Is it a gate, or a trap?
Blanchard tide gate project streams into political snag

Skagit Valley Herald

BLANCHARD, WA — Lynn Lennox can see McElroy Slough from her living room.

“It’s a beautiful cattail-loving waterway, with red-winged blackbirds,” she said. “Where I live in downtown Blanchard, it’s just a slow moving waterway that sometimes over-exceeds its own limits.”

Like many rivers and sloughs in Skagit County, McElroy Slough is easily flooded by winter rains, creating what Lennox described as “lakefront property for everyone.”

Until this week, Lennox was excited about plans to install new culverts and a self-regulating tide gate this summer. The slough wouldn’t flood nearly as often, and the saltwater washing through the new gate would provide valuable estuary habitat — critical for juvenile salmon getting used to saltwater, environmentalists say.

But the project seems to have hit a political snag, one that could delay it long enough to miss this summer’s construction season and subject Blanchard to another winter of floods.

The Skagit County Commissioners last week told the staff from the county public works department to hold back until questions are answered about the project’s implications for area farms.

“Some of the issues being brought up are pretty peripheral,” said Alison Studley, director of the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, which has taken the lead on the project.

But those issues are actually crucial to area farmers, said county Commissioner Don Munks, whose district includes the Blanchard area.

Some farmers raised the question of how the tide gate will affect the water table. A similar tide gate installed in Edison raised the water table and stopped water from draining properly from fields, Munks said.

The difference is that no studies of the water table were done before the Edison gate was installed in 1999, said Dave Brookings, assistant director at the county’s Public Works Department. Years of studies already have been done in Blanchard, he said, showing that it shouldn’t have the same effect as the Edison gate.

Munks said there also is a worry that salt water will go far enough up the creeks to affect farming.

Studley said a test run showed salt water stopping a half-mile away from any agricultural drainage systems.

Worse yet, Munks said, allowing the fish restoration project to go forward could make farmers in the area subject to a state requirement to install buffers on their land. A buffer is a strip of vegetation that is taken out of agricultural production to prevent runoff into waterways.

Currently, farmers behind a tide gate are exempt from having to install buffers, but once fish do start entering the slough, the state could require buffers, he said.

However, if the county kills the fish restoration aspect of the project, the flood control aspect will disappear as well, Studley said, because most of the money paying for the project is coming from agencies interested in saving fish.

And salmon already use the slough and the streams that feed into it, Lennox said.

“I have no problem with this project proceeding,” Munks said. “I want to make sure that we have addressed all the concerns.”

The new tide gates under Blanchard Road and culverts under Flinn Road would provide the biggest benefit to local residents by allowing water to drain into Samish Bay from McElroy Slough faster than it does now, especially during a storm.

The tide gates would also let salt water in until the tide rises to a height of 7 feet, Studley said. That would make the slough usable for juvenile salmon, which would also be able to get in. The current tide gate doesn’t let any salt water in, nor does it allow fish to get in.

The Skagit Fisheries Enhancement group won a $460,000 state grant in January 2000 for the project, and Skagit County pledged another $200,000. Additional grants made up the rest of the $750,000 cost.

Studley said the private, nonprofit group has all the permits in hand, and now just needs to send the project out to bid and have it built — a process that the Skagit County Public Works Department will handle, after the commissioners give their approval.

“Those steps need to be done in the next month or so to go to construction this year,” Studley said.

The group cannot go ahead with the work because the county’s money is needed, as well as permission to tear up Blanchard and Flinn roads.

“Recently, we have not gotten the same county support we’ve gotten over the last couple years, and we’ve been asked to investigate a bunch of other surrounding issues for the county to provide the matching funds,” she said.

That investigation of what she calls “peripheral issues” will drive up the overall cost of the project, she said, as well as delay it.

“We are flooded and it’s getting worse and worse all the time,” Lennox said. Development uphill and upstream leads to more drainage coming down the creeks with every rainstorm, and vegetation growing along the slough impedes flow.

Some of that vegetation will be killed when the salt water is let into the slough, which is part of the point of the project, said Brookings.

“The county is definitely committed to moving this forward,” Brookings said.

But first, the questions raised need to be answered, he said.

Lennox said she believes a productive process, one that included technical assistance from state and federal agencies as well as input from neighbors, has been put on hold by a political process.

“It’s worrisome,” she said, “very worrisome to all of us here.”



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