Wetlands up close

Escaping from the office for part of the afternoon, the Island County Commissioners visited Perigo’s Lagoon in Coupeville on a recent Friday to get a tangible feel for what the county’s new draft of the wetlands ordinance will entail.

Planning and Community Development staff led the way to the coastal lagoon, showing the trio of elected officials a “category A” wetland, which under the proposed ordinance would receive the highest protection.

The draft ordinance is based on extensive wetland research carried out in the county by Dr. Paul Adamus, who was retained for a comprehensive study. The biologist achieved the goal of categorizing wetlands using the state Department of Ecology’s system. A separate objective was to evaluate the health of wetlands according to his professional opinion, which he formulated using his own system.

In the draft ordinance, wetlands are categorized from “A” through “D.” Perigo’s Lagoon, although located in close proximity to Admiralty Inlet, lacks the connectivity of other coastal lagoons. Wetlands of Perigo’s ilk are sensitive to pollutants and environmental changes because there is no freshwater inflow. When pollutants end up in the body of water, they are there for a long time.

“These are some of the most fragile wetlands around, so they’re getting the highest priority in our draft ordinance,” said Justin Craven, critical areas planner.

While some coastal lagoons would be candidates for salmon habitat, Perigo’s Lagoon would not because it is completely enclosed. Craven said it is unlikely the lagoon would be opened to allow the exchange of water.

“I think this is a natural berm,” Craven said. “Most of the people are focused on reopening the areas that have been enclosed by man, the areas that were historically open to the saltwater.”

“And it’s a naturally functioning system, so in 10 years or next year, it might open up too,” added Phil Bakke, planning director. “There’s nothing to say that it will remain closed when subjected to this very, very rough beach environment out here.”

The wetland does, however, still have considerable value. Perigo’s is important for primary production for the base of the food chain.

“Like phytoplankton and plants,” Craven explained. “Organisms that use chlorophyll and sunlight to live.”

The wetland also provides food for area wildlife in the form of algae and insects. And since wetlands store water and gradually release it, water quality is an issue.

Assisted by water quality specialist Kirsten Harma, the commissioners tested the salinity of the water. Commissioner John Dean donned rubber boots and waded out into the water to submerge the sensor while Commissioners Mike Shelton and Mac McDowell read and recorded results. The salinity level topped out at 44.24 parts per thousand, considerably higher than Admiralty Inlet. In the enclosed lagoon, water evaporates and the concentration increases.

“Most coastal lagoons in Island County aren’t like this. They open up to the ocean,” Harma said, adding that other lagoons would have lower salinity levels because of the connection.

Perigo’s Lagoon as an example, albeit a unique one, provided the commissioners a valuable and visual frame of reference.

“You can sit and look at pictures and have people explain things to you, but there’s nothing like being on the ground,” Shelton said.

A recent field visit was the first of four trips the board will take as they are shown an example of each wetland category.

A pamphlet about wetlands and regulations was mailed last summer to every property owner in Island County. The information described wetlands in layman’s terms and discussed how they have been regulated over the past 20 years.

A second mailing to property owners will take place in the near future, laying out any proposed changes to help residents determine the revisions’ effects. The mailing will also include information about when, how, and where one can learn more and share their opinions and observations about the changes.

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