Beach Watchers set for split from Washington State University

Volunteers from Island County Beach Watchers inspect sediment and sand at Cornet Bay. The group will soon sever ties with Washington State University Extension.

On Jan. 1, the Island County Beach Watchers will part ways with long-time administrator Washington State University and become an independent, non-profit organization with a new name: Sound Water Stewards of Island County.

The all-volunteer group, founded in 1989, was the first of what are now several Beach Watchers groups in northern Puget Sound counties, most of them administered by a university extension director in that county.

Barbara Bennett, a university employee who has administered Island County Beach Watchers since November 2010, will lose her job, she said. But “this is a healthy step forward for both the volunteers and the university,” she said. “This is a nice culmination of five years of effort.”

She will remain available as a consultant, she said.

The amicable parting has been pending for about two years, said Derek Pritchard, a Greenbank resident who was president of the Beach Watchers’ advisory council and will become an emeritus member of the new group’s executive committee.

“We wanted to be independent, to be able to accept projects that weren’t on the university’s priority list,” Pritchard said.

WSU is a land-grant university, meaning that its historical mission is to teach practical agriculture, engineering and science rather than abstract liberal arts. Still, at such universities, “the question of how to handle volunteer organizations is second-tier,” Bennett acknowledged. “Their first role is higher-level education and research.” In addition, she said, there are “liability issues” working with volunteers.

For the group’s part, “it has grown large and robust and wants to expand and be a little more responsive than it could be within how the university manages its volunteer programs,” she said. “It will gain independence and flexibility.” Overall, “It simplifies things not to have the relationship,” she said.

The group had a budget of $55,000 in 2014, Pritchard said. It is sustained mainly by an annual grant from the state’s Department of Licensing through its lighthouse license-plate program, as well as by the group’s annual Sound Waters educational program and by grants from the Coupeville Town Council and its port authority.

By February, the Sound Water Stewards plan to have revamped the display at the Coupeville Wharf, using the theme, “What’s so special about Penn Cove?” Existing walls, cabinets and posters will be removed and a new wall display and mural depicting eelgrass will be installed.

Since its inception, the group has trained more than 500 volunteers, it said. It contributes at least 15,000 volunteer hours per year to the county. The “class” of 2015 consisted of 25 Island County residents who received 100 hours of instruction, experience and field trips dealing with marine and shoreline ecosystems, citizen science and stewardship. The group has about 70 projects underway, including monitoring the invasive green crab, Pritchard said.

Linda Ade Ridder, who headed the committee that engineered the group’s independence, will serve as president of the board.

Another former extension group, the Lighthouse Docents, left university oversight Jan. 1, 2015, and is now under the management of Washington State Parks.