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Fallout from wetlands project hurts neighbor
Stay on top of wetlands projects, warns former farmer

Cookson Beecher
Capital Press Staff Writer

SNOHOMISH, Wash. – It’s a wetlands-restoration project that comes with 12 years of history, heated controversy, legal battles – and anguish.

But amid all of the confusion, one thing becomes painfully clear when walking the piece of farmland next to the 316-acre project near Ebey Slough in Snohomish County: Wetland restoration – no matter how well-intended – has the potential to make adjoining land unfarmable.

Drainage is at the heart of it, simply because wetlands projects can affect the water table and back water up onto adjoining property.

For farmers in Western Washington, where summers are relatively cool, poor drainage can make the difference between being able or not being able to plant a crop. Unlike farmers in warmer climates, they don’t have the luxury of postponing planting for several weeks while they wait for the land to dry. They need to get their crops in the ground as early in the growing season as possible.

This particular project near Ebey’s Slough, previously in farmland, is now covered with 3 or 4 feet of water. As an example of habitat both for fish and wildlife, it’s considered a success story.

But to former dairy farmer John Spoelstra, who has 103 acres adjoining the project, it’s the same as if someone came and took his land.

This year in early May, a lot of his ground was still wet. On some parts of it, small pools of standing water dotted the land.

“This is a disaster,” said Skagit County dairy farmer Ken Johnson as he surveyed the scene.

Johnson was looking over Spoelstra’s land because he’s worried about what will happen to his own farmland when a proposed wetlands mitigation bank goes in on adjoining farmland. He said that if his land suffers the same fate as what he was seeing on Spoelstra’s ground, his land would be unfarmable.

The wetlands project next to Spoelstra’s land came into being as part of a countywide flood-control effort. After a major flood topped and damaged some of the dikes in the county, drainage district and county officials hammered out an agreement that called for all dikes to be the same height.

The goal was to make sure that the wealthier diking districts didn’t build dikes so high that floodwaters broke the lower dikes.

“When that happens, there’s much more damage, and it’s not fair to the property owners in those districts,” said Joan Lee, who works in the surface-water division of the county’s Public Works Department.

In looking at the costs of making dike improvements in Drainage District 6, engineers soon realized that because the dike near Ebey’s Slough was so long, the cost-benefit ratio didn’t pencil out, primarily because there wasn’t that much land behind the dike.

At the same time, the federal government had put a squeeze on funding for dikes and levies, which put added financial pressure on the district.

The solution was to buy out the landowners and remove the dike, thus restoring the land to its original wetland condition.

For Spoelstra, the problem with that plan was that 103 of his acres were included in what had originally been a 413-acre wetlands restoration project. He explained that his land had been included because at the time he no longer had the deed to the property. Eventually, though, after a 15-year legal battle with Farmers Home Administration, he was able to get his deed back in 1998.

But that was after the county had already started flooding the land.

In 2003, he built a one-half mile dike to keep his land from being submerged 3 or 4 feet with water. And while that has protected his land from becoming a wetland, other design features of the project make it so that his land isn’t dry enough to farm.

“This is what they’ve done to our lives,” he said, his hand making a sweeping gesture over land previously in corn, hay or pasture, but now choked with Reed Canary grass. “We can’t farm the land.”

Sadder still, he said, is that very piece of ground held a record for sweet corn production for many years.

“It was the place of my dreams,” he said, explaining he had moved from a dairy farm in Skagit County to this farm in 1979. “For me, it was my perfect dairy farm. It’s as good a piece of farmland as you can get.”

He takes heart in a 2001 state Superior Court decision – again, another long legal battle – that ruled that because Snohomish County is the successor to Drainage District 6, it must maintain and operate the facilities of the district in line with the obligation that the district would have had if the district had not been suspended.

Spoelstra’s quick to say he’s “not bitter” about anyone trying to improve the environment.

“Farmers are all environmentalists,” he said. “But I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any other farmer. This is an example of why farmers need to keep on top of this.”

Johnson agreed with him on that point.

“If a project is allowed to affect land upstream, it’s the same as if they’re taking your land without buying it,” he said.

Snohomish County still has a lot of work to do on the project, especially when it comes to the huge waterline, now partially submerged, that goes across the restored wetlands.

County surface-water official Lee said that part of the plan is to put in a new cross levy, which she said should keep Spoelstra’s land drained.

- Friday, May 19, 2006


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