Seattle, WA: Saving the Sound: Tall order for Army Corps

By Craig Welch and Eric Sorensen
Seattle Times staff reporters

Seattle, WA - The federal agency best known for taming Mother Nature has embarked on the most ambitious effort ever to rehabilitate the web of tideflats, marshes, bluffs and deltas that serves as nursery and buffet table for life in Puget Sound.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating the 2,354 miles of Puget Sound's troubled nearshore habitat. The goal: restore one of the world's richest fresh- and saltwater environments, parts of which scientists fear are teetering on collapse.

The size and cost of the Corps undertaking is breathtaking, stretching from Cape Flattery to the mudflats of Olympia and up the developed eastern shore to Canada. It's a coastline that if unfurled would reach from here to Lake Erie.

Saving the Sound will cost billions something mirroring the scale of the Corps' controversial $8 billion attempt to replumb the Everglades.

The Corps is using a liberal, wide-ranging definition of Puget Sound that extends well beyond its recognized boundaries.

To understand why it needs help, consider our impact: Roughly 70 percent of wetlands and estuaries are gone, drained or filled for cities, farms and ports. Millions of gallons of human waste drain into the Sound yearly. Contaminated runoff laces the beaches.

One-third of the Sound is corralled by seawalls and barriers that starve beaches of new sand and gravel that keep life cycling through. Nearly two more miles of seawalls and barriers are added yearly.

The overall effect on the Sound is difficult to gauge, but this much is clear: Nine of 10 threatened or endangered species, from chinook salmon to bald eagles, inhabit the nearshore. Shoreline pollution has climbed up the food chain, slowly contaminating mussels, harbor seals, even killer whales.

The Corps and a litany of state and local partners are in the second year of a five-year, $12 million inventory of the nearshore.

Eventually, they hope to improve the flow of sand and gravel to beaches, modify or eliminate dikes and seawalls, and rebuild thousands of acres of estuaries and habitat-rich kelp and eelgrass beds.

It's a Herculean task rife with pitfalls. Previous restoration efforts haven't always worked, or have been so poorly monitored that no one can say if money was wasted.

Yet the Corps remains a politically savvy agency famous for getting its way. It's known for its signature work on huge, complicated water projects, such as the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Ballard Locks, a project named for Corps engineer Hiram Chittenden.

"I'm confident that if we really document the compelling fundamental reasons there's such widespread and rapid deterioration in the ecosystem, the money will follow," said Bernie Hargrave, the Corps' Sound project manager. "This is a national resource."

It's also an agency long the bane of environmentalists and even U.S. presidents renowned for questionable, nature-conquering projects, some which landed it in scandal.

A two-year-old Pentagon review found top Corps officials had doctored evidence to justify a $1 billion Mississippi River barge lock expansion a finding Corps brass insisted was an anomaly.

Here in the Northwest, the Corps will share control of the Sound project with the state, local governments and tribes. Even traditional Corps critics see this project as the Sound's best hope.

"I have a long history of being hard on the Corps, but if you want something done, you have to involve the agency that has the history and wherewithal to pull off big projects," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the environmental group People for Puget Sound.

The nearshore environment

On a recent afternoon in Burien, high tide should have lapped at the bluffs in Seahurst Park, watering salt-tolerant plants, ferrying insects and leafy debris to fish hiding in shadows, and drawing life-nourishing sand and gravel back to the water's edge.

Instead, the surf smacked an erosion-blocking seawall of wire and rock, leaving the beach and its waters virtually barren. Here, as in many places along the Sound, once nutrient-heavy shores now resemble the hard-bottomed, chlorine-clear waters of a swimming pool.

In its pristine state, Puget Sound's glacial trenchwork is sheltered and fertile, fed by twice-daily tides and 10,000 rivers and streams. It teems with plankton and nutrients and provides a wide range of habitat. It is home to 220 fish species and hundreds more plants and invertebrates.

The Sound's most productive waters are found in the nearshore, a narrow band of land and water that runs from bank tops to a water depth of about 30 feet, where aquatic plants run out of light.

With the Sound reaching depths of 450 feet or more, it's the nearshore where most photosynthesis occurs where the stuff that creates and sustains life grows.

Jim Brennan, senior ecologist with the King County Department of Natural Resources, is an expert on the nearshore, a nursery for a multitude of species, maybe most of the species in Puget Sound. Here, he walks the shoreline at Seahurst Beach in Burien.

These zones "act as a nursery for a multitude of species, maybe most of the species in Puget Sound," said Jim Brennan, a senior ecologist for the King County Department of Natural Resources and editor of the most complete overview of the central Sound's nearshore.

Bank erosion dumps trees, leaves and earth into the water, drawing insects and spreading decay along the shore bed. Channels and sloughs attract shorebirds, raccoons, clams, crabs and larvae. Tidal marshes feed and hide juvenile fish and invertebrates. Patches of slender eelgrass provide so much diversity, scientists consider it the underwater equivalent of an old-growth forest.

But the natural shore so vital to plants, animals and fish is to humans a messy, often inconvenient world. So we've changed it.

In the Duwamish estuary and Elliott Bay, 97 percent of the shallows and flats have been lost. Tidal marshes in the central Sound are nearly nonexistent. Docks, marinas and development have wiped out the eelgrass. Wetlands that fail due to development have reduced rearing habitat for juvenile salmon and cutthroat trout.

Toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found in juvenile salmon after just 10 days in the nearshore. PCBs and the pesticide DDT are in the eggs of blue heron and glaucous-winged gulls.

But there's a distinct lack of research about how the nearshore fits into the ecosystem of the Sound as a whole.

"The question is, what's the role of the nearshore, and what did it used to be?" asked Charles Simenstad, a University of Washington fisheries biologist working with the Corps.

While 75 percent of the Sound's salt marshes have disappeared, Fred Goetz, Corps fish biologist and co-leader of the nearshore science team, said it's not even clear what that means.

"What has that done to the salmon run?" he asked. "We can't exactly say yet. How much productivity have we lost? Or have they adapted in a way we don't know?"

The nation's developer

The Corps has long been the nation's grand developer, straightening the meandering Mississippi River and building floodwalls and dikes to protect millions of homes. It built the Columbia River's Chief Joseph Dam, the nation's second-largest hydropower source, lowered Lake Washington 9 feet, and changed the course of the White River.

The Corps also manages 12,000 miles of waterways and 300 commercial harbors. Run by the Army, it answers to the White House, yet has clashed with presidents.

When Jimmy Carter tried to spike what he considered environmentally risky Corps projects, the ensuing fight impaired his relationship with Congress.

Bill Ruckelshaus, the Environmental Protection Agency's first director, who oversaw that agency again during the Reagan administration, said the sparring never stops the Corps from getting money for work it deems important.

"They do big, big projects that tend to be controversial. But if the project is aimed at restoring habitat for fish, and it's the Corps justifying the expenditure, their support can be extremely helpful in getting federal funding," said Ruckelshaus, a Seattle resident now serving on a committee overseeing the Sound's nearshore project.

Historically, big Corps projects are also sought after by members of Congress, eager to pull federal money into their home states, and in some cases, their districts. The Corps is up front about its political calculus: "We respond to what the American public asks of us through their elected representatives," reads the Corps Web site. "In earlier days, the citizenry wanted cheap electricity. Today they want environmental stewardship."

The Corps' focus on restoration has exploded in the past decade, from a $5 billion ecosystem repair project in Chesapeake Bay, to the resurrection of shorelines and marshes in the Gulf of Mexico.

This bulkhead along Seahurst Beach in Burien is targeted for removal. Bulkheads redirect waves, stripping sand and gravel from the nearshore and damaging important habitat.

Often what it's fixing are problems it helped create. In Washington, the Corps built the Howard Hansen Dam on the Green River and then found that it was trapping needed gravel and downed wood behind the earthen mound.

"So we're building log jams in the system to try and train the river to recreate pools," said Goetz, the Corps fish biologist.

On the Mississippi, the Corps worked on a chain of unconnected environmental problems, believing it ultimately would restore the river system. Instead, species declined.

"They failed to understand the connections between each of the sites and the landscape as a whole," said Hargrave, project manager for the Sound study.

Perhaps most controversial today is the Everglades a project cited as a model for Puget Sound. The idea there was to capture 1.7 billion gallons a day of water that flowed into the ocean, store it, then reroute it back to the Everglades. Eighty percent would be used to rewater the environment, which the Corps began draining 50 years ago to send water to South Florida.

"I view the Everglades restoration as a complete disaster at almost every level," said Stuart Pimm, a Duke University ecology professor and one of the nation's leading Everglades authorities. "It's $8 billion that arguably doesn't do restoration at all."

Scientists were marginalized by engineers eager to first reroute water to sugar plantations and residents, before developing systems to pump it back to the Everglades, he said. He fears water won't return to the "River of Grass" soon enough to protect 68 endangered and threatened species.

The Corps and others contend the plan was a compromise, and as good as could be expected given the clash of interests.

What the Corps is doing in Florida is a complicated fix though it faced one chief problem water flow. Scientists in Puget Sound don't expect the work here to be nearly so straightforward.

"It looks at this point like we have multiple causal effects," Hargrave said. "We think our challenges are certainly different, if not greater, than the Everglades."

A very complex puzzle

Last week, Hargrave stood over a recreated marsh in the Snohomish River delta, a system thick with ducks. In the mid-1990s, restoration work here on Spencer Island breached dikes to restore tidal influence to 400 acres.

Marsh and mudflats now draw eagles, osprey and herons. Reed canary grass, a fresh water-loving weed, is being replaced by cattails and rushes.

But less salt water flows into the delta than expected, producing fewer salt-loving plants, an indication that the work has yet to replicate nature. "Here is a relatively recent example of the best ideas about restoration," he said, "and is it enough?"

And that's a simple project.

At the opposite end of the scale is Bainbridge Island's Wyckoff-Eagle Harbor Superfund site, "the worst of the worst," says Hargrave.

There, a former wood-treatment facility left one million gallons of creosote on 54 acres. More ended up in the harbor. The underwater goo looked like the world's largest lava lamp.

The Corps poured a sediment cap over deposits. It sucked 100,000 gallons of waste from the site. It built a containment wall of sheet metal, then drove it as deep as 100 feet underground. It poured fresh sand and gravel along the shore.

But keeping contaminants in one place "might not be enough," said Hargrave. Toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and PCBs might travel on a surface microfilm of seawater and get painted across the nearshore each day with the tides. Scientists suspect that's one reason the Sound's resident orcas are among the world's most contaminated cetaceans.

Meanwhile, nearby waterfront homes have extensive bulkheads that keep their yards from eroding, which in turn can keep the Wyckoff beach from being replenished with new sand and nutrients. If nothing changes, the protective cap may eventually wash away.

Other restoration work undertaken as part of the nearshore project could also fall victim to local politics. In the Skagit River delta, a levee was removed to restore an estuary, but a new dike was built upstream to provide habitat for ducks sought by hunters.

"We're spending a lot of extra money to remove one levee just to build another," said Doug Myers, with the Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team.

Once an abundance

The Sound has seen so many changes that a pristine nearshore can be hard to find. But Cama Beach, on Camano Island, is among the best.

Near the low-tide mark, it has a sandy flat, thick with eelgrass where salmon feed and hide. Shellfish are so abundant that some stretches are a midden-like mush of broken shells.

Above the usual high-tide mark is a thicker sand ideal for spawning forage fish. Up from there are drift logs and a fully forested bluff of glacial-outwash sand and till.

Over time, the bluff should shed leaves and insects for food and earthen debris to replenish sediments washed away by tides and waves.

"This site kind of has it all," said Hargrave, eyeing crab pots off shore.

But while it's an ideal laboratory, the beach underscores the complexity of ecosystem-level science. There are relationships to study between, say, fresh water from the land and eelgrass in the bay, but which relationships do you focus on?

Corps scientists admit they still know precious little.

"I'm not one of those folks who think somehow we're going to come up with some master plan that's going to answer all the questions for 10 years," said Hugh Shipman, a coastal geologist for the Department of Ecology. "That's not going to happen. You can never answer all the questions."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093

Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253


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