The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced a $257 million, seven-year major restoration plan for the three jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River, which are key to keeping ships moving through waters considered among the most hazardous on earth.

Corps officials say they'd like to start work in 2016, but the timing will depend on securing funding for the massive project.

The first of the three jetties was built in the late 1800s, but stormy seas and strong currents have eroded the sand shoals on which the jetties were built. In addition, sea waves have toppled the massive, car-sized boulders that make up the jetties. The structures are now "in a state of structural decay," according to a statement the corps released Monday.

"Continued deterioration, ongoing storm activity, and the continued loss of sand shoal material has positioned the jetty system for a series of frequent, costly emergency repairs," the statement added.

"The wave action and the force of the sea just beats up on anything that's out there," corps spokeswoman Diana Fredlund said Tuesday from Portland. "They knew it was something that was going to need remediation and repairs for a long time."

In its current state, the jetty is "still structurally sound," she said, "but it does require significant repairs."

Since its construction, the system has undergone only one major rehabilitation, in the 1940s, although the corps undertook interim repairs several years ago when the jetties "really were in critical need of some help," Fredlund said.

Those repairs were intended to buy time so the corps could create a "multi-phase, multi-use plan" for addressing the battering effects of the ocean.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be one on them to keep them doing the job they've been doing for a hundred years now," Fredlund said.

The jetties function by narrowing the river, confining and accelerating its flow to help the river flush tons of silt into the Pacific Ocean. They also offer ships some protection from wave action at the Columbia River Bar, an area known as "The graveyard of the Pacific" because ferocious seas have caused the sinking of hundreds of ships. They are a major reason ocean-going ships can call on ports more than 100 miles inland, and thus make hundreds of millions dollars worth of commerce possible.

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