ASTORIA, Ore. - You've heard of neighborhood zoning. Now there's a move afoot to zone the ocean. Oregon, Washington state and the federal government all have fledgling plans to coordinate competing ocean uses.
But wave energy developers say Oregon's initial draft leaves them in a watery ghetto. Oregon is the first to produce detailed ocean maps.
At first glance, the Pacific Ocean looks wide open and mostly empty. It's anything but on a digital map the state of Oregon has recently put online. The interactive display includes around 150 layers of data about existing ocean uses and natural features.
Oregon Sea Grant fellow Todd Hallenbeck demonstrates on his laptop by highlighting prime fishing grounds.
"There's a large area of the territorial sea that's important to fishing with the darker red colors representing some of the most important areas for each of the ports," Hallenbeck points out.
The map lights up from Neah Bay, Washington to the Oregon-California border.
He adds, "We can turn on things like commercial shipping lanes," which adds purple lines crisscrossing the screen.
"We can turn on some of the seabird layers that represent areas where there are seabird colonies. These are represented by these little dots that show up right along the shoreline and rocky reef areas."
I ask him, "After we put all of these layers on — and we've just selected some of the big ones — what's left if I'm a wave energy developer?"
Hallenbeck responds, "There are not a ton of areas that seem to not have something of importance in them already. So the challenge here is finding the few areas that exist that have the least amount of conflict."
That's the nub for actual project developers. Justin Klure of Pacific Energy Ventures feels boxed out by the initial set of lines drawn on the ocean planning map.
"First blush, those maps look a little intimidating from the industry perspective," he says. "Because the areas that they've identified are relatively small and don't align with some of the basic requirements that the industry is looking at, which is access to port, access to transmission, certain water depths."
Klure isn't giving up hope yet. It's early in the process, too early in his view to be "drawing lines in the sand." To stay with the zoning analogy, he argues for a "mixed use" approach while more data is gathered.
The planning process is moving slowly. That's creating regulatory uncertainty. It's scared off at least one ocean energy company interested in Oregon. Europe-based Aquamarine Power closed its local office this fall.
In a statement, the company expressed a hope to return to the Pacific Northwest someday, but said it will focus on California in the meantime.
Groups representing the fishing fleet remain leery of the ocean planning process. Ilwaco, Washington crab fisherman Dale Beasley has a hard time imagining sharing the sea with industrial energy installations.
"Ocean energy and fishing are mutually exclusive." he says. "They will not be able to coexist in the same area."
A representative of environmental groups is more conciliatory. Susan Allen directs a coalition called Our Ocean.
"I do think there is a way through this," she says. "It has to do with the fact that Oregon is uniquely suited to deal with this. We have a long legacy of figuring out what compromises are. We are the state that pioneered the Beach Act. We pioneered land use planning."
The ocean mapping and zoning process won't stop the West Coast's first commercial wave energy park. Ocean Power Technologies' demonstration project near Reedsport, Oregon is grandfathered in. The company plans to launch the first of 10 massive floating wave energy generators around the middle of next year.
In 2010, the Washington State Legislature passed bill to start what it called "marine spatial planning," but lawmakers budgeted no money to do it.
On the Web:
Oregon Ocean Planning Information:
Wash. Dept of Ecology: Marine spatial planning
Aquamarine Power leaves Oregon: http://assets.sustainablebusinessoregon.com/articles/2011/11/aquamarine-power-leaves-oregon-citing.html