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Deer Lagoon salmon project prompts early concerns

A proposal to modify a section of wetlands west of Deer Lagoon near Bayview to benefit salmon migration is raising a few ripples in the neighborhood.

“I think people should be very aware that this could be a bad thing,” Paulette Becker of Bayview Beach said Monday. “We need to look into it with a keen eye.”

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

The goal is to create a water-flow system that will reduce the accumulation of brackish, toxic water that has killed fish through the years.

But early critics are concerned with the environmental effects of changing water levels in the wetlands. They worry about birds and wildlife, the creation of smelly mudflats, the effect on the area’s septic systems and the potential for unwanted property development.

“This island is special,” Becker said. “We should try to keep it that way.”

Micah Wait, the project manager with the Wild Fish Conservancy, said the proposal is in an extremely early stage. Supporters are focused on determining the effects of various options, and on gathering citizen comments.

“We’re trying to better understand how we can balance the salmon habitat with the needs of the community,” Wait said on Monday.

He said the group’s current timeline calls for further study of the area and the collection of community comments through November. Then in early 2011, the conservancy would approach Island County, which owns the property, for permission to restore the estuary.

If the county agrees, the nonprofit would begin applying for state and federal grants, with an eye to beginning construction in 2012.

The first of a planned series of community meetings hosted by the conservancy will be next week. The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 12 at Useless Bay Golf & Country Club.

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.

He said the 3,000-member group, based in Duvall in east King County, pursues projects throughout the Northwest, and that he himself has been working on Whidbey Island’s role in Puget Sound salmon restoration since 2003.

Wait said that each year, thousands of juvenile salmon spawned in Puget Sound rivers such as the Snohomish, Skagit and Stillaguamish pass by Whidbey Island on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

During the journey, 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 salt marshes though the years, Wait said.

But the increasing occurrence of algal blooms and “pond scum” in the estuary poses an ever-growing threat, he added.

“If we don’t move forward, all the fish in that area could end up dying off,” he said.

Wait said the conservancy and its consultant, Anchor QEA, a national environmental engineering firm with offices in Seattle and Bellingham, are looking at options for Deer Lagoon’s western salt marshes.

Alternatives range from a simple self-regulating tide gate, to holes or breaches in the dikes, to a complete removal of the dikes.

Wait said that bridges would be built across any dike breaches to maintain recreational trails in the area.

To guarantee flood protection for homes along Shore Avenue, new setback levees might be constructed, he added. Wait said modification of the drainage area may even result in better perking for drain fields in the area.

“That’s something we’re tying to get a feel for, the effects on septic systems,” he said.

Wait said it’s too early to predict how much the project might cost, since it would depend on the option chosen. Preliminary study work so far has been financed by a $171,000 combination state and federal grant, he said.

Ray Gabelein, a commissioner of neighboring Island County Diking District 1 and a longtime farmer in the area, said the property in question was formerly known as Diking District 4.

He said when farmers in the area eventually gave up on the property, it was purchased by Island County.

Wait said a provision of that purchase was that the property remain a protected wetland forever.

“That land is never going to be developed,” Wait said.

Gabelein said Monday that his biggest concern with modifying the western wetland would be the effects on septic systems in the area, which were constructed with current water levels in mind.

“I’m all for salmon,” he said. “But if you raise the water level, the septics are going to be flooded. But I suppose they’ve thought of that.”

“That’s certainly something we’re looking at,” Wait said.

Wait again stressed that the project is only in the “public outreach” stage, and that nothing has been decided.

“But as long as fish are dying, we know we need to take action to restore that habitat,” he added.

Becker said that she and other neighbors in the area remain skeptical of the idea, and intend to voice their concerns.

She said the community only recently managed, after years of trying, to persuade the county to ban duck shooting in the area.

“There are many questions to be asked,” Becker said. “We’re always in a battle over this lagoon.”

For more information about Wild Fish Conservancy’s proposals, call 425-788-1167 or e-mail Micah@wildflishconservancy.org.

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