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:

Nooksack River Estuary: This $262-million project would restore 1,807 acres of tidal freshwater wetlands by removing portions of two major dikes, constructing a new setback levee for flood protection, and relocating flood-prone portions of the community of Marietta. To allow reconnection of the Lummi River to the Nooksack, the project also would construct a water-control structure, remove a berm and build a new setback levee. New bridges or culverts on both the Nooksack and Lummi also are included.

Duckabush River Estuary: This $91-million project would remove the causeway and bridges that span the Duckabush River on the western shore of Hood Canal; restore the natural floodplain, wetlands, tidal channels and delta; and construct a new 2,100-foot-long bridge for traffic on Highway 101.

North Fork Skagit River delta: This $99-million project would restore the natural floodplains, wetlands and a tidal marsh along the North Fork Skagit by lowering and breaching about 13,000 feet of levee, building a new levee for flood control, lowering 3,140 feet of shoreline armoring and excavating new channels along the river.

For further details, see the PSNRP report (PDF 2.5 mb) from the U.S. Army’s Chief of Engineers, which describes the state or local match, or a news release from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The fifth project begins with a $350,000 feasibility on Burley Creek in South Kitsap. The approval came as the result of a submission suggested by Andrew Nelson, director of Kitsap County Public Works. As I described in a Water Ways post on May 6, Andy was aware of the new Army Corps of Engineers while working for the Corps. Kitsap County’s proposal was the only one submitted from Washington state.

The Burley Creek study will look at salmon passage in the stream, where four bridges in close proximity contribute to ongoing problems for salmon, including flooding and pollution. The next step, Andy told me, is to invite Corps officials to visit the site and approve a contract to get the study underway.

The Water Resources Development Act, which was renamed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, is an authorization bill. While some preliminary work can be done under the Corps’ existing authorities, most of the major design and construction work require appropriations in the Corps’ upcoming budget.

What level of spending will be proposed by a new Trump administration is hard to say. Donald Trump has talked about big infrastructure projects, and most of the WRDA bill has received widespread and ongoing support in Congress. The new law provides an immediate $100 million to address the lead pipes that have resulted in a health crises in Flint, Mich.

One last-minute addition to the bill resulted in a number of Democratic defections — including “no” votes from Sens. Murray and Cantwell. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, won the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to push through an amendment that loosens water restrictions on farming in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California.

California’s other senator, Barbara Boxer, co-author of the original bill, called the provision a “poison pill,” because the legislation was desperately needed for Flint, not to mention the billions of dollars in public works projects across the country. While the McCarthy provision states that it does not supercede existing environmental laws, Boxer worries that it could weaken the Endangered Species Act. Under ESA, salmon have received priority for instream water needed to keep the fish alive.

Cantwell said the way to save both farms and fish is to find a better way to manage the water, as was done in the Yakima Valley of Washington state. Passing a law favoring farmers over fishermen is not the way to go, she said, and killing fish is not the answer to California’s water crisis.

In signing the bill, Obama noted that the legislation authorizes funding for water projects in California that could make the state more resilient in times of water shortages. He also pointed out that past federal-state cooperation has attempted to balance the needs of both farms and fish, and he would like to keep that going.

“It is essential that it not be undermined by anyone who seeks to override that balance by misstating or incorrectly reading the provisions of Subtitle J,” he said in a written statement. “Consistent with the legislative history supporting these provisions, I interpret and understand Subtitle J to require continued application and implementation of the Endangered Species Act, consistent with the close and cooperative work of federal agencies with the State of California to assure that state water quality standards are met.”

No doubt the competition for water and the varying interpretations of this new bill will result in new lawsuits. The struggle may test the power of a Republican Congress under a Republican administration.

Meanwhile, how Puget Sound restoration will fare when it comes to Congressional funding is another issue worth watching closely over the next few months.

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5 thoughts on “Congress authorizes five restoration projects throughout Puget Sound

  1. The 1 & 3 projects are going to fail big time due to lack of public input and ignoring land owners. Seems like PSNERP has cart in front of horse.

  2. Burley Lagoon??? Where Taylor wants to put a 25-acre geoduck operation, destroying the habitat for salmon and forage fish??? Which hand is not paying attention to what the other hand is doing?

    1. Let’s hope the new monies for Kitsap studies of the Burley Creek watershed will help us restock and truly restore the Lagoon’s salmon runs. Industry seems to think that changing from 43,000 pvc tubes p/acre to the black plastic sleeves for geoduck seed is all that concerns residents. Not so. The cumulative impact of industrial operations has already been felt with a diminished number of migrating birds and displacement of other species under canopy nets over manila clams.

  3. I wanted to thank you, Chris, for running this blog and for sharing this good news. Your writing is the best place to find out what’s happening around Kitsap county and the Sound. I wish there were a network of writers with your focus on ecology of a particular region, because this is the best way to find out what’s happening here. Keep up the good work, and merry Christmas!

    1. Thank you for your support. It’s these kinds of comments that keep me going. Merry Christmas to you and to all readers of this blog.

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