Shoreline owners predict more ferry wake ills
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:54 PM
"Herb DeBoer plans to hold a party soon, but he certainly wouldn't call it a celebration.The Point White resident intends to invite neighbors, journalists, and city officials to his beachfront property, to observe the beginning stages of erosion along his shoreline. The damage, he says, is sure to occur, since the Washington Supreme Court ruled last week to allow the high-speed Chinook ferry to again fly through Rich Passage at its full velocity of 39 miles per hour. We don't think (the erosion) will take very long, once they fire these boats up, DeBoer said.DeBoer and four other Rich Passage residents on the Bainbridge side still believe the Chinook is the cause of their erosion woes. Since a court injunction slowed the boat last August on its Bremerton-Seattle run, they say they have seen their shoreline rebuild itself after alleged wake damage.When the high-speed ferry first slowed on Aug. 24, DeBoer began measuring the distance between the top of his bulkhead and the level of beach deposits accumulated below - an initial span of 83 inches. Since then, that distance narrowed steadily as the level of the beach rose and is now just 49 inches below the top of the bulkhead.Now DeBoer and his neighbors, who were among those who brought the class- action lawsuit that slowed the foot ferries, plan to paint red fluorescent lines across their bulkheads, marking the levels of their beaches before the ferry hits high speed.We've seen all of this accumulation (of sediments) going on since the ferry slowed down, DeBoer said. We are just waiting for them to speed it up and we'll just watch (the beach) go away.State officials disagree with DeBoer's anecdotal evidence, illustrating the difference of opinion over the Chinook and the beach erosion allegedly caused by its wake. Said Heidi Irvin of the state Attorney General's office, which successfully got the Chinook injunction overturned: We have seen some accretion (of sediments)since the ferries slowed down, but we have also seen accretion before that.Irvin cited several cases, documented by photographs, in which sediments returned to Rich Passage beaches during the full-speed operation of the foot ferry.Rich Passage resident Bill Cairns, whose beach was among those cited as evidence of sediment accumulation, denies that it ever rose during full speed ferry operation.The exception, he says, is when he did work on his bulkhead, about a month before a final photograph of his property was taken for evidence of sediment accumulation.My beach would have changed somewhat when I had to put in a new footing for my bulkhead, he said. We dug up a lot of hard-pan (rock), so we created a lot of sediment ourselves. That was not an accumulation from natural sources.Whether or not beaches rise or fall because of the effects of ferry wakes, scientists agree that an array of natural factors make proving a causal relationship difficult.In fact, fluctuations and aberrations in winds, tides, currents, and storm patterns can change beach makeup.This is an incredibly complex environment that you are dealing with, said Joann Hamick, leader of a public involvement team for the environmental impact study now under way for the fast ferry project.(The data provided by homeowners) is one piece of the puzzle, she said, but the question is, what are the forces, both man-made and natural, that caused these beaches to change.Regardless of the source of erosion, plaintiffs in the class action suit to slow the ferry may need to address their property damage claims through a different forum. In its ruling last week, the state Supreme Court said property owners must show that there is imminent harm to their properties that cannot be addressed through monetary compensation by the state, before an injunction to slow the ferry would be valid.However, another form of damage that could result in a new injunction, if proven, is ecological harm.We're not just talking about problems with erosion, DeBoer said, but with the marine ecology down there.Plaintiffs in the suit contend that the ferry wake also harms a variety of sea life, including algae, kelp, shellfish and small crustaceans.Rich Passage resident Gretchen Hooper remembers days of marine life abundance. My children used to collect all sorts of creatures on the beach, she said. Now there's nothing. It's very discouraging.But scientists say that blaming the foot ferry for the decline in sea life addresses only one potential source of the problem. At this point, experts are still unsure of the ecological effects of the boats.The degree of severity of the environmental impact is open to debate, said Paul Dorn, marine biologist for the Suquamish Tribe.It's a debate that will now continue in King County Superior Court, where plaintiffs will return in an attempt to demonstrate a causal link between the speedy ferries and the declining marine environment.Sean Matt, an attorney for DeBoer and other plaintiffs, said this week that experts will prove that link through a comprehensive environmental survey.We believe the evidence will lead the trial court to make a finding that these boats are the cause of the environmental damage, he said.Meanwhile, DeBoer is waiting for history to repeat itself.In 1990, the ferry service ran the foot ferry Skagit through Rich Passage for eight weeks before moving it to another run after complaints about wake.This is deja vu all over, DeBoer said.Chinook revs upIt may be another three weeks before the Chinook foot ferry gets back up to speed on the Seattle-Bremerton route.The courts require an automatic 20-day waiting period following a decision to allow for paperwork and any other action regarding the case, ferry spokeswoman Pat Patterson said. That's the big hang-up right now, she said.Ferry officials are examining whether the ferry system is even subject to the waiting period. If it does apply, officials will try to get a waiver, Patterson said.In the meantime, schedules must be drafted and coordinated with Kitsap Transit to establish smooth-running commuter service. In addition, since Bremerton-Seattle ferry run will be reduced from three boats to two, ferry officials will need to juggle crews around. Patterson said they'll re-bid the jobs in order to reduce the crews.Ferry officials have submitted three potential schedules to Kitsap Transit for review. They basically took the old schedule and kept it about the same, said Kitsap Transit spokesman Doug Johnson. It's nothing that requires major changes on our part.Once ferry service officials decide on a schedule, Kitsap Transit will brief drivers and post any scheduling changes for passengers. Once the ferry service makes its final decision, we can make our final decision, Johnson said.We'll wait until they get the go-ahead from the Supreme Court, before making any scheduling changes, he said.All the organization and coordination is expected to take about two weeks.We're moving ahead with plans ... all of the other things that need to get done, Patterson said.Erica Jahn of the Kitsap Newspaper Group's Central Kitsap office contributed to this report."