The fix is on

An Island County Public Works Department tide gate repair project on West Beach Road has generated controversy among neighboring landowners.

The existing south pipe, which runs under the road, leads from the inlet at Swan Lake to the outlet into Puget Sound. Over years the pipe has deteriorated and holes have allowed sand and debris to build up, in the process inhibiting discharge from the lake.

Public Works crews were on site Wednesday to fit approximately 250 feet of high-density polyethylene pipe 24-inches in diameter into the existing 30-inch diameter pipe, which was patched up prior to beginning the project to restore flow.

“Pull a quarter out of your pocket and look at the thickness,” said Phil Cohen, Public Works surface water manager. “That’s the thickness of the pipe we’re dealing with at one of the highest beach energy spots on Whidbey Island.”

The smaller pipe will be pulled through the other tube, essentially acting like a liner.

“We’re trying to put something in that will withstand the elements,” Cohen said.

The primary concern is that raised levels of marine water and saltwater intrusion pose a threat to the properties neighboring the lake, Randy Brackett, assistant county engineer, said at a staff session earlier in the month. Inserting a smaller diameter, smoother pipe will allow the drainage system to work as it was originally designed.

Some residents in the proximity of Swan Lake were caught off guard by the project, which was deemed an emergency maintenance project. Cohen said the county had noticed higher lake levels during the summer.

“We’re keeping tabs on our infrastructure,” he said. “We knew we had a problem with the tide gates.”

Some property owners were reportedly concerned that land could be damaged by an excessive water height. The work had to be completed in the daylight, Cohen said, and this last week represented the final series of daylight low tides until April.

“Is this an emergency? When you look at the tide book and the potential for damage, yes,” he said. “This is head’s up kind of work. It has to be done in the daylight.”

The restored drainage will protect everyone surrounding the project, Cohen said.

Crews worked until approximately 11 p.m. Thursday extracting the smaller pipe from the larger one. The pipe is now resting on a grassy bench next to the canal that leads to the culvert entrances, Cohen said Friday morning.

“We got the pipe out undamaged and people cooperated with traffic control,” he said.

The surface water manager said the timeline for completing the project is unknown. However, the workers were able to adequately carry out their tasks at night, which was an auspicious sign.

“We have to get the equipment and tools out there, as well as the permits,” Cohen said. Brackett added that favorable tides and a good weather window will be necessary to finish the job.

Angie Homola, a resident who lives in the vicinity of the project and a member of the Swan Lake Watershed Preservation Group, said the concerns of the group are not with routine maintenance but with the “emergency” repair and the series of events leading up to the project. She said the specific status the county attached to the maintenance work allows them to circumvent the environmental checklist until after the project is finished.

“Neighbors here who suffered bulkhead damage last winter had to wait until early this spring before commencing work to fully comply with environmental requirements,” she said. “Where was the county this spring? They certainly knew about the lake level concerns because we provided pictures last year with our Urban Growth Area expansion objections. Also last year’s winter storms here made national news.”

The tide gates have not been repaired since 1991. Their current functions have remained the same for years, with sand and debris coming and going with the tides, Homola said. A more pressing and very real concern is runoff from potential added development in the watershed, she added. The sensitive estuary is becoming a retention pond for Oak Harbor’s urban sprawl.

The Happy Lane resident claimed the project was only expedited after a landowner with development interests in the watershed met with Island County Planning Director Jeff Tate at the tide gates in July.

“It is no coincidence that this emergency work is occurring just in time for the appeals to the unwarranted 2005 Urban Growth Area expansion,” Homola said.

Tate was out of the office for comment Friday.

Brackett emphasized that many people are supportive of the project and the timing of the maintenance work is only seasonal.

“We don’t want to leave that system in place over the winter the way it is now,” he said Thursday. “We’re looking at the storm season ahead of us and the ability to get it done before winter.”

Brackett said the emergency status still requires the county to address the same environmental concerns that they would have had the permits been issued ahead of time. The project was given the status because of the risk winter storms pose on the large drainage basin and the surrounding properties.

“If saltwater gets in, it can affect the water wells too,” he said.

Several area residents, including Homola and fellow Swan Lake Watershed Preservation Group member Paul Gillon, watched from the beach Wednesday as county crews began work.

Gillon, a retired marine architect, has reportedly performed salinity tests at the lake that yielded identical salt levels to the adjacent Sound. Pointing down at the sand where his foot sunk in the beach, he said the saltwater that caused the quicksand-like effect was already making its way into the lake.

“Closing off that small gate breach is not going to stop saltwater percolation from occurring naturally through the sand sea wall,” he said. “This is an estuary, which means saltwater is present. After waiting 10 months for water quality results on this estuary the county provided us a table with no title, no units and no saline levels.”

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