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Engineering is not science, listing things is not scientific inquiry—Washington’s waters need to be defended

The City of Olympia is characterizing restoration efforts in Budd Inlet as East Bay versus West Bay, one or the other but not both. The preferred effort, West Bay, is based on incomplete information and flawed design.

The importance of Moxlie Creek

Beginning in 2015 a group of local citizens began advocating for the daylighting of Moxlie Creek, which feeds into East Bay. Indian Creek, the chief tributary to Moxlie Creek, runs through 1.5 miles of pool and riffle regime and a full square mile of undeveloped watershed in the area south of Wheeler between Eastside and Boundary. The area represents potentially excellent spawning habitat for the species of salmonids that still manage to migrate through the 25 or so culverts that impede passage. Some of these culverts provide no benefit at all and could be easily removed. Some, such as the half–mile long culvert that runs through downtown and then drains into East Bay would be more of a challenge. Many urban estuaries have been daylighted and would serve as good models.

The City has already decided. And it doesn’t have the money. Or the staff.

In a letter dated December 05, 2015, City Manager Steve Hall writes: “Our current environmental restoration efforts in the City are focused on West Bay which has active salmon runs, bird nesting and many other advantages over the Moxlie area.  We are in the middle of a habitat study on west bay with the Squaxin Island tribe, the Port and others to improve environmental conditions on West Bay. Any future dollars we invest in restoration are likely to be directed there and not to East Bay. We don’t have the staff or money to also do Moxlie and I would not recommend the City or the Port change course from our West Bay efforts. If you are looking for optimal environmental impact, I’d urge you to follow the West Bay work.”

A short primer on conducting a scientific inquiry

The City of Olympia is relying mainly on the West Bay Environmental Restoration Assessment Final Report of February 2016. The report, which is characterized as “science based”, was prepared by: Coast & Harbor Engineering, a Division of Hatch Mott MacDonald who specializes in sediment transport modeling and bulkhead design, in association with JA Brennan Associates GeoEngineers who specialize in landscape architecture and Davido Consulting Group Environmental Science Associates who describe themselves as “excellence in engineering”. All appear to be engineering firms.

Engineering is not science. They are separate, related disciplines. Scientists explore the natural world. Discovery is the essence of science. Engineers innovate solutions. Engineering without science can be haphazard. Scientific discovery without engineering can be solely academic.

A science–based analysis might begin with experiment design, the deductive phase. This might begin with a literature search on general topics such as the impact of culverts on water quality or the comparative value of salt marsh and tide flats. It might cover specifics such as the Sediment Characterization for Budd Inlet which might lead to specific questions about things like dioxin source control.

The process might then move into the inductive phase. How do physical parameters such as shape, structure, sediment composition, circulation patterns, turbidity and depth in various places impact chemical parameters such as dissolved oxygen and nitrates and biological parameters such as phytoplankton and zooplankton, that is, primary and secondary production? This might involve sampling and the collecting and quantifying of data.

It doesn’t matter how exhaustive the list is

The study refers to pocket estuary habitat, storm water runoff, contaminants and shoreline modification from historical uses. It lists streams, wetlands, bird and mammal habitat, marine and freshwater connectivity, salt marsh habitat, tidal circulation, mixing, transition zones and sediment transport. There’s brief reference in Table 1 of a pocket estuary. It suggests removing bulkheads, daylighting streams, creation of intertidal beach and marsh areas through substrate placement, restoring natural grades, riparian plantings, removal of intertidal and upland structures, and shellfish enhancement.

Simply naming and listing things doesn’t qualify as scientific inquiry.

On page 22 it states “Schneider Creek discharges into the reach via a large culvert, delivering sediment and freshwater and redistributing sediments in the mudflats.” This sounds like the pipe is providing beneficial services. The most environmentally significant feature on West Bay has to be the estuary of Schneider Creek, the largest stream draining West Olympia into Budd Inlet. The estuary of Schneider Creek currently runs through a 500–foot long culvert. On page 17 the Schneider Creek culvert is labeled as a “storm water retrofit (piped)”.

The scope of the “restoration” study didn’t include the critical feature

And most remarkably it states “Creek daylighting was beyond the scope of the Plan.” The most significant feature in the whole area is beyond the scope of the study? Why is that? The assessment discusses other upland near–shore areas. Storm water improvement opportunities along West Bay Drive are mentioned on page 22. What’s more, the tide backs up the Schneider Creek pipe emerging on the inland side making the whole thing intertidal. It’s not because it’s privately owned. Hardel and Reliable Steel are part of the assessment. Why would the most significant feature and greatest opportunity for improvement be deliberately left out of the assessment?

Nearly half of the assessment concerns potential modifications to the Port Lagoon. Page after page after page of spreadsheets and drawings. Alternatives include knocking holes in the old railroad berm that forms the lagoon and completely removing it. This might reduce the length of intertidal and near–shore shoreline by as much as a full third. It might destroy what amounts to coastal lagoon habitat. It would cause extensive modifications in a 100–year–old benthic community. In short, there are reasons to expect that this proposed work may do more harm than good and once again, I can find no actual science.

Why are we here?

The Port’s upland ownership on West Bay consists of approximately 26 acres of tidelands, and the approximate 11 acres known as the Port Lagoon, which is under a perpetual easement to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to serve as a fish and wildlife conservancy area and as mitigation for the development of the East Bay Marina…The intent of this district is to provide habitat, potential habitat mitigation, and public access. The Port and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have designated approximately 11 acres in this area for conservation. Upon completion of the environmental remediation, the Port will evaluate the highest and best use for the remaining uplands.”

In various documents the lagoon is repeatedly listed as key habitat. It probably represents some of the best physical and biological parameters in Budd Inlet. The idea that we can find greater benefit in restoring an “area of conservation” while ignoring the most damaged areas is illogical.

Harry Branch has worked on behalf of the environment in Olympia for the last twenty years.


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