Tag Archives: Army Corps of Engineers

Congress authorizes five restoration projects throughout Puget Sound

Five major Puget Sound projects have been given the provisional go-ahead by Congress in a massive public works bill signed yesterday by President Obama.

It seems like the needed federal authorization for a $20-million restoration effort in the Skokomish River watershed has been a long time coming. This project follows an extensive, many-years study of the watershed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which winnowed down a long list of possible projects to five. See Water Ways, April 28, 2016, for details.

In contrast, while the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNRP) also involved an extensive and lengthy study, the final selection and submission to Congress of three nearshore projects came rather quickly. In fact, the Puget Sound package was a last-minute addition to the Water Resources Development Act, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Reps. Rick Larson, D-Lake Stevens, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, along with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

The three PSNRP projects moving forward are:

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Looking backward, then forward on actions in Skokomish watershed

Through the years, I’ve written a lot about the Skokomish River, which begins in the Olympic Mountains and flows into the south end of Hood Canal. The wide, productive estuary might be described as the elbow of this long, narrow waterway that bends up toward Belfair.

Cover

I’ve heard it said that Puget Sound cannot be restored to health without a healthy Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored to health without a healthy Skokomish River. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the Skokomish River watershed is coming out of a dark period of abuse with hope of becoming one of the most productive streams in the region.

Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a group of men and women from a variety of agencies, occupations and ways of life who came together with an understanding of the historic value of the Skokomish River and a vision for what the river could become again. This was the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, or SWAT, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

helicopter

To be sure, it was basically loads of money that began to transform the abused Skokomish River watershed to a much more productive system. But the people in charge of the federal, state, local and private dollars were able to see the Skokomish as a worthy cause, thanks to the groundwork laid by the SWAT. Disappointments have been few, as one project after another brings this long lost river back to life.

Yes, I have written a lot about the Skokomish River, its history and its future. That’s why I was glad to see the 10-year update to the Skokomish Watershed Action Plan (download, PDF 113 mb). The document contains an extensive account of the projects completed and the milestones passed through the years. Whether you are intimately involved in the watershed or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about, take a look at the report released this week.

Logjam soon after installation in 2010. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Logjam soon after installation in 2010.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Since 2005, nearly 50 restoration projects were completed — from removal of old logging roads high in the mountains to the re-establishment of tidal channels in the lower estuary. Salmon are being reintroduced to the North Fork of the Skokomish River, including the dammed-up Lake Cushman, thanks to a legal settlement between Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe.

After establishment, a deep pool forms behind the logjam. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Later, a deep pool forms behind the jam.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

About 12 miles upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish, a series of 30 logjams were installed and almost immediately began to restore the channel to a more natural habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. This area was part of a four-mile stretch that was heavily logged in the 1950s for a reservoir that never happened.

Once the logjams were in place, the area began to store massive loads of sediment, which always created problems as they washed downstream into the lower river. The river’s characteristic problem of spreading out and slowing down was reversed, as width-to-depth ratios decreased and the average depth in the middle of the river increased by two feet. The number of pools deeper than five feet doubled from three to six, and the piles of wood grew larger by capturing logs floating downstream.

The new report also lays out plans for the watershed in the coming years, including projects identified in a major study by the Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps proposal to fund $20 million in restoration projects is now before Congress, as I described in Water Ways in April and June. Other projects have been proposed for separate funding, as outlined in the new report.

Skokomish restoration makes progress in federal funding arena

UPDATE: June 12, 2016
The Skokomish River ecosystem restoration project, as proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, remains on track. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on May 25 unanimously endorsed the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize the project. The legislation must still be approved by the full House and Senate.
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After decades of in-depth studies and anxious waiting, restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem took a major step forward today, when a committee of the U.S. Senate endorsed the $20-million effort as part of a larger legislative package.

Skok watershed

The Skokomish restoration was one of many projects that sailed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it passed a $9-billion authorization bill on a 19-1 vote. The bill must still be approved by the full Senate and House, but supporters of the Skokomish restoration were thrilled with the light at the end of the tunnel.

Rich Geiger, project engineer for the Mason Conservation District, has been shepherding the Skokomish effort for as long as I can remember. I asked him how it feels to finally see some action in Congress.

“It feels really really good,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word.

The restoration program consists of five separate projects along the Skokomish River. Although not designed for flood control, these projects for improving ecological health are expected to reduce flooding along one of the most frequently flooded rivers in the state.

The restoration effort has received support from far and wide. As Rich likes to point out, experts generally agree that Puget Sound cannot be restored without restoring Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored without restoring the Skokomish River.

Sen. Patty Murray has been a strong advocate for the project.

“The waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound are essential to the Washington state environment, economy, and our way of life,” the senator said in an email, “so I am proud to fight for investments in the restoration of the Skokomish River. This critical work will restore habitat and wetlands and improve fish passage, which in turn supports salmon recovery — all necessary to maintain our precious natural resources.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said improving the health of the Skokomish River would be a boon for Mason County and the entire region. He said he applauded the efforts of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, the Skokomish Tribe and area residents who worked together to shape the restoration program.

“This project ensures we can better protect critical species like salmon … while restoring more natural areas for folks to explore,” Kilmer said in an email. “That will help bring more visitors to recreate in this watershed while protecting it for future generations.”

The $9-billion authorization bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (PDF 4.1 mb), includes money requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for water-related projects across the country. In additional to restoration efforts, the bill includes authorization of projects related to flood control, dredging, drinking water emergencies, water treatment and pipelines. For a summary of the bill see the report to the committee (PDF 284 kb).

The bipartisan endorsement and near-unanimous support offers hope that the needed money will be approved in a future appropriations bill tied to the budget, Rich Geiger told me. He is also optimistic that the 35-percent state/local match will be made available through state grants or a legislative appropriation.

“Now that have an approved plan, we are coming to Washington state with a funding request that is much larger than normal,” Geiger said. “This is a little unprecedented.”

The federal share for the project would be about $13 million and the state share nearly $7 million.

Some money has already been provided for engineering work, Rich said. If things go well, the final designs can be ready for the start of construction in October of 2019.

These four projects would come first:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The fifth project would be constructed over two years in 2020-21:

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

The original plan for the Skokomish, as developed in an early report by the Army Corps of Engineers, called for more projects and would have cost closer to $40 million.

Some of those other projects are being funded through other programs, such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. For example, the reconnection of a stagnant section of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek is scheduled for this summer using SRF Board money.

In addition, numerous man-made logjams are being planned to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. Also, preliminary designs and discussions are underway to relocate Skokomish Valley Road, a main route into the Olympic Mountains. Moving the road would allow for the removal of levees, river bank restoration and a reconnection to about 60 acres of floodplain.

Skokomish watershed continues on road
to restoration

It’s turning out to be a good Christmas for the Skokomish watershed in southern Hood Canal, where numerous restoration projects recently received a green light.

Skok watershed

Restoring the Skokomish River ecosystem is often regarded as essential to restoring Hood Canal to a healthy condition. Work over the past 10 years has reduced sediment coming from the Olympic Mountains, improved flow conditions in the river and restored tidal mixing and native vegetation in the vast Skokomish estuary.

Continuing efforts — including a new fish-passage facility in the North Fork of the Skokomish — are contributing to an increase in species diversity and improved salmon habitat.

The latest news involves future restoration efforts, including an award of five grants totaling $1.4 million from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In addition, top officials in the Army Corps of Engineers have endorsed the long-awaited Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration Plan, expected to cost about $20 million.

“We are making solid progress on all fronts,” said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society who serves as coordinator of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. The action team, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, includes representatives of federal, state and local agencies, the Skokomish Tribe, environmental groups, business interests and area residents.

It has been rewarding for me to watch the coordinated efforts — from the U.S. Forest Service working high up in the Olympic Mountains to the Skokomish Tribe and Mason Conservation District working on the tidelands of Hood Canal. For a history of the struggle, please read my 2009 series “Taming the Skokomish.” Part 1, the people; Part 2, farming; Part 3, logging; Part 4, the restoration.

When culverts fail, streams can become inundated with sediment. The Forest Service has been engaged for 20 years in removing unneeded roads. Photo: Kitsap Sun
When culverts fail, streams can become inundated with sediment. The Forest Service has been removing unneeded roads in the Skokomish watershed for 20 years.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

On a related note, the Forest Service recently announced that it has completed its effort to remove unneeded logging roads and make sure they no longer contribute sediment to nearby streams and the Skokomish River. In all, more than 200 miles of roads have been decommissioned over the past 20 years.

The Forest Service is now moving ahead with “vegetation management” on some 4,500 acres of timberland in the Lower North Fork and Lower South Fork of the Skokomish River. The project involves commercial timber harvest and restoration treatments in an effort to accelerate the return to old-growth conditions. See Vegetation Management Project.

A Dec. 14 letter (PDF 818 kb) from the Army’s chief of engineers moves the Skokomish restoration project one step closer to congressional approval.

“The recommended plan provides restoration on a total of 277 acres in the study area and provides substantial benefits to nationally significant resources,” states the letter from Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick. “In addition, the removal of the levee at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Skokomish River provides significant benefits for upstream fish passage to an approximate additional 40 miles of habitat in the South Fork Skokomish River that is periodically inaccessible due to the lack of water in the river channel adjacent to the confluence.”

Although the project names have been modified to stress ecosystem functions, I reported on all five in Water Ways a year ago:

Car body levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

Setback levee at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

If approved by Congress, the federal government would pay 65 percent of the cost, with 35 percent coming from state and local governments.

The ecosystem investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers also identified other worthy projects that did not qualify for funding through the Corps. Some of those projects are being funneled through other state and federal programs. Projects recently approved by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board:

Weaver Creek
Weaver Creek

Reconnecting Weaver Creek, $200,000: A new 750-foot channel will connect a stagnant portion of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek, and about 25 logs will be installed. In addition to improved flows, the project will boost oxygen levels in the stream. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $153,000 from a separate federal grant.

South Fork Logjams, $225,000: Twenty-two man-made logjams will be added to the Holman Flats area in the South Fork of the Skokomish River to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. This area was once cleared for a reservoir that was never built, resulting in excess sediment that destroys salmon spawning beds. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $469,000 from a separate state grant.

Logjam priorities in Upper South Fork, $305,000: Mason Conservation District will study a 12-mile stretch of the Upper South Fork of the Skokomish to develop a prioritized list of the best places to install future logjams. Logjams are designed to improve fish habitat, reduce sediment movement and stabilize stream banks. The conservation district will contribute $54,000 and labor.

Logjam designs for Skokomish, $265,000: Mason Conservation District will work with landowners to select a design for logjams on a 1.6-mile stretch of the Skokomish River that lacks shoreline structure. The conservation district will contribute $47,000 in donations of equipment.

Concepts for moving Skokomish Valley Road, $363,000: Moving the road away from the South Fork of the Skokomish River would allow for the removal of levees, restoration of the river banks and reconnection of the river to about 60 acres of floodplain. This project would investigate possible locations for a new road as well as the possible addition of a meander to the river channel and the removal or relocation of a bridge over Vance Creek. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $64,000 from a separate federal grant.

The goals of the Skokomish restoration and progress in the watershed are reported in an “effectiveness monitoring” document by the Puget Sound Partnership. Progress on other watersheds and strategic initiatives are reported on the “Effectiveness Monitoring” webpage.

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward on a $40-million restoration program along the Skokomish River, as I mentioned in Water Ways last week.

According to Rachel Mesko of the Army Corps of Engineers, two major projects have been dropped from the “tentatively selected plan” for the Skokomish, which flows into the south end of Hood Canal. That leaves five major projects to advance forward for a likely recommendation to Congress.

Skok watershed

Rachel presented a status report on the program during a recent meeting of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team.

It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been writing about the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Skokomish. So I looked it up. The agency completed a flood analysis in 1988, considered dredging options in 1995 and began work on the current “general investigation” in 2000.

Before I talk about the projects being proposed, I’d like to recall what is at stake in the Skokomish, often cited as the most frequently flooded river in Washington state. Many people believe that the restoration of Hood Canal, a gem of an ecosystem, cannot be successful without first fixing the Skokomish, where individual restoration projects have been underway for years.

Here’s a brief description of the problems from the feasibility report on the Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 5.3 mb).

“High sediment load, reduced flows and encroachment on the floodplain by man-made structures are causing continued degradation of natural ecosystem structures, functions, and processes necessary to support critical fish and wildlife habitat throughout the basin.

“The decline in populations has resulted in the listing of four anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act — chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout — that use the river as their primary habitat.

“The impaired ecosystem has adversely affected riverine, wetland, and estuarine habitats that are critical to these and other important fish and wildlife species such as bears, bald eagles and river otters to name a few.”

Let me list some of the specific problems:

  • Historical removal of large woody debris has simplified the stream, wiping out pools, eliminating places for young fish to hide and reducing nutrients, which feed aquatic insects and support an entire food web.
  • Logging along the river has eliminated the supply of large woody debris, the shade to cool the stream and the overhanging vegetation, a key part of the food web. Logging also has increased erosion which prevents new vegetation from taking hold, smothers salmon eggs and fills in pools, where salmon can rest.
  • Levees built to protect farmland from flooding halted the natural movement of the river, known as channel migration, and prevented the formation of new habitats.
  • Logging upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish River and Vance Creek increased erosion and movement of sediment into the lower river, cutting off fish access to side channels, wetlands and other aquatic habitats.
  • The Cushman Dam Project blocked 25 percent of the mainstem habitat and 18 percent of tributary habitat available for salmon in the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Reduced flows below the dam increased sedimentation in the lower Skokomish. As a result, about a mile of the river dries up about two months each summer, blocking salmon migration.
  • Highways 101 and 106 disrupted natural floodplains that can be used by fish to find food and to escape high flows and then find their way back to the river.

Five projects designed to reduce these problems are being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers:

Car body levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

Setback levee at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The costs above were taken from the feasibility study and do not include design, planning and related costs.

You might note that the River Mile 9 levee and the Grange levee fit the concept of “Floodplains by Design,” an idea supported by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Washington Legislature with $44 million. Check out the Associated Press story.

After discussions with nearby property owners, two projects were removed from the preliminary list. They involve excavation work on both Hunter and Weaver creeks to restore the tributaries to more nature flows.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, said the Skokomish restoration program seems to have wide support among landowners in the Skokomish Valley as well as among interest groups, including the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. As a result, he expects that the project will maintain momentum all the way to Congress.

“It is fairly rare to have a watershed working together,” Rich said at the SWAT meeting. “The ones that are difficult are when you have two parties, one saying ‘yes’ and other saying, ‘Don’t you dare.’

“There is support (for the Skok project) through the Corps chain of command and all the way up to the national level,” he added.

If things go well, a final plan for the Skokomish could be ready by late next summer, according to Rachel Mesko.

By the way, I would like to publicly thank the SWAT for the “certificate of appreciation” I was given for my reporting on Skokomish River through the years. It’s an honor to be associated with this group of men and women who are fully committed to seeing the Skokomish River restored to a healthy ecosystem.

EPA asserts protections under Clean Water Act

Connections among streams, wetlands, rivers and lakes are at the heart of a new rule proposed today to clarify the intent of the federal Clean Water Act and to spell out the authority of federal agencies.

Specifically, the rule proposed jointly by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers calls for protecting most natural water features under the Clean Water Act. The rule embodies the notion that small tributaries and wetlands are likely connected to larger tributaries, rivers, wetlands and natural channels, even though they may not always appear connected.

The proposed rule is designed to reconcile scientific understanding of hydraulic connections with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which hold that federal jurisdiction applies only to permanent water features and their connecting waters. In the 2006 decision “Raponos v. United States” (PDF 535 kb), the court was highly critical of the Army Corps of Engineers for its effort to squeeze a wide variety of waterways under the definition of “waters of the United States”:

“In applying the definition to ‘ephemeral streams,’ ‘wet meadows,’ storm sewers and culverts, ‘directional sheet flow during storm events,’ drain tiles, man-made drainage ditches, and dry arroyos in the middle of the desert, the Corps has stretched the term ‘waters of the United States’ beyond parody. The plain language of the statute simply does not authorize this ‘land is waters’ approach to federal jurisdiction….

“In sum, on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase ‘the waters of the United States’ includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water ‘forming geographic features’ that are described in ordinary parlance as ‘streams, oceans, rivers [and] lakes.’ See ‘Webster’s Second.’ The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall.”

The Supreme Court ruling has caused confusion, especially in situations where hydraulic connections were not obvious and could be questioned by property owners who wished to avoid federal regulators.

A scientific report was requisitioned by the EPA to fill the gap created by the court. Some findings from the report “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence” (PDF 11.3 mb):

“All tributary streams, including perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams, are physically, chemically, and biologically connected to downstream rivers via channels and associated alluvial deposits where water and other materials are concentrated, mixed, transformed, and transported…

“Wetlands and open-waters in landscape settings that have bidirectional hydrologic exchanges with streams or rivers … are physically, chemically, and biologically connected with rivers via the export of channel-forming sediment and woody debris, temporary storage of local groundwater that supports base flow in rivers, and transport of stored organic matter.”

In the Puget Sound region, the connections among waterways are fairly obvious. In more arid states, however, the connections may occur only during rainy periods, if then.

In a press release, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the proposed rule fits the Supreme Court’s narrower reading of the Clean Water Act while maintaining the historical coverage of the federal agencies:

“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities. Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”


Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, added:

“Today’s rulemaking will better protect our aquatic resources, by strengthening the consistency, predictability, and transparency of our jurisdictional determinations. The rule’s clarifications will result in a better public service nationwide.”

Specifically, the proposed rule clarifies that under the Clean Water Act:

  • Most seasonal and rain dependent streams are protected.

  • Wetlands near rivers and streams are protected.

  • Other types of waters with more uncertain connections to downstream water will be evaluated through a case specific analysis of whether the connection is or is not protecting similarly situated waters.
  • Agricultural exclusions are retained, and agencies have identified 53 conservation practices that will be considered exempt from Corps permits.

EPA’s webpage: Waters of the United States

Environmental groups were thrilled that the Obama administration stepped up to protect waterways where state laws are not as strong.

Stated Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice:

“The EPA’s new Clean Water Act rule finally restores protections so that we can begin the hard work of cleaning up our waters for our children to swim in, fish in, and drink from.

“No doubt, polluters will rail and lobby against this rule and any other clean water safeguards that keep them from dumping their toxic waste in our communities and waters, or that hold them accountable for their pollution.”

“We cannot back down on protecting the waters that eventually flow through our faucets. Our children, our health, and our very drinking water are at stake. We urge the Obama administration to resist the polluter lobbies and quickly move forward in protecting our waterways and our families.”

Not everyone was thrilled with the new rule. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval of the Western Governors Association wrote a letter to McCarthy and Darcy complaining that state officials have been left out of the conversation, despite state authority to regulate water use.

In a March 10 letter, Phillip Ward of the Western States Water Council urged agency officials to delay publication of the proposed rule until EPA’s connectivity report undergoes peer review:

“EPA has indicated that its draft connectivity report will serve to inform the final rule on CWA jurisdiction. However, the draft rule’s submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the finalization of the connectivity report raises concerns that the final report will have little or no influence on the final rule….

“Additionally, many western states have submitted individual comments for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to consider in its review of the draft connectivity report. EPA should carefully evaluate the SAB’s consideration of these comments and any subsequent recommendations from the final report.”

Kevin Kelly, president of the National Association of Homebuilders said the promise of clarification has brought a greater regulatory burden:

“EPA was told to make changes to the rule so that everyone understands exactly when a builder needs a federal wetlands permit before turning the first shovel of dirt. Instead, EPA has added just about everything into its jurisdiction by expanding the definition of a ‘tributary’ — even ditches and manmade canals, or any other feature that a regulator determines to have a bed, bank and high-water mark.”

Comments from others in favor of the proposed rule:
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Corps completes draft plan for Skokomish River

UPDATE, Jan. 27
The Army Corps of Engineers published a news release today about tentatively selected plan. It lists the total cost of the projects at $41 million. This information was not available when I wrote my story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
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Residents in and around the Skokomish Valley have demonstrated incredible patience, along with some frustration, while waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to restore the Skokomish River.

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team
Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

I was pleased to announce in today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) that top officials in the corps have now approved a “tentatively selected plan.” This plan will now undergo extensive review inside and outside the agency. Two public meetings are being planned, although they have not yet been announced.

I’ve been following the development of this plan for many years, actually long before I wrote a four-part series in 2009 about the past and future of the Skokomish River. See “Taming the Skokomish,” Kitsap Sun.

As Rich Geiger of Mason Conservation District told me last week:

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning. We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.”

Rich did not slam the Army Corps of Engineers for taking so long. He and I did not discuss — as we have in the past — how restoration of the Skokomish River plays an important part in the restoration of Hood Canal as a whole.

But we did talk about dredging, which many area residents believe is the only answer to cleaning the river channel, clogged by sediment and flooded more frequently than any river in the state. The corps has determined that dredging is too expensive for the benefit provided and would require ongoing maintenance. I look forward to reading the analysis by the corps and hearing the discussions that follow. I’m sure there is plenty to be said.

Before the agency releases the tentative plan, a final check must be made by corps officials to ensure completeness of the documents, which will include a feasibility report and an environmental impact statement, according to project manager Mamie Brouwer.

The plan includes these specific projects:

  • Car-body levee removal: Years ago, junk cars were used to construct a levee where the North Fork of the Skokomish flows into the main river. Although the course of the North Fork has changed, the old levee continues to impair salmon migration through the area, Brouwer said. This project would remove the levee and restore the natural flows at the confluence.
  • Side channel reconnection: Restoring a parallel channel alongside the Skokomish would give fish a place to go during high flows and flooding. In recent years, migrating salmon have been washed out of the river and into fields and ditches, where they struggle to survive. A side channel, about 4 miles upstream from where the Skokomish flows into Hood Canal, could provide refuge from the raging river.
  • Nine mile setback levee: A new levee is being proposed nine miles upstream to allow an existing levee to be breached, increasing the flood plain in that area. The new levee would be several hundred feet back from the old one and would allow for new pools and vegetation along the river.
  • Grange levee: Like the nine-mile setback levee, a new levee would be built about 8 miles upstream near the Skokomish Valley Grange Hall. The levee could be set back about 1,000 feet from the river, greatly expanding the flood plain in that area.
  • Large woody debris: Creating log jams in the river would increase the complexity of the channel, adding meanders, gravel bars and pools. Such structure is considered important for the survival of juvenile salmon. Several dozen log jams are proposed in the initial plan, but that could change in the final design.
  • Hunter Creek: Continual springs maintain summer flows in Hunter Creek, a tributary of the Skokomish considered excellent fish habitat. But with few side channels or complexity, the stream has limited spawning habitat and fish can be washed away during high flows. The project would alter the channel for better function.
  • Weaver Creek: Similar to Hunter Creek, Weaver Creek has great potential for increased spawning and rearing habitat along with refuge from high flows. The project would alter the channel to improve natural functions.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
Kitsap Sun file photo

Governor switches head of Puget Sound Partnership

I was reading my email Friday when a press release from the governor landed in my in-box.

It began, “Gov. Chris Gregoire today appointed retired Army Corps of Engineers Col. Anthony Wright to lead the Puget Sound Partnership.”

That’s strange, I thought. What happened to Gerry O’Keefe, who had served in the ranks of the partnership before being named interim director and then permanent director just 16 months ago.

What could O’Keefe have done to get fired so suddenly? There was no mention of O’Keefe until the last paragraph of the press release, where the governor stated:

“I thank Gerry O’Keefe for his work over the past year to lead this agency. He has thrown his heart and soul into the work of the partnership, and I wish him well.”

Before I wrote my story, I interviewed numerous people. As far as I could tell, O’Keefe’s departure came as a complete surprise to nearly all the staff at the partnership, to members of the Ecosystem Coordination Board and to others close to the agency.

The press release still leaves me wondering a bit, but I can thank Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, for speaking candidly to me about what happened. To summarize, Martha said the governor wanted a higher profile person in the post, someone who could have an impact with the Legislature; converse with federal, state and local entities; and connect with the public. Clearly, the governor would like the Puget Sound Partnership (“her baby,” Martha said) to survive and hopefully to thrive as a new governor comes on next year.

You can read Martha’s comments to me in the story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. Martha also prepared a written message for the Puget Sound Partnership’s website, recognizing O’Keefe’s contributions in more detail than the governor.

I could not reach O’Keefe Friday, so I can’t report how he’s taking the news, but Martha and others have told me that he is likely to take a job with the Washington Department of Ecology. No doubt the position will be less stressful.

As for Wright, everyone I have interviewed is impressed with his success as district engineer and commander for the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers. “I like him,” is a direct quote from several people.

I have never been formally introduced to Col. Wright, but I do recall his testimony before the Puget Sound Leadership Council about a year ago, when he told council members they need to get some “courage” in dealing with land-use issues, such as development along the shoreline. Of course, he realized that much shoreline development falls under the purview of cities and counties, but it is the job of the Puget Sound Partnership to push local governments to do the right thing for Puget Sound.

When I reached Tony Friday, he began with a few straight-laced comments, such as, “I am glad to join the team” and “Puget Sound has lots of big challenges.”

But when I reminded him of some of his more outspoken comments, he became a quotable figure, perhaps foreshadowing how he will communicate about Puget Sound — something many people agree needs to be brought to a new level. From my story:

“I’ve been told that I’m outspoken. It is time for some plain talk, because the sound has serious problems. Some people don’t think it does. Some people want to rearrange the deck chairs. That’s not my style…

“Some things are really challenging. Sometimes you have to embrace the porcupine.”

He also told me that, as an Army officer, he has tried to be apolitical, which could help him work across party lines on restoring Puget Sound and managing the partnership.

“I think the organization is important and has a really key role…,” he told me. “It will be a lot of fun.”

I’m glad he is bringing that kind of attitude to the Puget Sound Partnership. I’m looking forward to reporting on how Col. Anthony Wright leads the way.

Skokomish restoration now focused on ecosystem

Flood control is no longer a primary objective of federal restoration work on the Skokomish River — but improving the ecosystem is likely to reduce flood problems for people who live in the valley.

The Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT) surveys an area where the Skokomish River has wiped out all vegetation and left a massive gravel bar.
Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

We don’t need to be reminded that the Skokomish is the most frequently flooded river in the state. Although I’m not sure how soon another river might take over that dubious distinction, it’s easy to see that a lot of time and money is being spent to get the river back to a more natural condition.

The Army Corps of Engineers, known for massive projects such as dikes, dams and dredging, won’t be adopting those sorts of projects for the Skokomish River.

Jessie Winkler, Skokomish project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, explained it this way:

“Clearly, flooding is a problem in the basin. But because of limited residential and commercial activity, it would be very difficult to justify a flood-control project. In order to be justified as a federal project, the economic benefits must be greater than the cost.”

For further explanation, check out my story in Monday’s Kitsap Sun.

The good news is that the Corps has not turned its back on the Skokomish. In fact, the river is considered so important to the Hood Canal region that the agency is considering some large-scale projects focused on environmental restoration — including possibly relocating Skokomish Valley Road.

Other interesting ideas include creating sediment traps to capture gravel in selective locations, relocating existing dikes to create a wider river channel, forming new side channels to relieve flow on the main river and even aeration pumps to boost oxygen levels in Hood Canal.

Many of the projects designed for ecological improvement will also reduce the flooding problems.

A report, scheduled to be released in late spring or early summer, summarizes all information collected so far in the $4.7 million study of the Skokomish River watershed. The report will cover current ecological conditions, future ecological conditions without restoration and a list of potential restoration projects — including preliminary design, estimated costs and ecological benefits, Winkler told me.

Potential projects are only conceptual at this point, though experts have begun to look at locations along the river where different types of efforts may be fruitful. Further study will narrow the list of to a plan to be submitted to Congress for funding.

The upcoming report will begin to explore which of the following actions are most likely to succeed in specific locations:

  • Remove or breach levees/dikes
  • Construct setback levees/dikes
  • Create salmon spawning habitat
  • Reconnect wetlands, side channels, backwater areas, and tributaries
  • Substrate modification
  • Install aeration or oxygenation system in Annas Bay
  • Reconnect dendritic channels in estuary
  • Large woody debris
  • Engineered Log Jams
  • Fish passable weir
  • Channel stabilization
  • Riverbed and wetland vehicle exclusion
  • Enhance vegetation – riparian & estuarine
  • Control invasive species
  • Channel rehabilitation or new channel creation
  • Selective gravel removal on gravel bars
  • Spot-dredge
  • Sediment trap
  • Culverts: a) add; b) remove; c) replace; d) upgrade
  • Road modifications
  • Rehabilitate bank lines
  • Cool water diversion to Annas Bay

Learn about Skokomish watershed issues tomorrow

I’d like to take a moment to remind you about an open house tomorrow to discuss the Skokomish watershed restoration. You’ve been hearing about the problems in the Hood Canal watershed for years — from flooding in the valley to washed out culverts, from dikes along the estuary near Hood Canal to excessive logging roads in the mountains.

The Skokomish watershed is undergoing a massive restoration at all elevations, and the Army Corps of Engineers is putting together plan to restore the river ecosystem and address the flooding problem for the foreseeable future. Because the Skokomish River is the largest river in Hood Canal, the health of the watershed affects the overall health of Hood Canal.

If you’ve wondered about the various projects, you may want to attend this open house tomorrow at Hood Canal School, near the intersection of Highway 101 and Highway 106. The event, sponsored by the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, is from 1 to 4 p.m.

Learn about the Nalley Island dike-removal project, the Large Wood Enhancement Project in the South Fork Skokomish River, the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads Project and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ General Investigation.

Children are welcome to participate in activities before and during the open house. Olympic Mountain Ice Cream and cookies will be served.

A special discussion will focus on flooding and what may be done as an interim measure. Dredging, which sounds like a simple answer, is expensive, creates environmental concerns and doesn’t solve the problem for long, experts say.

For more information, visit the Skokomish Watershed Action Team’s website, which includes a collection of documents and news stories about the problems and restoration efforts.