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Monday, May 12, 2008 - Page updated at 08:11 AM

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MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Unintended consequences can result when natural wetlands are replaced. Bullfrogs thrive in the algae-choked stormwater ponds at Trilogy Golf Club at Redmond Ridge. The invasive frogs, which aren't native to the West, gobble juvenile salmon and native amphibians.


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MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Retaining walls — the tallest of their kind in the world, towering as high as 135 feet — hold back 14 million cubic yards of fill dirt trucked in, then leveled, to create the third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Part of the runway sits on what once was a wetland.


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MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Good intention: Engineers installed a large pipe to help direct rainwater from the surface of Sea-Tac's newly paved third runway into Miller Creek and the freshwater system built to restore wetlands affected by the project.


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MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Bad result: Part of the creek relocated by the Port of Seattle as mitigation for its third runway flows too slowly to provide the spawning habitat for salmon that it was supposed to.


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MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The Port of Seattle is spending a total of $62 million to replace the wetlands filled in for a third runway at Sea-Tac. However, an Army Corps of Engineers scientist says "the jury is still out" on the success of some of the mitigation.

 

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Saving wetlands: a broken promise

Seattle Times staff reporters

The state's commitment to our fragile wetlands dates back two decades.

On Dec. 12, 1989, Gov. Booth Gardner announced that half the state's wetlands were gone, and 2,000 acres more were vanishing each year. So he issued an order: For each marshy piece of ground paved, another would be created to replace it.

Not only would the state stop losing wetlands, Gardner vowed, but wetlands in Washington would actually increase.

Twenty years later, the promise has proved hollow. Destruction of wetlands, vital to the health of Puget Sound, is still routine, and attempts to replicate them are too often a failure.

This year, even as Gov. Christine Gregoire, the newly formed Puget Sound Partnership and teams of scientists all work to protect and restore Puget Sound, the management of wetlands in Washington remains in disarray. It's part of a pattern of failure that taints Washington's "green" veneer. While we may not be breaking the law, we are breaking our promise to protect Puget Sound:

• The rules for wetlands protection are mired in a regulatory swamp. Regulations are varied, and efforts to protect one wetland can be wiped out by upstream neighbors operating completely within the law.

• Time and again, efforts to re-create nature by replacing wetlands fail, if the effort is made at all. The science is relatively new and evolving, and wetlands replacements are often allowed to be afterthoughts for developers. Even the most well-planned, well-financed efforts can go awry.

• Oversight of wetland projects is weak or nonexistent. At every level — city, county, state and federal — job one for most agency staffers is promptly issuing more permits, not following up to make sure that mitigation intended to make up for wetland destruction actually works.

Even the state's highest environmental officials concede the system is broken. But officials insist they are racing to make changes. "I'm bound and determined to make them happen quickly," said Jay Manning, the director of the state Department of Ecology.

But the people in the field who are hired to fix the system say success may be a longshot. It would require a fundamental shift in the way the people of Puget Sound handle development, putting wetlands preservation first — a shift that the region may not be prepared to make.

"We are kidding ourselves; the emperor has no clothes," said Thomas Hruby, a senior ecologist at the Ecology Department. "Everybody says it, and it's been going on for at least 20 years. We are deluding ourselves, hoping there is a silver bullet out there that will allow us to have our growth and not have the impacts.

"It's a state of denial."

Flubbed engineering

Nowhere is the difficulty of wetland replacement more visible than at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Here, on old cropland west of the airfields, bisected by Miller Creek, the Port of Seattle has spent almost $4 million creating a freshwater system to make up for destruction of wetlands in the Miller Creek basin filled to build a third runway.

The Port tore down 300 homes and planted 168,000 willows and other native plants. Workers hauled out old tires and garbage and dropped 200 gnarled logs into Miller Creek for salmon and trout habitat. As a backup plan, the Port also spent $14 million and took 68 acres of fallow pasture several miles away in Auburn and converted them into wetland.

The project had everything going for it: heavy funding, a motivated developer, meticulous maintenance, and plenty of oversight. If any mitigation project was set up to succeed, it was Miller Creek. But results are mixed. While the Auburn pasture conversion is looking good so far, engineers miscalculated when they took on Miller Creek.

Part of the new creek bottom slopes so little that the water moves too slowly to provide the salmon-spawning habitat it was supposed to. Sun warms the slow-moving water, allowing thick mats of algae to grow that threaten to suffocate young trout and salmon.

No one knows yet if the project will work as intended. "Most of it is doing very well, but the jury is still out," said Gail Terzi, a senior wetlands scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We had money, oversight, stringency, everything, and we still have a problem."

Nature's kidneys

From the squishy mats beneath Sitka-spruce forests to the banks of swampy ponds everywhere, wetlands hold and filter water. Soggy marshes, rushes and cattails help moderate storm runoff and absorb floodwater.

A single acre of wetland can store a million gallons of water. In summer, it is released to nurture hundreds of species of insects, amphibians and fish, and replenish groundwater.

"We can't manage Puget Sound from the shoreline seaward," said Mike Rylko, Puget Sound coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle.

"We have to manage it from the Cascades down through the watershed, and everything has to move through those wetlands. They are the kidneys, the filter, and the buffer against flooding."

Wetlands can be destroyed only as a last resort. And then they have to be replaced by something that serves the same ecological function. But that so-called "mitigation" strategy is a tricky alchemy of hydrology, engineering and gardening.

"No net loss? I think we stopped measuring it about as quickly as it became a policy. I don't think we ever got good at it," Rylko said. "It's easy to say and easy to mean but really hard to do, especially when we are adding a lot of people every year. ... We aren't getting anything near what we are losing, and the pace is accelerating."

Instead of protecting wetlands, too often people destroy them and replace them with mitigation sites that are too dry, flat or isolated to do what the natural wetland did.

Engineers plant the wrong shrubs or let them shrivel up and die. Invasive weeds take over and drive out native plants. Some replacements are never built at all.

"A lot of us ... have felt badly over the years that we are misleading the people and fooling ourselves that we are doing OK, that we are getting replacement and protecting the most important places," said Andy McMillan, a wetlands manager at the Ecology Department.

There's no way to count the lost acres of natural systems. The state's acres of wetlands have never been tallied.

The Ecology Department's files on wetlands projects before 2004 are incomplete, scattered in archives or missing.

In 1998, a King County sampling of wetlands projects found only 3 percent functionally replaced wetlands destroyed by development. In 2002, a similar Ecology Department survey found fewer than half of the wetlands it examined were even moderately successful.

Terzi estimates that anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of wetlands mitigation permitted by the corps is successful. And that's typical of wetlands projects around Puget Sound.

"You have a bunch of wetlands out there that are glorified stormwater ponds with a chain-link fence surrounded by pavement," Terzi said.

During a recent tour of wetlands projects in South King County, Dyanne Sheldon, a private wetlands consultant, noted dying young trees along Oakesdale Avenue in Renton.

The city of Renton planted 5,000 trees and shrubs there in 2001 to make up for wetlands destroyed by a road project. Only 8 percent survived. The city planted more — this time putting the wrong plants in the wrong spots.

"Look, it's the golden cedar," Sheldon joked darkly of the dead trees' hue, "a species rarely seen — unless you take a red cedar and plant it in the bright sun."

When projects succeed, it's no accident. On Issaquah Creek in King County, new spruces have finally taken root after several failed plantings to make up for wetlands lost to build the Issaquah courthouse.

But it's only considered a success now because King County — which has strengthened its wetland-protection efforts since the 1998 survey — bothers to send employees out to check and recheck. Few others do.

Rules "a bit of a joke"

Of about 700 projects statewide permitted by the Army Corps, only about 5 percent are inspected on the ground.

In Pierce County a few years ago, the county government made plans to hire a consultant to improve environmental enforcement, including wetlands. Instead, the money went to processing development applications.

Until a few years ago in Snohomish County, biologists used to visit wetlands projects. But then county managers ordered them to focus on processing wetland-development applications instead. Code-enforcement officers, who are trained in construction standards, not ecology, were assigned to check wetlands projects instead.

Then again, wetlands rules have never been palatable to builders, farmers and forestland owners. They have long questioned the value of rules they say stymie responsible and legal development.

"It's a mess," said Jodi Slavik, general counsel for the Building Industry Association of Washington, a trade group in Olympia.

It's not fair to blame builders for the failure of the system, Slavik says. Builders know how to build buildings, not wetlands. And when they are finished with their projects, they want to move on.

"Then it's up to homeowner associations to maintain these wetlands and open areas, but frankly it is just not practical, and to keep these wetlands functioning in an urban area, well, the landscape has changed," Slavik said.

The building industry carries considerable clout in Olympia, and efforts to boost wetland protection in the 1990s resulted in industry and property-rights activists pushing for ballot measures and budget cuts to squeeze the Ecology Department.

So even as development pressure increased, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and the state Legislature slashed Ecology Department staffing by 15 percent. The wetlands program was among the hardest-hit.

"We were just keeping our heads down, trying to keep from getting cut more," said McMillan, the Ecology Department wetlands manager.

Today, the Ecology Department still doesn't have an employee assigned to look for illegally filled wetlands. It was only last July that the department got money to check mitigation sites for permit compliance.

On the local level, governments usually require developers to post monetary bonds to ensure they will complete mitigation projects. But local governments rarely follow up and call developers to account.

Lisa Brandt, King County's only wetlands-compliance officer, said the county has kept the bonds only three times — out of about 400 recent projects that she can recall. And in Snohomish County, Tom Rowe, a manager with the planning and development department, couldn't recall a single instance.

"It got to a point where the regulations were a bit of a joke," agreed Snohomish County Councilman Dave Sommers.

"If you don't enforce them, and everybody knows it, what's the point?"

Change on the way?

Snohomish County biologists started inspecting wetlands again last fall. The Corps of Engineers says it has hired more people for its regulatory program and is issuing new rules to beef up wetland protection and permit compliance.

State Ecology Director Manning says he wants a regionwide wetland-restoration program that would recapture some of what's been lost. Protection and restoration of estuarine wetlands, critical to the health of Puget Sound, is bringing back some of the 70 percent of salt marshes destroyed by development.

Manning also pitches mitigation banks, in which developers buy credits for large-scale restorations performed by professionals to benefit entire watersheds — rather than the piecemeal mitigation projects done by developers.

"We've not shown yet, historically, that we can deal with the death-by-a-thousand-cuts problem," he said.

But Manning said he believes public opinion is finally on his side.

"This is the best environment for the environment in this state since the 1970s," he said.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

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