Creek getting a makeover

Neighbors work to preserve a valuable salt marsh in the Manitou Beach area.

For the love of a salt marsh, a neighborhood connected to restore a creek.

“We started with a simple idea (to not have silt flow into the salt marsh),” said Karen Polinsky, a Manitou Beach neighborhood resident, “and realized how in a watershed everything is interconnected, and that’s why the project has become so expansive, because we need to be concerned about the whole watershed.

“It’s taken way longer than we even imagined, but we’re so excited that we’re going to see the stream restoration happen.”

In the chill morning air last Saturday, a crew of 15-20 neighbors and friends, young and old, from upstream and downstream, cheerfully worked digging holes to plant swordfern and other native plants on the banks of the seasonal stream made whole again.

The planting party completed restoration of the seasonal stream dubbed Manitou Creek, the first major step in preserving the salt marsh habitat downstream. Step two – a work in progress – is getting a wider culvert to run from Murden Cove to the salt marsh, which is losing its salinity. The latter project is under consideration by the city.

The unique mix of salt and fresh water in the marsh creates a rich habitat with food and shelter for fingerling fish, otter, osprey, blue herons and bald eagles.

Polinsky’s husband Michael Foley says 75 percent of salt water estuaries have been filled in in the Puget Sound region over the last 100 years.

“We wouldn’t be expending the resources we have if it weren’t for the culvert down here,” Foley said. “ We’re just trying to preserve as much of that (wildlife) as we can.”

The project spanned four years from reforming the seasonal stream that was split by a dirt access road to the houses of the Foleys and two neighbors to lobbying the Open Space Commission to purchase 75 percent of the salt marsh and now working to get a wider culvert from sound to marsh.

The three neighbors brought in experts for advice and discussed what course the new stream could take, avoiding a neighbor’s drainfield here, cutting back under the access road here and flowing to the salt marsh.

“It’s kind of interesting getting people with such diverse opinions working together,” said Barbara Babbe, a neighbor of the Foleys, with a chuckle. “And believe me, they’re pretty diverse.”

As neighbors have transformed the creek, the creek has transformed their lives as well.

Polinsky, an English teacher at Bainbridge High School, knew very little about salt marshes nine years ago.

Today she is part of the Watershed Council, heading up the Manitou Creek Restoration project of the neighborhood group Chums of Murden Cove. Foley is president of Chums, which became a nonprofit organization this year. Their daughter Cynthia Foley now is co-president of the Earth Service Corps at Bainbridge High School, which Polinsky co-advises.

Neighborhood children formed the “Kids for Fish” group that gave public comment at City Council meetings and helped collect signatures to successfully convince the city’s Open Space Commission to purchase three-quarters of the salt marsh.

Once there was a plan, the group applied for grants to do the work and got them from the city, the conservation group Trout Unlimited, and IslandWood founders Paul and Debbi Brainerd. In all the project cost $42,000 plus donated time and expertise.

Mid Puget Sound Fisheries – a state-established nonprofit for implementing stream restoration projects – gave two grants and donated weeks of needed expertise to oversee and manage the actual construction work of putting in a larger culvert, so heavy winter rains would stop overrunning Beachcrest Drive and become a whole stream on the other side again. That transformed an unsightly ditch into a rock-bottomed, meandering stream.

And, at the end when grant money fell short by $8,500, they dug in deep.

“At that point all the neighbors kicked in (the money) and they didn’t need to be asked twice,” Polinsky said. “They were willing to give money to do the right thing rather than give less for the quick fix. That meant a lot to me.”

Restoring the creek is a huge step forward, but work for the salt marsh is not complete yet if it is to stay salty.

“Every bit that’s left (of salt marshes) is really valuable. If we can use the property bought by the Open Space (Commission) to become a lagoon we can really expand the feeding space for the fingerlings,” Polinsky said.

“The mixing of salt and fresh creates that really unique habitat.”

Polinsky and Chums for Murden Cove are now working on grants for replacing the culvert – a state requirement for fish passage to and from Puget Sound – and enhancing the salt marsh.

Finding the right place for the culvert will still take time and buy-in from all the neighbors bordering the salt marsh.

What keeps her going, Polinsky says, is “I know the culvert will be replaced some time and the fish will swim up it.”

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