Archaeologist to inspect Oak Harbor outfall site

As city officials anxiously await news about an archeological plan for SE Pioneer Way, archaeologists will soon be back in Oak Harbor to take a closer look at another long-planned-for city project.

As soon as next month, experts will be at Windjammer Park to follow up on the discovery of shell midden late last year. The results from the closer inspection could impact when and where a 42-inch outfall that’s been marked for replacement since the mid-1990s can move forward.

“It will be contingent on what the archaeologist says,” City Engineer Eric Johnston said.

The stormwater outfall has been a headache for city officials and business owners for years. During heavy rains and high tides, it tends to backup and flood near the intersection of Highway 20, Pioneer Way, and Beeksma.

The mouth of the metal pipe has eroded away to a stub on the waterfront at Windjammer Park. It’s commonly plugged by sand from tidal action, which forces city workers to clear the mouth with heavy equipment.

It’s also believed to be a major cause of pollution. In 2010, the beach by the outfall was closed after water quality samples revealed the presence of the fecal bacteria Enterococcus. It was closed for the same reason in 2007.

Heal the Bay, an environmental group out of Santa Monica, Calif., monitors water quality on beaches all over the West Coast. In a June news release, the organization said it gave 93 percent of Washington beaches “A” or “B” grades last year.

The beach at Windjammer Park was one of three in the state to receive “F” grades. The others include Freeland Park at Holmes Harbor, also on Whidbey Island, and Pomeroy Park’s Manchester Beach in Kitsap County.

City officials are well aware of the problems but funding problems have stalled the project for more than a decade. It was only with the approval of recent utility hikes that the project got a green light.

The plan was to replace and reroute the pipe so it would run side-by-side another outfall at Windjammer Park. Both would then extend far into the bay, where the discharge would mix with tidal currents and not concentrate along the beach causing closures.

It’s commonly referred to as the “dilution is the solution” method of releasing storm water into Puget Sound.

Although the project had been slated to move forward this summer, it was stalled this past December. An archeologist the city hired from Seattle-based Northwest Archeology Associates reportedly found remains of burned wood and animal bones, which could be evidence of an early Native American site.

According to Johnston, state restrictions only allow waterfront work to be done in summer months. Because an archaeologist will be doing further review at the site during that narrow window, that pushes back a possible start date back to 2012, he said.

What the expert finds will determine if the pipe can go next to the other outfall or if it will have to be rebuilt where it is now. If that is the case, the city may need to pay for additional review and it’s possible that culturally significant artifacts could be found there as well.

City officials did recently receive some good news about the $2-million project when they learned that it qualified for a state lending program that may end up saving Oak Harbor taxpayers about a half a million dollars.

“We’re real pleased the Legislature was able to come through for us,” City Administrator Paul Schmidt said.

The savings is coming through the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Public Works Assistance Account, or more commonly the Public Works Trust Fund. The lending program provides low-interest loans and technical assistance to local governments for capital and infrastructure project needs.

The program has been in place for more than 25 years, but in 2009 the state Legislature voted to redirect money from the pot to the general fund in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the state financial crisis.

The Legislature voted this year to reinstate the trust fund. Of the $573 million made in requests, 83 projects totaling $386 million will be funded. Included in that is $1.6 million for the Oak Harbor outfall replacement.

By qualifying for the program, the city can secure a 20-year loan at an interest rate of .5 percent. When compared to the average 4 percent rate that might come with a bond, Schmidt said the city stands to save about $645,000 over the life of the loan.

However, the fate of the project could depend heavily on the results of the additional review this summer. According to Schmidt, the recent discovery of Native American remains on SE Pioneer Way was a good reminder that things can come up unexpectedly and “reinforces the need to be careful.”

“We’re braced to deal with whatever shows up,” he said.

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