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Flood Dugualla Bay to restore chinook salmon habitat

Dorothy Christensen can look out her window at the rich farmland of Dugualla Bay flats and see a different picture.

When she came to Whidbey Island in 1935 from North Dakota as an 18-year-old Dust Bowl bride, it was all tideflats and brush. A dike built in the 1920s prevented Dugualla Bay tides from flooding more than 600 acres at the mouth of the bay.

Dorothy, her husband Henning, and a handful of others began turning the salty tideflats into farmland.

They built the house on Frostad Road where Dorothy, 87, still lives, and began work on their 80-acre slice of Whidbey Island.

They cleared the brush away, turned over the soil to let the rain wash away the salt, and added lime to neutralize it.

“It’s pretty precious to you when you start from scratch,” Christensen said. They owned another 70 acres farther up Clover Valley, but had to sell it to the Navy when the base came in.

It was four years before they could plant crops on the lower property.

“We farmed it little by little,” she said. “We learned a lot. It was a completely new way of living.”

They started with grain, and moved on to different crops over the years; cabbage, tulip bulbs, seeds, potatoes.

“The ground is good,” Christensen said.

Cattle, managed by her son Ron, graze near the house. Ron lives just across the road.

Every year tourists and locals alike flock to the strawberry patch along Highway 20 at Dugualla Bay Farms which sits below the highway. The October pumpkin patch is a huge draw.

But, before there were farmers or pumpkin patches there were salmon. Or at least salmon habitat.

Restoration considered

Now, as part of a state-wide push to restore salmon habitat, a task force is looking at the possibility of breaching the dike across the mouth of Dugualla Bay in order to restore the natural flow of salt and fresh water in the low-lying area beyond the dike. As much as 600 acres of private land and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station could be affected if the dike was breached.

Under House Bill 1418 a task force has formed to identify lands that could be developed to enhance salmon recovery, and to address the role of tide gates in salmon recovery. Studies have determined that the east side of Whidbey Island is a prime “pocket estuary environment” for juvenile chinook salmon migrating out from the Skagit River, according to a report from the Skagit River System Cooperative. The young salmon need such areas to feed, rest and adjust to saltwater.

The cooperative had proposed conducting a feasibility study on Dugualla Bay, but withdrew when it received a letter of opposition from the Island County commissioners. In the grant proposal which was rescinded, the group said diking and draining of the Dugualla Bay Estuary had removed approximately 400 acres of pocket estuary nearshore habitat for forage fish, Skagit chinook and other salmon species in northern Skagit Bay.

The report further noted that the historic marsh complex included freshwater, subtidal openwater and intertidal habitat area. Both Dike Road and Highway 20 divide the estuary and adjacent freshwater wetlands from north to south.

Commissioner oppose plan

Island County commissioners met with the HB1418 Task Force, as it is called, last week to express their opposition to any consideration of removing the Dugualla Bay dike, which is also the county-owned Dike Road.

The county’s position is that it intends to make every effort to ensure that the dike is not breached.

In a position letter sent to Skagit County Public Works and the Skagit River System Cooperative March 19, the commissioners stated, “Based on current facts and information we have regarding this area, if the dike was breached it would result in submersion of State Route 20 and therefore, major revisions and repairs. This says nothing of the impact and loss of surrounding private farmlands or the impact on the Navy’s drainage systems.”

Meeting with the commissioners at the April 21 work session were Task Force Chairman Ron Shultz, Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Will Roehl, Conservation Commission staff member Ed Manary, and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen.

Shultz explained to the board that the goals of the task force were to contribute to the recovery of salmon, withstand legal challenges and to analyze potential recovery sites first on public land and then on private land.

Shultz noted that private lands, such as the Dugualla estuary, can not be condemned, but must be purchased under a “willing buyer, willing seller” arrangement. However, they would be part of the assessment.

County sees threat to Navy

Commissioners objected to Dugualla Bay being included at all.

Mike Shelton said they are legislated to protect NAS Whidbey, which could be affected by the flooding of land right up to to the end of Ault Field.

“We are tasked with protecting the mission of NAS Whidbey,” Shelton said. “I think we have a legal basis to say this piece of property shouldn’t be assessed.”

Shultz said the assessment could actually strengthen the county’s position, as it could end up eliminating the Dugualla estuary from consideration.

Commissioner Mac McDowell was even more vehement about keeping it off the assessment list, as he had another list in mind, the Base Realignment and Closure list, due out in May 2005.

“This couldn’t come at a worse time for the BRAC process,” he said. McDowell has played a major role in trying to put Whidbey’s best foot forward in order to avoid having the air base chosen for closure, and felt something like this could look bad for Whidbey.

He also cited the very real danger to pilots if the land at the end of Ault Field was turned into a bird-filled estuary.

“Lives and jobs are in jeopardy,” he said. “I will fight this the entire length of time.”

Sen. Haugen said the Skagit River system is not just the mouth of the Skagit River.

“We need to look beyond that,” she said. “Dugualla is part of the estuary, and it has been diked.”

She later told the commissioners, “Unfortunately we can’t just say ‘hell no’ anymore. We get taken to court.”

She agreed with the task force that an assessment, as scientific proof, could be a plus for the fight to keep the Dugualla lands from being flooded.

Commissioner Bill Byrd later said he felt the Task Force was definitely out of line in considering Dugualla at all.

“They’re not seeing the whole picture,” he said. “They’re supposed to look at balance.”

Task Force takes message to committee

Steve Hinton, program director of the Skagit River System Cooperative, said they will continue to work with the commissioners and the public to present what information they have, in hopes of building up a level of comfort regarding the feasibility study.

He noted the study would look at all factors, including the impact on property and people.

“We’d like to get them onboard,” he said. He felt there was significant site potential at Dugualla Bay, but the group would like to have the cooperation of the Island County commissioners and local land owners.

The Task Force will continue to look at Dugualla Bay, but all decisions must be based on consensus. With Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke on the Task Force, that’s not likely to happen. Or as Shelton said, “It’s not going to happen.”

Bakke said it’s important to look at the possibility, but it’s also important to look at the impacts too.

“I suspect the land owners would object strenuously,” he said.

Several land owners contacted by the Whidbey News-Times this week were indeed “strenuously opposed” to the idea, including Dorothy Christensen.

“I couldn’t imagine that fish would take the place of two and a half lifetimes of work,” she said. “When you start from scratch and the ground is white with salt, you have a different feeling.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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