s potential as a site for recreation and a marina, anything that could drive dollars to protect the area.

As these hopes went unanswered, North Cove became a laboratory of crude experiments in shoreline stabilization – some more quixotic than others. Anti-erosion projects sprouted up, on individual properties and along vulnerable stretches of beach. Most efforts now lie hundreds of feet offshore, at the bottom of the Willapa.

Journalists and shutterbugs documented the growing debris field: the houses losing the favor of the bank and breaking apart on the beach, belongings and building materials scattered like entrails, foundations exposed like bone. A handful of homeowners placed their houses on wheels and carted them elsewhere. Some residents relocated within the community, others left entirely. The erosion zone was a beacon for lawbreakers. People exploited the low vigilance, dumped garbage and toxic substances on doomed properties, took over abandoned houses, broke into parked cars.

A white house has been placed on a trailer and hitched to the back of a truck that is towing it across a beach.
North Cove residents began to relocate as the shoreline moved steadily inland. Some placed their houses on wheels and moved them elsewhere. Photograph: Westport South Beach Historical Society

“It was normal, but it was unsettling,” Cottrell told me. “It destabilized the community in a pretty big way.”

Cottrell spoke at length on a drizzly afternoon in early 2020 on the North Cove beach. Tall and spry, the cranberry farmer sported a beard and rimless glasses, and wore his graying hair bunched in a ponytail beneath a ball cap. The words painted on the back of his dark jacket: “Wash Away No More”.

At his feet lay a heap of volcanic rocks, basalt cobble mostly ranging from baseball- to basketball-size. Shuffling around in rubber boots, Cottrell stooped to move the stones around by hand, fine-tuning a pile he had arranged to be dumped in the path of the fiercest breakers. Additional piles – resembling, he pointed out, large “speed bumps” – ran parallel to the tideline. The newer piles were still slate gray and exposed, the older ones, half-hidden in the sand, their contours visible like implants beneath skin.

A black and white image of a beach. A makeshift fence of wood pilings joined by netting runs from the sand into the water.
An attempt was made in the mid-1960s to stop North Cove erosion: pilings, cabled together with submarine netting, marching down to the surf. Photograph: Westport South Beach Historical Society

It became clear to Cottrell and his community in 2016 – when Pacific county, where North Cove is located, proposed banning construction in areas likely to erode within 30 years – that state and federal agencies considered North Cove’s extinction inevitable. Nearly 5 sq miles had been lost at the cove since 1871. The engineering feat required to save the town – a breakwater, for example – would cost many millions of dollars. As agencies had pointed out over the years, the economic value of North Cove did not justify the expense.

The state department of ecology predicted that water would breach the highway – already rerouted to escape the erosion – by 2030. Nearly 550 additional acres could be gone by 2060. Cottrell’s family farm lies at sea-level, among hundreds of acres of cranberry bogs and processing facilities. Saltwater flooding could eliminate the freshwater crop in North Cove. The local economy would take a direct hit of several million dollars, with millions more in knock-on losses.

A local alliance formed. Partners and stakeholders included the Shoalwater Bay Tribe; drainage district; conservation district; county; state departments of ecology, transportation, and fish and wildlife; and US army corps of engineers. They called themselves Wecan (Willapa Erosion Control Action Now). As drainage district chairman, Cottrell is authorized by state law to protect the district’s land “against damage or flood from any waters whatsoever”. This includes keeping the ocean out of it.

Cottrell’s wife, Connie Allen, set up a citizens’ group called Wash Away No More using the local grange non-profit to collect donations. She designed a logo and painted it on to articles of clothing – including her husband’s jacket – and other items. The group sold the merchandise, the proceeds helping to pay for cobbling.

‘You just keep feeding the system’

Dynamic revetments, or cobble berms, are not widely known, but the idea is ancient. Indigenous cultures raised clams and trapped fish within arc-shaped cobble mounds that doubled as wave absorbers. “The science and research in engineering is relatively new, but the concepts are thousands of years old,” said Kaminsky, the coastal engineer.

Cottrell is jump-starting the process that builds natural sand dunes.

These start with cobbles, which slow the water as it runs up the embankment. Small, light rocks get picked up and moved until they come to rest in low-energy areas where they will stay put, plugging gaps like blood platelets. Larger, less mobile rocks find their home where wave energy is high. When the water retreats, sand settles between the rocks and begins to bury them. A slope starts to form. Wood – limbs and trunks and root wads – nourish the dunes, and planted native dune grass helps lock them in place.

A beach leads up to homes sitting on the edge of a small bluff. Old cars and wood have been piled against the bluff to stop erosion.
In the early 1970s, an anti-erosion group built a seawall of cars and deadwood piled against the bank. Photograph: Westport South Beach Historical Society

Cottrell monitors the system, determines where it looks hungry and what to feed it. “And if you just keep feeding the system, it evolves, and it tells you what the next steps are,” Cottrell said. He thinks of it like tending a plant or raising a child: “Who knows what it’s going to be when it grows up? But if you concentrate too much on having it be a doctor, sure as anything it’s going to be a hippie.”

Eventually, he hopes to create a foredune that can withstand a major storm and shake it off. This would supply the missing buffer between Willapa Bay and North Cove – space occupied for years by fields of deadwood from ocean-felled forest, and by the wreckage of people’s lives. Nearly half of the project now has a stable dune, he said.

It will take longer to know whether the stability can hold. Maintenance – and vigilance – will be necessary. Beaches undergo cycles of erosion and accretion. Coastal storms fluctuate in ferocity. Where land meets sea, an ancient turf war is forever under way. If the beach experiences anything like the Columbus Day storm of 1962, or the great coastal gale of 2007 – or if the deepwater channel off North Cove’s shoreline starts swinging north again – everything could change. Cottrell likened the experiment to a pet dragon: “It can take care of itself, but you never quite want to turn your back on it.”

Waves erode – and create

In the early stages, funding for the project came from various sources, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state. A primary funder, the Pacific Conservation District – a non-regulatory organization that puts money toward local natural resource concerns – chose not to seek a state grant for the current biennium but may put in a bid for the next one.

But with the most urgent needs – stopping the land loss and protecting the bank – dealt with, large amounts may no longer be necessary, Cottrell said. The project survived last winter with private landowners taking care of their own shorelines, and with smaller sums and beach-building materials donated to the cause. Cottrell expects the same this coming winter.

Waves lap against the shore at North Cove, eroding the land.
Waves lap against the shore at North Cove, eroding the land. Photograph: Westport South Beach Historical Society

In light of North Cove’s example, Kaminsky believes coastal engineers should begin to rethink their field, perhaps pay less attention to hard erosion-control structures, like groins and seawalls, and more to natural processes. Waves erode beaches. They also create them.

“The waves are building this sand body,” he said as he trod over the coastline’s ridges and troughs during the king tides of December 2021, gathering data with his colleagues for a new topographic map. “We’re just helping it with a little bit of dissipation.”

At sunset, wearing a backpack-mounted GPS and a headlamp that sent a beam into the chill, misted darkness, Kaminsky marched toward the surf to finish measuring sand elevation. Before him, revealed with the tide’s retreat, cylinders, rusted and barnacled, protruded from the foreshore: the well pipes of vanished homes. Behind him, within the revetment, were bricks from lost buildings, pieces of blacktop from amputated streets – fragments of North Cove’s past now blended into the beach system, moving with the cobbles, turning up to defend the town’s future.

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