Monday, September 26, 2022
Sept. 26, 2022

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Stalled projects Washington ports could finally proceed under new federal plan

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The historic Coupeville wharf on Whidbey Island — built in 1905 — was once a stopover for steam boats. Today, it offers kayak rentals, boat mornings and dining in a restaurant built at its end.

In 2019, the Port of Coupeville launched a nearly $1 million project to replace aging pilings, among other repairs, to stabilize the wharf and keep vibrations from collapsing the restaurant. But the project has been in limbo, along with nearly 100 other Puget Sound projects that include a $70 million Pier 91 redevelopment project at the Port of Seattle.

The projects, which range from small riprap wall repairs to major dredging, have been stalled because they need an Army Corps of Engineers federal permit that requires consultations from the National Marine Fisheries Service to review impacts on salmon runs and orcas that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service paused proposed projects after concluding the development would damage nearshore marine areas used by young salmon. This would put protected Puget Sound runs and the orcas in “jeopardy” — a legal term that under the federal Endangered Species Act represents unacceptable risk.

This has caused considerable frustrations among people who want to do maintenance or other shoreline work.

“We have piles that are completely rotted out. This is not an expansion. It’s a simple replacement of the current piles. This is a very small project,” said Chris Michalopoulos, executive director of the Port of Coupeville.

At the Port of the Seattle, the Pier 91 project involves pile replacements, demolition of a condemned apron of timber, 830 feet of seawall construction and other work.

Nearly half of the shoreline development projects that could receive permits involve residential properties. Another 38% have been proposed by businesses and the rest are municipal projects, according to an analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In late June, the National Marine Fisheries Service rolled out a new plan that attempts to move these projects forward.

The projects would go through a streamlined permitting process with requirements for fish-friendly construction tactics or contributions to Puget Sound restoration funds.

Through this plan, National Marine Fisheries Service hope to achieve “no net loss” of the inshore areas, according to the agency. Fishery scientists say these are vital rearing areas for young chinook salmon, yet some 95% of these rearing areas already have been degraded by development impacts.

“We’re just trying to hold the line … so we don’t lose any more of this critical habitat,” said Eric Murray, a National Marine Fisheries Service official who helped to develop the new plan.

There are many ways development can harm the nearshore area. Bulk heads cut off coastal areas that young salmon can use at high tides, dikes can replace wetlands with farm acreage and piers can be barriers to the movements of young salmon by creating shaded area that fish avoid.

National Marine Fisheries Service officials say that if the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Coupeville are to undertake this kind of construction, they should either pay directly or indirectly for mitigation efforts to give salmon and orcas a better chance of survival.

Over time, the federal fishery officials are hoping that restoration projects, like removing dikes to reclaim wetlands, will result in a net expansion of the nearshore rearing areas, and improve the survival rates of threatened Chinook, which are a prime food source for the endangered southern resident orcas.

The Pier 91 project is part of a broader backlog of work at the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which includes the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Four years ago, the Port of Seattle submitted an application for a permit to repair and maintain portions of more than 15 miles of Elliott Bay and Duwamish shoreline. The work would involve riprap rock and seawall repair as well as some shoreline “softening” to improve habitat.

In Tacoma, a port project to repair big pipes that drain stormwater has been on hold for four years.

“It’s made it really difficult to do that kind of maintenance and repair work … which is typically good for the environment,” said Jason Jordan, director of environmental programs at the Port of Tacoma.

Port officials also are concerned that projects will not be able to comply with some of the restrictions imposed in the streamlined permitting process.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has placed an annual cap on how much material could be dredged to improve vessel access. The Port of Seattle has one project that, by itself, would exceed that limit.

“We had raised concerns with their limits when we were discussing this two or three years ago,” said Laura Wolfe, environmental program manager at the Port of Seattle.

A project that did not qualify for streamlined permitting could still go through a more complicated permitting process that involves consultation with National Marine Fisheries Service. Seattle and Tacoma Port officials are wary of how long that process will take and whether the federal agency will have enough staff to handle all the review work.

Cost is another concern.

Permit applicants can use a “conservation calculator” that assesses negative impacts against things that help fish like taking out creosote piles that can pollute the water. The negative impacts register as debits and the positives as credits.

If the project is a net detriment to fish, it could still go forward but the damage would need to be offset, likely through purchasing credits from conservation banks that use the money to buy and maintain wildlife habitat or state agency the Puget Sound Partnership.

For some projects, the costs could be significant.

Northwest Seaport Alliance officials used the calculator to analyze one already completed project. They found permit requirements would have increased the cost by 18%-30%.

“We support the environment but that’s a substantial increase,” Jordan said.

Ahren Stroming, executive policy advisor for Puget Sound Partnership, said the that conservation credits currently sell for $1,200 each, but the price could vary in the years ahead.

Stroming said the federal permitting process is expected to generate thousands of conservation credits and the partnership has a big list of projects that could benefit Puget Sound if funding is obtained.

“It could really be a big game changer that would kind of stop the death by 1,000 cuts that we’re seeing for Puget Sound, and the nearshore ecosystems in particular,” Stroming said.

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