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Plan to aid salmon raises hackles in Deer Lagoon neighborhood

Paulette Becker, an opponent of a plan to enhance salmon migration in Deer Lagoon:
Paulette Becker, an opponent of a plan to enhance salmon migration in Deer Lagoon: 'I don't know anybody who thinks this is a good idea.'
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

A plan to modify Deer Lagoon near Bayview to benefit Puget Sound salmon migration has been reined in for more study. Meanwhile, community concern mounts.

“Until we have a better idea of what’s involved, I don’t think it’s a good idea to move forward,” said Micah Wait, project manager for the nonprofit environmental group Wild Fish Conservancy.

“We’re in a holding pattern for the next couple of months,” Wait said Tuesday.

Since June, WFC has been exploring ways to alter the 100-year-old dikes and levies in about 450 acres of wetlands between Shore Avenue, Double Bluff Road and Useless Bay Golf & Country Club.

Work so far has been financed by $171,000 in state and federal grants.

The goal of the plan, still in its earliest stages, is to create a water-flow system on the west side of the lagoon that will reduce the accumulation of brackish, toxic water that has resulted in dead young fish through the years.

Proposed alternatives range from a simple self-regulatng tide gate, to holes or breaches in the existing dike, to a complete removal of the dike. The latter two choices would require construction of a setback levy to protect homes along Shore Avenue, a boulevard of expensive beach homes.

Each year, thousands of juvenile salmon spawned in Puget Sound rivers such as the Snohomish, Skagit and Stillaguamish pass by Whidbey Island en route to the Pacific Ocean.

On the way, they stop to feed in shallow estuaries such as those surrounding Deer Lagoon. Chinook, Coho, chum and pink salmon have been found in the lagoon’s wetlands.

But the increasing occurrence of algal blooms and “pond scum” in the estuary poses an ever-growing threat, Wait said. Modification of the wetlands would ensure an ebb and flow of clean water, he said.

But critics of the plan are concerned about the environmental effects of changing water levels in the wetland. They also worry about existing birds and wildlife, the creation of smelly mudflats, the effect on the area’s septic systems, the disruption that would be caused by construction and the potential for unwanted property development.

“The majority of the residents around the lagoon are not in favor,” said Paulette Becker, who lives on Soundview Drive next to the lagoon and is an outspoken critic of the WFC proposal.

“I don’t know anybody who thinks this is a good idea,” Becker said Monday.

Formerly known as Washington Trout, Wild Fish Conservancy was founded in 1989 and has been involved in wild fish conservation for more than 20 years, operating mostly with state and federal grants, Wait said.

The 3,000-member group, based in Duvall in east King County, pursues projects throughout the Northwest, and has been studying Whidbey Island’s role in Puget Sound salmon restoration since 2003.

Since summer, WFC has had two public meetings in the South End to gather community comment on its Deer Lagoon proposals. The meetings drew nearly 200 people, Wait said.

A third meeting had been tentatively scheduled for late November, but has been postponed until February or March to allow for further study of the plan.

Wait said the break will allow for a more detailed geological analysis of the area, to determine if construction of a setback levy is feasible.

“We don’t intend to move forward with any project that doesn’t provide the same or better protection from flooding for residents in the area,” Wait said.

Meanwhile, Becker said she and other opponents will continue to gather their own information.

“It’s really aggravating that the data is woefully inadequate,” Becker said. “They’ve been promoting this project without having all the facts from the beginning.”

“We’re very concerned that this is being pushed through,” she added. “A lot of issues need to be sorted out. We need time.”

WFC and its consultants have come up with four alternatives so far.

Wait said the simplest and cheapest would be to install a self-regulating tide gate through which salmon would enter and leave the lagoon.

“But it may not provide the benefits the other options would,” Wait said. “We don’t know if the salmon would even use it.”

The remaining three options involve breaching the existing dike or removing it completely.

The first alternative would be to punch a hole about 20 or 30 feet long; the second would be to punch several similar holes. Foot bridges would be constructed across the breaches to connect with pathways in the area.

Wait said one of those two options “seems like a good compromise, if the setback levy is feasible. In terms of the fish, the more dike removed, the better.”

Removal of the entire dike, however, “seems less than ideal,” Wait said, given the expense, and concerns about maintaining a secondary route out of the area and about the waterline along Shore Avenue.

Wait said WFC’s new timetable for the project is to have another community meeting in February or March, and then take the proposal to Island County commissioners. The county owns the wetlands, which it has agreed to maintain forever as a protected area.

If the county OKs the concept, WFC would begin its search for state and federal grants.

If grants are received, construction could begin as early as 2012, Wait said.

He said that, given the importance of Deer Lagoon to regional salmon migration, grants should be easy to track down.

“There’s a very good chance of getting the money,” he said. “There’s a recognition that salmon restoration is working in Puget Sound. There won’t be a shortage of dollars in the coming years.

“If we find an option that works for both fish and people, funding shouldn’t be difficult to obtain,” he added.

But Becker and other opponents say grant money could be put to better use.

“Nobody can say absolutely that the salmon would ever come into Deer Lagoon,” she said. “Spend the grants on something that people really need.”

“If something goes wrong here, we’re going to be stuck with the problem,” Becker added. “They’ll just walk away. That’s not acceptable to the homeowners.”

Wait will discuss WFC’s Deer Lagoon project next week at a meeting of the Island County Marine Resources Committee, a citizen advisory group that works to protect and restore the health of county marine waters.

The public meeting will be at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7, in the Fellowship Hall of Coupeville United Methodist Church, 608 Main St.

The committee’s spokesman, Dan Pedersen, said his group has yet to endorse the Deer Lagoon plan.

“We’re not on any side of the question,” Pedersen said Monday.

“We’re just trying to get information,” he said.

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