Blanchard tide gate
project streams into political snag
Skagit Valley Herald
BLANCHARD, WA — Lynn Lennox can see McElroy Slough from her living
“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
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
And salmon already use the slough and the streams that feed into it,
“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
“The county is definitely committed to moving this forward,”
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