Because of a protracted contract dispute between the Army Corps of Engineers and a private dredge contractor, AIS Construction, the City of Santa Barbara’s harbor found itself effectively walled in this week by the unusually large sand deposits left by powerful storm surges. Only the flattest hulled vessels — used by lobster, crab, and urchin harvesters — could get out. The rest — larger fishing boats, Coast Guard ships, fishing and diving charter boats, whale-watching tour boats, and sailboats — were stranded. One tour ship, the Double Dolphin,had to be hauled in by the Harbor Patrol when it got stranded on a sand dune. Waterfront officials canceled a cruise ship scheduled to stop in Santa Barbara on Wednesday.
For the first time in many decades, the harbor did not get dredged this November, creating a significant buildup of sand. City officials had communicated their anxiety that this might happen in advance, but to no avail. Because of air-quality issues, the dredger must be powered by electricity rather than oil or gas. AIS is the only contractor capable of doing the job. When the three-year contract came due this fall, AIS insisted it be paid substantially more the first year than the other two. The Army Corps balked. In the end, Army Corps spokesperson Jay Field said federal taxpayers were saved $250,000 from the original bid. AIS will dredge 300,000 cubic yards of sand a year for $2 million for three years. Because of the buildup, there’s an estimated 315,000 cubic yards now. Field said AIS will “work around the clock” to get the harbor open.