A Planned Future for the Peninsula

A $100 million project would be the Port of Olympia’s biggest project in decades. The cleanup, as it is termed, will entail dredging navigation channels and shipping berths while accommodating the incoming flow of sediments which is expected to total 115,000 cubic yards per year.

To make this input manageable The Port plans to dig sediment catch basins at the mouth of the Descutes River at the south end of West Bay and the mouth of Moxlie Creek at the south end of East Bay. These large holes pictured in gray on the above map can be targeted for future dredging. According to the consultant, “It’s a lot easier to dredge material when it’s in one spot as opposed to spread far and wide”. Digging a sediment basin in an estuary actually runs contrary to basic science. When we dig a hole in an estuary we see reduced dissolved oxygen and loss of species, other than bacteria.

One driving wheel for this project is the need to dredge navigation channels. On the West side the depths of water along the navigation channel are shallower than the federally authorized depth and the Port would like to bring in larger ships. On the East side Swantown Marina is silting up and will eventually become unusable

Science tells us that estuaries are important mixing zones. Fresh water being lighter than salt water flows out on the surface drawing salt water and marine organisms in underneath. This happens best in shallow water in the presence of abundant sunlight and atmospheric oxygen. Tide flats are one of nature’s perfect designs.

These most important qualities of estuaries enter the discussion nowhere. This should come as no surprise. The Port didn’t hire scientists, they hired engineers. The consultant, Dalton Olmsted Fuglevand, is an environmental engineering firm. Their only venture into science is data collection and management. Engineers tell us how to make something and what it might cost. Science should precede engineering. What will the effects be on dissolved oxygen and primary production? We routinely skip this step.

The news today is that the SRKW orcas, our resident pescatarian neighbors, continue to decline. Two births, three deaths. The 250 scoters, grebes, lunes and harlequins we would have seen in Budd Inlet a mere 20 years ago are not coming back. Budd Inlet has become a jellyfish pond.

Life generally requires water. For DNA to replicate, the water should be confined, otherwise the container is too large. Water needs to be bounded by land, the third day in genesis. Life will then evolve at the nexus, the point where water meets land. If the mixture can be moved every day by gravity from a moon it can be expanded. We have an intertidal zone. Cyanobacteria and algae, the first forms of life, probably formed and evolved somewhere in this nexus between water and land.

Much of this mixing happens in estuaries, the places where rivers and streams flow into salt water. Nutrients coming from land are consumed by phytoplankton utilizing the power of the sun through photosynthesis. They separate carbon and generate free oxygen in a process called primary production, the creation of new organic matter. Phytoplankton become food for zooplankton, small animals and the larvae of larger animals, and so on up the food web.

Water moves from place to place, from rain falling on land to streams and rivers, ultimately to the sea. A stream doesn’t just flow, it breathes. The land on either side and below the stream, the hyporheic zone, is saturated with water. Water fluxes in and out of the surrounding soils, nourishing beneficial microorganisms. Water borne algae proliferate and consume nutrients, bringing energy into the system.

Ultimately fresh water finds its way to salt water. If everything happens correctly estuaries are rich and productive. From the point where rain hits the ground to the point where it mixes with the sea, waters in Olympia are confined to 150 miles of concrete pipe and rarely find their natural way. We see the effects in poor water quality and species becoming locally extinct.

Meanwhile, the Port will be working with Ecology to finalize plans for the “cleanup”. Contracts will be extended with current consultants such as Gemini Environmental Strategies, who provide overall coordination; Cascadia Law Group, who assist with legal and regulatory issues; Cascadia Policy Solutions, who help with strategic policy and funding issues; and Lund Faucett, who help communicate the project to stakeholders.

The first stage of this project will cost $4,177,340, half of which will be covered by Ecology and the other half by the Port under an existing remedial action grant as part of the agreed order. The Port also plans to spend an additional $362,503, which will not be covered by the remedial action grant. This involves legal work and developing agreements with stakeholders.

Once an objective has been selected, around the spring of 2023, the Port will have to secure funding before finalizing contracts for design and permitting by the fall of 2024. The Port expects to spend $4,192,434 for this project’s second stage. No funding has been secured but the Port is seeking several funding sources.

After years of debate the state is now recommending removal of the fifth avenue dam and restoration of the Deschutes River Estuary. Dredging of the channels and sediment catch basins will start around the summer of 2025 and must be finished before the removal of the dam. The Port expects to spend more than $100 million for this project stage.

This will not be a permanent solution. Dredging and other maintenance efforts will have to be repeated, placing a burden on future generations. A plan beginning with engineering will not cover all possibilities. Could artesian water sources that proliferate in downtown Olympia be directed to marinas and shipping berths for their scouring effects? To what extent could natural features be restored? Natural marine ecosystems are by productive, resilient and maintenance free. An actual cleanup and restoration could be largely funded with government and non-profit grants. A couple of examples…

The National Estuary Program (NEP) supports improving the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance. Under the NEP, Puget Sound is included in the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan. The Puget Sound Geographic Funds (commonly called NEP funds) are authorized by Congress and awarded by the US EPA.


The Rose Foundation The Fund’s goal is to support community-based efforts to protect or improve the water quality of Puget Sound. Since its inception in 2012, almost $6M in grants have been awarded for projects related to conservation and restoration.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) decades before we knew the scale of extinction. Today we appear to be heading toward the largest mass extinction since the Cretaceous-Tertiary event 65 million years ago. The science mandate contained in the ESA explicitly applies to critical habitat designation and agency consultation. Planning must be based on the “best available science”. The irony of a sediment basin as a feature of an estuary restoration is inescapable. Science has again been denied a seat at the table.

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