To protect the many species which depend on the vital health of Puget Sound, King County has several shoreline armoring removal projects underway on Vashon and Maury Islands, with information about the efforts provided on a boat tour last week.
Greg Rabourn, who is responsible for safeguarding habitat on Vashon and Maury Islands as the watershed steward for King County, led the tour, which also included representatives from several conservation agencies. Along the way, the group observed shorelines in various phases of restoration as well as natural functioning feeder bluffs where landslides have historically occurred, depicted in native legends which island historian Bruce Haulman, who captained the boat for the afternoon, shared on the tour.
“Our project area is focused where you have a lot of natural shorelines to preserve with only a few intermittent clusters of cabins,” said Rabourn about the county’s selection process for restoration work in the sound.
Near Dockton Park, Rabourn assessed ongoing efforts to improve the ecology there, such as the forthcoming removal of a 210 foot-long bulkhead near the marina.
Signs of the park’s recovery from serious harm posed by contamination, he said, have been encouraging. In 2004, the Conoco Phillips oil company spilled between 1,000 and 7,200 gallons of crude oil into Colvos Passage and Quartermaster Harbor. The accident required significant remediation at several locations and prompted additional stewardship of Dockton Park that led to armoring removal and the creation of a salt marsh.
Across the island, feeder bluffs deposit material such as sand and gravel to the coastlines below them, which washes offshore and back again with the tides while replenishing the beach, creating what is known as a drift cell. Rabourn explained how shoreline armoring from bulkheads is interfering with the activity of a major drift cell that stretches all the way from the Neill Point Natural Area to Jensen Point past Burton.
“As you get farther down the drift cell, you can see how it’s armored all the way along, and then you get along the highway there and it’s nothing but armoring,” he said, noting that the scale of armoring posed burdensome logistical challenges to the county’s endeavors. “The cost to do restoration as you move down here becomes very, very high.”
As the tour headed southward, Rabourn cited examples of ongoing collaboration at the county and community levels. Public Health officials have been assisting homeowners to fix their septic compliance issues; the Department of Natural Resources has led efforts to remove creosote pilings and moorage buoys from the region, and citizen scientists are monitoring forage fish to collect important data about their populations. He called it the “all hands on deck approach that’s happening right now with all these different agencies.”
Rabourn next described the ambitious restoration work intended for two large portions of shoreline — totaling nearly 8,000 feet of waterfront — in west outer Quartermaster Harbor. The county is seeking to acquire parcels in the vicinity or to place them in conservation easements in order to begin the armoring removal work there. Some progress toward the county’s overall goal has already been made. He pointed to a boathouse standing on top of a bulkhead and said the county had just closed on the property, making it the newest acquisition. The bulkhead will be removed after the home is torn down.
During the tour, the group came upon an excavator as it cleared out shoreline armoring on a parcel currently owned by the county.
“This is all in our scope. The area that we one day hope to have is from that concrete bulkhead that you can see down there all the way to the bulkhead back in Harbor Heights, so that would be one contiguous block of great natural habitat,” said Rabourn. He later added that with multiple projects pending at once, in addition to design and permitting costs, the pressure is often high and time is of the essence.
“When a property owner goes to put in a bulkhead, they can often do an emergency bulkhead permitting process which is streamlined. We don’t have an emergency bulkhead removal process which would be great,” he said. “Hey, we have starving orcas, we’ve got to get [the bulkheads] out. Let’s get an expedited process.”
As Haulman piloted his boat to Lost Lake at the south end of the island, he retold an old native story referencing an earthquake that is thought to have occurred nearby several hundred years ago. The earthquake reduced the size of the lake and formed the bog now at the site, an event documented in the story Haulman shared about a spirit that became trapped in an underground passage between the lake and Puget Sound. As it struggled to free itself from the passage, it is said to have kicked up mud, which created hills and changed the topography of the land above.
Land Trust Executive Director Tom Dean, along for the tour, noted that Lost Lake is one of the oldest preserves on the island, estimating that it was created in the 1980s.
“When you age the peat in Lost Lake, it dates from about 1700, so that also confirms that timing, and we think that that story is probably about the earthquake,” he said.
Dean also explained why Lost Lake is geographically unique compared to other locations on the island. It is situated in a rotational slide zone, he said, meaning that the surface of the terrain is curved and naturally erodes in a downslope momentum. The slumping that results causes the beach to move up higher.
Past Lost Lake, near the south of Maury, Haulman stopped outside the Larson family waterfront and former home. The property was a recent county acquisition, coordinated by Rabourn earlier this year, and was complicated by the delayed passage of last year’s state capital budget amid escalating costs stemming from a high appraisal of the parcel. According to Rabourn, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Partnership Fund helped apply financing to complete the sale. The significant delay is one example of the many constraints that face continued restoration work on the island and in the state.
Dean said that accelerating bulkhead removal would empower the recently incorporated Southern Resident Orca Task Force, noting that it is up to the legislature to act urgently and to further consider the potential benefit of programs that it has failed to fully support with funding.
“[The legislature] really needs to wake up and understand the nature of these sorts of decisions when they leave those projects on the table and then say, ‘Oh we’ve got a crisis because the orcas are dying.’”
Theresa Mitchell, an environmental planner for the habitat program at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the lack of available funding is compounded by the vast needs of conservation agencies across Puget Sound.
“I think there’s a difficult time telling the story about why this program is different than that program and why they’re all worthy. They’re all working together to do good things,” she said, hopeful for better outcomes.