Nesting cormorant birds, COVID-19, and bad weather challenged ODOT’s bridge inspection but led to creative interagency problem-solving.
ASTORIA – A team of inspectors from three different Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Highway regions had to face wind and weather, stringent COVID-19 requirements, and thousands of cormorants to complete the inspection of the sections under the Astoria-Megler Bridge deck in early May. It was one of the most unique and difficult set of challenges the bridge inspectors have overcome in recent memory.
The bridge itself is unique: built in 1966, it is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. (Not to mention it’s been featured in the movies Short Circuit, Kindergarten Cop, Free Willy, and The Goonies.) The Astoria-Megler Bridge also is just over 4 miles long, and home to thousands of nesting birds.
“This inspection pretty much took place in the worst conditions possible for our staff and equipment,” said Mike Goff, lead bridge inspector from Highway Region 2, which covers the Willamette Valley and northern/central coast. “Nevertheless, we were able to complete the parts of the inspection we needed to in order to meet our federal requirements and provide a quality inspection report.”
Team members completed their complex task over a four-night period, with flaggers controlling two-way traffic on the bridge. On the Washington end of the bridge, inspectors had to contend with windy, rainy conditions – which made operating the Snooper Truck baskets, which go under the bridge to give inspectors a better view, precarious.
Inspectors also had to contend with thousands of double-crested cormorants, their nests, and voluminous amounts of guano covering areas of steel that were due for review.
The crews have seen a massive increase in cormorants living on the 4.1-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge since 2012, when the Army Corps of Engineers began significant hazing and population reduction of a large colony of the birds on East Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River. According to the Corps, these actions were intended to benefit endangered salmon by reducing the number of fish-eating cormorants on the island. Ironically, the birds just moved 7 miles upriver to the Astoria-Megler Bridge, where the concentration of salmon in the Columbia is greater than near East Sand Island.
Because cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the inspectors obtained a “take” permit that allowed for the removal of up to 1,500 active double-crested cormorant nests. There are estimated to be over 3,000 nests on the bridge. Fortunately, inspectors only needed to take 80 active nests during the inspection. A wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided on-site advice as they worked around the cormorants.
Through it all, the inspection team also needed to comply with COVID-19 safety requirements.
“Our bridge inspection teams have been taking extra precautions to protect ourselves and our communities, while still being able to successfully perform our duties,” Goff said. “At Astoria, during our pre-shift meetings, we did our best to maintain social distancing measures. Once in our Snooper Truck baskets, we utilized masks and gloves to maintain safe working conditions in regards to COVID and dealing with the birds.
“While in our coastal or rural communities, we have tried to limit our contact with people by bringing our own food or wearing masks when we go to stores or to pick up takeout. I believe our entire inspection staff is taking the pandemic seriously when traveling and trying to do our part to stop the spread of the disease.”
ODOT has been considering short- and long-term solutions to deal with the cormorant issue for future bridge inspections and to finish the last phase of bridge painting in 2021-2022.
In recent weeks, crews began what will be a long-term effort to encourage cormorants to leave the bridge with speakers are blasting predator sounds. It’s too early to determine whether that has been effective or not.
There is still a second phase of the Astoria-Megler Bridge inspection that will occur in June, when inspectors climb to the super structure above the main shipping channel. The hope is for better weather and fewer birds.
Watch a video on the bridge inspection.