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Budd Inlet Needs Legal Rights

Lets start with a dream, sometime in the future. The dam has been removed and the river is flowing. The Marine Terminal, Percival Landing and the Yacht Club are being scoured by artesian springs and wells with minimal dredging. East Bay has been cleaned up, the upper beach has been restored and the lower half mile of Moxlie Creek has been daylighted. The estuaries of Ellis, Moxlie, Percival and Schneider Creeks have been restored. Where feasible, streams have been removed from culverts.

The idea isnt to clean up every bit of contamination. The idea is to get rid of major sources and reach a point of equilibrium where Nature can start to heal herself… to have a science-based cleanup and restoration and piece our developments into these by mimicking natural features such as overhanging vegetation or a large boulder. In considering any development in a riparian or nearshore area the first consideration should be: Is there anything we can do here to improve ecological function?

The State has committed to removing the 5th Ave dam and turning Capitol Lake back into an estuary. The Port needs to conduct cleanup and navigation dredging prior to dam removal. The City is concerned about aging infrastructure and sea level rise. Its like the State, the City and the Port are parties in a dispute.

And who speaks for Budd Inlet? Under our current legal system, unless you can prove direct harm to yourself, you have no legal standing in court. But if Budd Inlet had legal rights, any citizen could sue to protect its integrity.

By working together within a Rights of Nature framework that restores ecological function, what economic potential could be unlocked for funding opportunities? How would the enhanced natural beauty improve economic value and the health of the community?

The Budd Inlet of Not So Long Ago

Theres a prevailing belief that everything is fine in Budd Inlet. Some of us whove been around for a while might not agree. Ron Secrist was born January 10th, 1936 and lived at the mouth of Schneider Creek. I had the pleasure of interviewing him a decade ago.

Two houses sat on the west side of what is now West Bay Drive and on the south side of the Schneider Creek estuary, one of which was the Schneider household. Behind the house on the hill above to the north was the location of the orchard originally planted in the 1860s by Konrad and Albertina Schneider.

West Bay Drive crossed the estuary at its current location. The estuary ran under the road in a culvert that was approximately 40 feet long and four feet in diameter. The bank near the culvert was reinforced with rock riprap. The tide flowed freely through the culvert.

Ron recalls the abundant life present in Schneider Creek and Budd Inlet. There were large populations of humpys or pink salmon, and probably also chum. Some years the stream was full” of spawning fish.

On one of the family docks Ron could catch 100 shiner perch in an hour fishing with a single hook and a cousin could shoot a large number of salt water ducks” (mergansers, scoters, harlequins etc) from a rowboat in an hour or so. In those days diving ducks were so plentiful they were almost viewed with disdain.

His father had a large rake that he used to rake smelt into a boat in front of the property. He could fill the boat in an hour or so. Surf smelt were very plentiful. Several varieties of clams were also plentiful.

Ron remembers mats of long sinewy stringy grasslike material that he thinks might have been some kind of seaweed or perhaps sea grass but he couldnt say for sure which. He also remembers lots of what was almost surely sargassum macro algae that had small air pockets that popped when kids stepped on them.

He doesnt recall ever seeing an algae bloom or die off. The estuary had a wonderful smell. When he hears gulls he still gets chocked up thinking of how beautiful Budd Inlet was during his youth.

When the property south of the estuary was purchased by the Smyths, they knocked down 100 to 150 feet of high bank and used the soil to fill the Schneider Creek estuary which now runs through a 470 foot long culvert. The estuary is now a parking lot.

Today Budd Inlet is in Sorry Shape.

Species are in decline, water quality is in the tank and persistent toxins continue to spread. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Washington state has failed to meet federal requirements that help prioritize cleanup efforts in Puget Sound to help salmon and steelhead listed as endangered”. (1)

Low dissolved oxygen is typically attributed to nutrient loading from septic tanks, fertilizers and other sources. Excessive nutrients can lead to algal overgrowth which blocks light thats needed for plants such as seagrass to grow. When the algae and seagrass die, they decay and dissolved oxygen drops, starving marine life.

When freshwater meets saltwater, their mixing patterns bring nutrients to the surface where marine organisms consume them and are themselves consumed in a dance of life. All this happens best in shallow water in the presence of abundant sunlight and atmospheric oxygen. Tide flats are one of nature’s perfect designs.

Olympia sits on 160 miles of culverted surface waters. Theres no sunlight in a pipe. No sunlight, no phytoplankton. No phytoplankton, no dissolved oxygen. Structural modifications, like armoring the shore and toxic pollutants, further contribute to the decline of Budd Inlet.

Whats (not) Being Done

In 2019 The Port of Olympia published the Port Vision 2050 Action Plan, a Community Informed Plan for the Future”. Though restoration wasn’t even a focus area, the community rated pollution clean-up projects in Budd Inlet as a top priority.

The City of Olympia is in the midst of its ten year Comprehensive Plan update that looks out to the year 2045. Here too, the word restoration is nowhere to be found. When asked about this, were told its included or at least implied under stewardship. Stewardship is the responsible planning and management of resources. Restoration is the action of returning something to a former condition. Neither implies the other.

Besides the Comp Plan, several other city plans and policies are important to helping the City prepare for sea level rise and other “climate-related challenges”.

Climate change and sea level rise are safe subjects for local jurisdictions because any solutions are beyond their purview. If taken seriously wed see that the perfect machine for breaking down CO2 is plant life including phytoplankton. The choices were clearly explained years ago. The solution to climate change and sea level rise is to restore nearshore estuarine function. (2)

The 2016 West Bay Environmental Restoration Assessment, written by the Port of Olympia in collaboration with the City and the Squaxin Tribe, identifies 12 restoration alternatives that “provide the opportunity to enhance the ecological functions of West Bay.” How ecological function will be enhanced isnt clarified and one doesnt know if any have been carried out.

Thats about it. Restoration is rarely mentioned and then only in vague terms. New York Citys Comprehensive Plan, Vision 2020, is an interesting contrast. The emphasis is entirely on nearshore restoration. (3)

Jurisdictions around San Francisco Bay including the San Francisco Restoration Authority have overseen the restoration of 100,000 acres of tidelands. Any stretch of waterfront that opens up for possible restoration is restored. (4,5,6,7)

The Shifting Baseline – What Have We Lost?

There are three in-depth studies documenting past abundance of wildlife in Budd Inlet: The 2000 West Bay Habitat Assessment; The 1980 East Bay Marina EIS; and ongoing Audubon Christmas Bird Counts. On any winters day not that long ago we would have seen hundreds of birds on Budd Inlet. We would have seen thousands of forage fish and acres of sea grasses, macro algae and salt marsh. There were salmon spawning in Schneider, Indian and Percival Creeks and an estuarine environment that served salmon migrating to and from streams and rivers throughout Puget Sound. Years ago spawning events would have brought thousands of sand lance and surf smelt to Budd Inlets upper beaches. Herring would have inundated sea grass beds. Once vast in number, these vital species are now locally extinct. Weve forgotten they ever existed. We talk in terms like stewardship, sustainability, mitigation, no-net-loss, … the jargon of the shifting baseline.

Restoration is a realistic option. The United Nations has declared 2021–2030 to be the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Our hope is to reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide, including natural and urban ecosystems. Ecosystem restoration entails changing the human footprint within ecosystems, not removing the human footprint.”


Harry Branch is a retired vessel captain who writes about urban estuaries at garden bay blog.

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