At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the ecosystem?”
It’s a story I’ve been covering since 2001, when Harper resident Chuck Hower first told me about an old brick factory that operated in Harper during the early 1900s. He was dismayed by the massive amount of fill dirt later brought in to build roads across what had been a beautiful salt marsh. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 12, 2001.
Although state and federal agencies were convinced that restoration of the estuary would be a wonderful thing for fish and wildlife, funding proposals came and went until two years ago. That’s when the Legislature decided that the Harper project should receive $4.1 million. The money was from a $142-million settlement with ASARCO related to pollution from company-owned smelters in Tacoma and Everett. More than $8 million was earmarked for environmental restoration. Check out this story, Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2014.
Once the money was approved, the project got rolling. Planners had to decide how much of the fill material could be removed with the available money and what to do with Olympiad Drive, built on an earthen causeway across the upper portion of the estuary.
Biologists generally agreed that the best thing for the ecosystem was to take out Olympiad Drive entirely, although that would force area residents to take an alternate route on Nokomis Road to Southworth Drive. The result would be only one road in and out of the community east of the estuary, and that did not sit well with folks in the area.
Local fire officials were not happy with that arrangement either, according to Kathy Peters, salmon recovery coordinator for Kitsap County. They said it would cut down response time to the neighborhood.
In addition, she said, county engineers determined that the width of Nokomis Road would not meet design standards if the majority of area traffic began using the road. Widening the road would create other complications, such as buying right of way and tearing down some buildings.
“For all these reasons, everyone agreed that we can’t abandon the road,” Kathy told me.
What then resulted was a question of how long to make the bridge. Often, a longer bridge means greater ecosystem integrity. But there’s always the matter of cost.
What then ensued behind the scenes was a lot of haggling among biologists, engineers and other county officials, as well representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Suquamish Tribe. I’ve been hearing about these difficult discussions for months.
Finally, a resolution came when Kitsap County’s new public works director, Andy Nelson, suggested that the county proceed with preliminary design studies, as it would for any bridge, but include ecosystem restoration as a primary design criteria. Nobody could find any reason not to go that way, Kathy said.
The county is now contracting for a consultant to do preliminary design, which will include various options, how much they will cost and how close they can come to a fully functioning natural system.
Meanwhile, WDFW is moving forward with its plans to restore the estuary and get that project under construction. Much of the work will involve removal of fill on both sides of Olympiad Drive and along the shoreline to bring the estuary back to a semblance of what it once was. A boat launch will be relocated.
A few other details, including the biological value of estuaries, can be found in a fact sheet on the county’s Harper Estuary website. Officials are pulling together additional information in preparation for a public meeting April 6 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church.
Community involvement in the project is important, according to Kathy Peters, who wants people to enjoy the waterway and be able to observe as a variety of plants and animals recolonize the estuary.
Removing the fill is expected to unearth a huge number of old bricks, which were dumped into the estuary after the Harper Brick and Tile Factory went out of business in the 1930s.
Jim Heytvelt, who lives near the estuary, said neighbors have been discussing gathering up the bricks and forming them into some kind of monument.
“We have a pretty tight community,” Jim said. “We have neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of the estuary who want to get involved.”
He said most everyone is excited about the restoration, which has been a long time coming.