Wetland proposal stirs emotions in Oregon

Coos County residents fear restoration project will alter water table

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WINTER LAKE, Ore. — Every resident learns to live with the flood.

Each year, with cruel seasonality, this peat-land is transformed into a 1,700-acre soup.

But this year, emotions have piqued over a different deluge.

Next year, earthworks are slated to begin on a $3.5 million project to restore 400 acres of pasture to wetland.

Sarah Crawford, an organic farmer on Garden Valley Road, worries that new body of water will radically alter the valley's water table.

"That would ruin us," Crawford said. "That would ruin this community garden property which has been this way since the '70s."

Crawford is not alone. According to Coos County commissioner Bob Main, 37 residents have emailed him with concerns about the proposal.

"They are upset," Main said. "They are very upset, and I don't blame them."

Spearheaders of the wetland project are battling to quell those fears. The group promises that channels and tide gates will protect surrounding landowners.

"We have said from the beginning, they will be no worse than they are in the present," said Fred Messerle, Coos County commissioner who is heading the project in his personal capacity as a rancher.

But, for some landowners, that's become a tough sell.

"We don't have a voice at the table," says Lisa Foster, who owns a 6.25-acre section of Garden Valley Road.

At the heart of the dispute are questions over how much water to be channeled from the Coquille River to the proposed wetland refuge.

Foster says from what she has seen in a draft hydrology report, the proposed amount will inundate her property on Garden Valley Road and several others.

"If this thing goes through, it will put one to three feet of water across the whole thing," Foster said. "It's completely useless."

Foster owns a separate property in Langlois where she lives, but she had planned to build a home on her Winter Lake property. She has scrapped those plans.

But Messerle says the final hydrology report won't be complete until September. Then, project leaders can balance the needs of the landowners with conservation.

"In fairness to the people doing that work, we have got to wait until they have a report you can work with," Messerle said.

He suspects that in the worst case, water could affect three landowners on Garden Valley Road. But if that looked like the case, he said, they would consider adding new water-control structures to protect them.

If that didn't appear feasible, they would look at compensation.