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Is historic jetty a barrier to fish?

The stone jetty (above) at Blakely Harbor Park maybe removed as a barrier to fish passage, as part of Puget Sound restoration efforts. The mill’s historic cement power house (below) is long abandoned, its ruins now a practice canvas for local graffiti artists. The building and piling stubs in the foreground may also be removed. - Brad Camp/Staff Photos
The stone jetty (above) at Blakely Harbor Park maybe removed as a barrier to fish passage, as part of Puget Sound restoration efforts. The mill’s historic cement power house (below) is long abandoned, its ruins now a practice canvas for local graffiti artists. The building and piling stubs in the foreground may also be removed.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photos

The stone jetty that defines the Blakely Harbor mill pond may be removed.

For fish in Blakely Harbor, the gauntlet has been thrown.

Abundant food draws them to a man-made pool, fed by a narrow passage between two jetties near the back of the harbor.

At high tide the fish can enter the pool easily. Linger too long, though, and receding waters reveal the gauntlet.

“At low tide the big issue is the (jetty) foundation,” said city shorelines planner Peter Namtvedt Best. “If the fish can’t clear it, they can get trapped in the pool.”

At which point they face a choice: cook in the shallow, sun-warmed water, or seek glory in the eyes of a barnacle gallery – which fills to capacity the sheer sides of the jetties – by leaping to freedom over a series of craggy boulders.

In search of better options, shoreline planners are considering removing part or all of the jetties as they look to improve the health of Blakely Harbor.

Other potential shoreline remedies there include removing derelict creosote pilings, small areas of rip-rap armoring, and remnants of the land’s former mill operation, among them a 2,750-square-foot former powerhouse that sits atop a marsh.

Those and several other options are being explored as part of a $250,000 feasibility study that would be funded by state grants and matching funds from the Eagle Harbor/Wyckoff Superfund Site Trustee Council.

If funded, the study would eventually lead to a set of recommendations for how to create additional habitat for forage fish and salmon, as well as improved water flow at the site, which has seen a multitude of uses over time.

Best outlined the scope of the study at a presentation last week to the park district, whose blessing and cooperation are needed to proceed.

The Blakely Harbor project is one of several shoreline restoration efforts under way around the island (see related story, page A12). Those projects are occurring alongside – and in some cases are directly supported by – larger efforts to improve the health of Puget Sound.

The state will spend $238 million over the next two years on cleanup, prevention and restoration in the sound.

About $500,000 of that money could go toward a proposed project that would remove some 800 derelict creosote-treated pilings along the island’s eastern shoreline. The pilings still are being inventoried, and more details will be presented at a public meeting on Sept. 18.

The piling project, like the eventual restoration of Blakely Harbor, faces the same hurdle: finding a balance between historic preservation and improving marine habitat.

The park district already has dealt with the difficulty of finding that balance, having completed a master plan for the park in 2001.

Construction of the first phase – with a restroom, parking and a new bridge over a creek – is scheduled for later this year, pending one more round of archaeological review.

“There was a charge in the master plan to do environmental restoration where we could,” said Perry Barrett, Park District planner, “while simultaneously working with the historical remnants that are at the site.”

Those remnants are many-fold, according to local historians. The land is historically significant to local tribes and once housed a mill operation.

The mill endured multiple fires, and was at one point considered the largest mill in the world, but it eventually failed as a business before being dismantled in 1924.

Since then, Blakely Harbor has slowly transformed from one of Puget Sound’s most developed inlets, to one of its most pristine.

The most visible markers of its mill-town past are the jetties, powerhouse and some stub pilings, which is why local historian Jerry Elfendahl thinks they are too important to remove.

“That powerhouse is a historical ruin,” he said. “It’s the only thing that gives that whole place a sense of scale.”

The concrete powerhouse, now deserted and grown over, was the last of three such structures erected at the site to power the mill. Its two predecessors were even bigger, Elfendahl said, but neither survived because they were brick.

Best said the powerhouse has displaced marsh habitat that could return if the structure were removed, though he stressed that no decisions about its removal or the removal of the jetties have yet been made. He said the final solution could call for some kind of partial removal; Elfendahl would prefer no removal at all.

“Just because something’s a ruin doesn’t mean it’s something we should get rid of,” he said.

The argument for preservation extends to pilings around the island as well. Elfendahl said the pilings are not only historical, but old enough to make him wonder how much measurable harm they’re really doing to the environment.

Studies suggest a link between mass mortality of herring spawn in Port Madison Bay and creosote exposure, according to the city’s 2003 Nearshore Assessment, which identified and ranked preservation opportunities around the island.

Scientists estimate that the average marine piling contains about 61 gallons of creosote.

But Elfen­dahl said it’s more complicated than that because creosote comes in various formulas and could change composition over time.

“How chemically active are they today?” he said, of the pilings, many of which are 75 to 80 years old, and beach debris. “If they’re so hazardous, why are kids allowed to play on them? Why are their so many critters living on them? I don’t know the answers, but these are all questions we should be asking.”

Best said that most of the marine animals that live on creosote-treated pilings have some kind of protective barrier, like those of mussels and barnacles.

A toxicologist will be on hand at next month’s meeting to answer technical questions. In the meantime, Best said, there’s plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence that show pilings continue to leach contaminants over time.

“I’ve personally observed old derelict pilings leaving a sheen on the water,” he said. “And that’s at low tide, where most biological organisms are living.”

Elfendahl said that what he sees are projects that threaten island history, without providing enough environmental benefit.

“This is just a visible issue that we can throw money at,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re doing the best job we can with the resources we have to make Puget Sound a healthier place.”

Community Events, April 2014

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