Wetlands scientist digs for the truth

The scientific method requires an unbiased researcher, an unbiased sample and should yield unbiased results.

Wetlands scientist Paul Adamus said he is approaching a study of Island County wetlands with as little bias as possible, going so far as to not look at wetlands people volunteer, only those chosen through a random sample.

As part of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance, it has hired Adamus, who has published hundreds of articles, to study its wetlands. The $70,000 study should offer an un-biased look at how effective the current regulations have been, Adamus said.

“The overall goal is to provide credible data that we can use for revisions to the Critical Areas Ordinance,” he said. “The purpose is to have real data instead of opinions that we can make some decisions on.”

As he stood in the middle of English Boom, which is a county-owned beach area on Camano Island, the water seeped into the salt marsh around him. Adamus and two interns were busy scooping up soil and plant samples to prove what was pretty obvious — this is a wetland.

The county brought in Adamus as an outside expert in order to evaluate the differences in wetlands since land-use regulations were adopted in the 1980s. He solicited a random sample of property owners with federally identified wetlands on their properties for permission to study their wetlands.

So far, he said he has visited 65 out of the 1,000 or so wetlands within the county. The goal is to capture 10 percent in his sample.

On site, he and his crew spend the day examining the soil and plants in the area. They take soil samples and compare the color to a standard that is used by the state to identify a wetland. They also note soil types and different strata, or layers, of soil.

At English Boom, a layer of nutrient dense soil covers a thick layer of sand. Adamus said that is typical of a salt marsh. Kirstin Harma, who is helping Adamus in the field, stoops to examine a stalk of pickleweed and compare it to her bible — a book of different plants found in Washington’s wetlands.

Adamus first began studying wetlands more than 30 years ago when the science was still new. Since then, he has emerged as an authority in the field, literally and figuratively.

He published his first article in 1971. He has testified twice on wetlands assessments in front of U.S. Congress. He has even written a section on wetlands for an encyclopedia.

“I can tell as a scientist from the type of plants in a wetland ... how degraded it might be,” Adamus said.

In Island County, Adamus’ team is collecting data that the county considers invaluable, Assistant Planning Director Jeff Tate said.

“In terms of what types of wetlands are out there, this is all new information,” Tate said. “We just know there’s a circle on a map. We don’t know if it’s degraded or pristine.”

Adamus and his team will be in the field until late October. After that, he will be analyzing the data and delivering his report to the county.

He did not say if any trends are emerging. He said that so far, only one thing has come as a surprise.

He has driven all of the county roads and observed all the wetlands he can see from the road. One place on South Whidbey that was supposed to be a wetland is now a parking lot.

Sometimes the wetlands they visit are not what people picture as a wetland. They are a bit dried up, Adamus said. He said that a drier wetland actually can function better than a soaked one.

A dry wetland is similar to a dried out sponge. It can absorb and process contaminates better than a wet sponge, which allows the liquid to flow right past it, he said.

Adamus said he understands the public’s concern over the state of Island County’s wetlands, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the state of the county’s groundwater.

“It makes sense in my mind,” he said. “In the long run, there’s a lot of public and economic interest,” he said.

The review of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance is expected to wrap up early next year.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at

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