Commentary: Our Edmonds Marsh — what I know now and how can we help?

I was asked “what did I learn” from the final report from Windward LLC (Windward). The City Council contracted with Windward in 2017 to provide an 18-month site-specific scientific study that would address a number of tasks relating to the ecological function of the Edmonds Marsh and its wildlife.  A primary purpose was to establish the current condition (baseline) for future comparisons. Included in the evaluation was literature to support a number of issues such as recommended widths for wetland buffers, the marsh’s current state, and the impact of environmental issues like noise, light, and existing conditions relating to the lack of year round salt water exchange. Scientific literature was included to support Windward’s body of work. All information can be found on the council’s web page: www.edmondswa.gov/city-council.html

As most know, I am not a scientist but have learned a lot over the past nine years sitting on the WRIA 8 (Water Resources Inventory Area 8) Salmon Recovery Council and six years on their grant funding committee. I have seen costly and successful environmental projects be completed during my tenure and some that are in various phases of completion. Also, our city is blessed to have many local scientists and citizens who are passionate about our Edmonds Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, who often contact me.

The open house (9/30/2019), led by Windward’s Jenny Love and Ron Gouguet covered only a small portion of the body of work captured during the project’s timeline.  They addressed wildlife, water depth/turbidity/salinity, sediment, dissolved oxygen, plants, shrubs, trees, large woody debris, and buffers, etc., taking questions after each major section.  Local scientist and citizens asked thoughtful questions and comments, making for an educational evening. The following night, Ms. Love and Mr. Gouguet provided a shorter presentation to the city council, but it still captured the major elements and Council was left with – what shall we do now? I provided an answer in my summary, capturing the take-home messages.

Our marsh is confined by the three specific hardscape perimeters — Hwy 104 to the east, Unocal/BNSF to the west, and Harbor Square to the north — and it is functioning as well as it can in an urban environment.

In 2005, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) placed $8.175 million in an escrow for the purchase of the Unocal (previously Chevron) property. Unocal has been allowed to draw the escrow down as they spent funds to remediate the site as required by the sales agreement. As part of the remediation agreement, transferring of the property to WSDOT cannot occur until certain environmental conditions are met.

This property was to be part of a $237 million multimodal project known as Edmonds Crossing, which was to manage ferry, train and bus traffic on the property as well as allow for commercial and residential development. The plan fell apart in 2007 when voters voted down a massive transportation tax proposal in which Edmonds Crossing was included and then the great recession hit in 2008. Edmonds Crossing is no longer in the WSDOT long-range plans.

The major reason for the vibrant wildlife at the marsh is because of the southern pristine quadrant below the Willow Creek Salmon Hatchery and Native Demonstration Garden. Only three of the four quadrants were evaluated because access to the Unocal/BNSF property was not allowed. It was identified that all quadrants would benefit from more woody debris, shrubs and trees for shading. Most importantly, year-round tidal exchange that would help restore natural ecological functions, including a redistribution of freshwater and saltwater plants would be of great benefit.

As a reminder, the natural connection to Puget Sound was eliminated when the marina was built; a 1,600-foot pipe was installed with a tide gate to allow some tidal exchange and flow from the Marsh; the pipe also eliminated any salmon migration.  For those unfamiliar with the tide gate, it is closed during the winter months (October-March), preventing saltwater exchange during this time. This tide-gate closure allows the freshwater cattails to dominate and spread, thereby reducing biodiversity and impeding water flow, which increases siltation and water temperature.

Higher water temperatures are inhospitable to fish including salmon. Public Works Director Williams stated that the tide gate will remain open once the Dayton Street Pump Station is completed, probably next year, which will help reduce the seasonal salinity extremes. Still, the pipe impedes water flow/volume exchange rates. Daylighting — or uncovering — Willow Creek would restore the natural connection to Puget Sound, improving water flow/volume exchange rates while reducing siltation and water temperatures; as such, daylighting Willow Creek is an important factor in restoring the marsh ecological functions.

But as Windward’s Jenny Love said, “we have a vibrant wildlife,” including birds, water fowl, deer, coyote, all kinds of small animals, insects and arachnids (bugs).  It appears that the southern quadrant is an excellent area for breeding and animal shelter (deer, coyote, birds, small critters), which is why the Edmonds Marsh is alive!

One reason this scientific assessment was considered by council was because of “buffer issues” that unfolded during the Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) update.  The mayor and minority councilmembers contested the SMP buffer widths approved by the council majority that were based on the best available science and the 2016 Department of Ecology (DOE) Wetland Guidance for Critical Areas Ordinance Update.  Windward was charged with qualifying the existing buffers as part of the baseline assessment.

Some open house attendees were not happy because the specific quantitative buffer width recommendations were not stated in the report; each animal species requires a different buffer width. But because of the multi-functioning aspects of our marsh, it’s clear that the mantra, “the bigger the buffer the better,” should remain.  The findings did suggest that buffers any narrower than 50 feet were ineffective, while widths of 100-164 feet were generally recommended for reducing disturbances, and widths of 200-238 were recommended to prevent disturbing water fowl including great blue herons. When considering buffer widths for salmon recovery, factors including shade, woody debris, vegetation, sediment, as well as water depth/flow/temperature are critical.

In hindsight, I believe the council should have left out Windward’s task of evaluating the 2019 Expanded Marsh Concept Design and Hydraulic Modeling Report from Shannon & Wilson (a contractor the City has used since 2014). The report had six options but focused on what WSDOT selected, consisting of a narrow channel sited along the railroad tracks which greatly minimized natural meandering and adjacent western buffer.

Windward provided no conclusion of the WSDOT option because of no access to the property. Mr. Gouguet indicated that buffers are so multi-dimensional that it would be difficult to “guesstimate” buffer requirements as there were too many unknowns (i.e. no soil samples, no ability to ascertain contaminants from railroad cars and/or herbicides sprayed on and around tracks etc.). That said, Windward’s literature does question sufficiency for juvenile chinook salmon to feed, rest, and move through the estuary. Buffer averaging (as opposed to setting minimum buffer widths) was used and concern over shading, water temperature, etc. for a limited meandering channel close to the railroad tracks could limit potential for juvenile chinook salmon to use the nearshore habitat. It’s important to recognize that WRIA 8 grant funding is dependent on chinook recovery.

Where should we go from here? I have suggested a task force led by council with citizens and administration (public works – stormwater management, parks and recreation, etc.) to look at the massive amount of material and provide options on how best to proceed with our city-owned property. In this way, we may plan marsh restoration in stages, including possible grant applications for interior site preparation to compliment the daylighting project. And, perhaps, sooner rather than later we will celebrate salmon from the Willow Creek Hatchery returning each year like Issaquah’s Salmon Days. We will also be expanding the biodiversity of our beloved Edmonds Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, which will help future generations appreciate how a natural preserve can flourish in an urban setting!

— By Diane Buckshnis
Edmonds City Council

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