Diking official says pump permit was issued correctly

Diking District 1 didn’t exceed the requirements of its permit for a controversial pump project, and the permit shouldn’t be revoked, according to a draft response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The letter was written by diking commissioner Ray Gabelein, who represents the district in dealings with the Corps. Copies were sent Thursday to fellow commissioners Steve Arnold and John Shepard for review.

The district has until Sunday to respond to last week’s notice from the Corps that said it was suspending the permit, pending a review. The Corps has said the permit may be withdrawn after the review.

Meanwhile, the district can continue to operate the pump until a decision is made.

The $430,000 pump project already has resulted in two lawsuits from angry property owners and has divided the district’s board of commissioners.

Critics have complained for more than a year that the cost of the project has not been fairly spread among property owners in the district. They also say the pump is overkill, and is draining sensitive wetlands next to Useless Bay that are a prime wildlife habitat.

In its notice to the district, the Corps said it may have issued the wrong type of permit for the project. It said the approved permit was for maintenance only, and not for a capital improvement project.

Shepard, a tenacious critic of the pump, reacted as expected to Gabelein’s draft letter.

“I don’t know what dollar amount fits the Corps’ criteria for maintenance,” he said Thursday, “but $430,000 doesn’t sound like a maintenance project to me.”

In his letter, Gabelein said the district made it clear from the start that it intended to increase pumping capacity “to maintain the historic water levels in the district.”

Gabelein wrote that the existing gravity flow system originally installed in 1914 was unable to maintain those historic water levels because of sand buildup at the outfalls in Useless Bay, and because of increased stormwater runoff created by development in and around the district.

Gabelein wrote that the 6,000-gallons-per-minute pump installed nearly a year ago has kept the district wetlands at appropriate water levels during periods of heavy rain and melting snow.

“Your agency as well as all the other agencies issuing the permits for this project were correct to view this as a maintenance project,” Gabelein wrote.

In the letter, he invites federal officials to visit the district and see for themselves that the project is working as described.

“The historic water levels are being maintained and the district’s properties and improvements are being protected,” Gabelein wrote.

The Corps issued the permit in 2007 based on information provided by Island County, which handled applications for the diking district.

Corps officials in Seattle signed off on the project this past spring.

The Corps said it is rare to review an issued permit, but that it decided to do so in light of new information provided in part by critics of the project.

In the letter to the diking district, the Corps also said it will ask the district to submit for approval an operating plan for the pumping station for the coming winter.

Shepard noted that Gabelein makes no mention of such an operating plan in his letter.

“That gets to the crux of the problem,” Shepard said. “The district doesn’t have a policy.”

Shepard, a resident of the district and one of the original critics of the pump project and the assessment for it, was appointed to the diking board by county commissioners this year.

He continues to criticize the actions of his fellow commissioners, but is usually outvoted 2-1 on controversial issues concerning the district.

“They always have done sort of what they want to do,” Shepard said. “There’s not a lot I can do about it, except complain.”

The district is comprised of 743 acres spanning the area surrounding Deer Lagoon on Useless Bay, and includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista and the Useless Bay Golf and Country Club.

As many as 5,000 additional acres surrounding the district contribute to stormwater runoff into the district’s wetlands.

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