Is Boardwalk Healthy or Harmful for Bremerton's Shorelines?
Christopher Dunagan, Kitsap Sun 20 Sep 08;
In May of 2004, Phil Williams arrived in Bremerton to start a job as the city's public works director. It wasn't long before he found himself deep into the city's problems.
Looking for a place to live, he spotted a newspaper ad for a newly remodeled duplex located on the shore near downtown. It sounded perfect, so Williams acted quickly to get the key and then climbed down a steep stairs to take a look.
The owner had asked Williams to remove his shoes before he stepped into the house. Mud would not be tolerated on the newly installed, clean white carpets.
"I took off my shoes and left them on the welcome mat," Williams recalled. "I put the key in the lock, pushed the door open and went in. The carpet was completely soaked with sewage.
"I turned around and went out. My feet stunk to high heaven. I called him back and said, 'I don't think your apartment is quite ready to rent.'"
That was Williams' rude introduction to Bremerton's sewage problems, an issue he has struggled with ever since. It wasn't the first time the city was forced to deal with a sewage mess along Bremerton's shoreline, and it wouldn't be the last.
Sitting in his conference room on Olympus Drive recently, Williams related that story as he explained why Bremerton needs to build a quarter-mile-long, 20- to 28-foot-wide boardwalk from the downtown marina to Evergreen-Rotary Park.
Supporters have promoted the boardwalk as a component of downtown revitalization, but the project has come under intense fire from the Suquamish Tribe and environmentalists who say ecosystem damage would be unacceptable.
State and federal agencies have yet to formally comment on the $24-million boardwalk proposal, but the length and width of the overwater structure has "potential serious impacts" for the environment, according to Matthew Longenbaugh of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Longenbaugh's agency is charged with protecting threatened and endangered species and is likely to conduct a thorough environmental review, called a "formal consultation." He called the boardwalk a "medium-scale project" — as opposed to something major such as a new marina or gravel mine at the water's edge.
Steve Kalinowski, regional habitat biologist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, has attended many community meetings about the boardwalk.
"It is a fairly significant project," Kalinowski said, "but I think the city and their consultants have worked hard to mitigate the environmental issues."
The boardwalk raises numerous concerns that must be addressed, according to environmental guidelines used by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But Williams believes he can gain the support of those agencies once they realize that the boardwalk is the best way of dealing with the city's sewage problem, and that the city is willing to minimize the environmental effects.
The public works director said he was not prepared, however, when the Suquamish Tribe walked away from discussions to acquire its consent, saying no amount of environmental mitigation could make up for the marine habitat that would be destroyed. The unwillingness of tribal officials to lay out their arguments has frustrated Williams and others working on the project.
Tribal Council Chairman Leonard Forsman said his staff is preparing comments for the Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve a permit for the project.
"The scope of the proposed offshore boardwalk creates significant overwater coverage that will impact the tribe's treaty rights and treaty resources and will destroy critical habitat that is an important resource for shellfish, anadromous fish and other marine resources," Forsman said in a letter to the mayor and city council.
Williams said the boardwalk was conceived as a solution to the sewer problem, and it quickly gained support from city officials who saw it as an ideal route for a pedestrian and bicycle pathway.
In the 1980s, city officials talked about building a boardwalk along the edge of the water from downtown all the way to the Warren Avenue Bridge, Williams said. But environmental experts came to realize the water's edge is a critical part of the shoreline ecosystem, so revised plans moved the proposed boardwalk farther and farther offshore.
As currently proposed, the city asserts that the boardwalk would result in an overall environmental benefit by restoring the degraded shoreline to a natural condition, cleaning up pollution at an abandoned oil dock, and removing dozens of creosote pilings. A mitigation agreement could include shoreline improvements at Lions Field in East Bremerton and the mouth of Chico Creek in Dyes Inlet.
Longenbaugh said his agency typically gives credit for those kinds of mitigation efforts, but critics say the city should be doing those projects even without the boardwalk.
Environmental issues that need to be addressed for any overwater project include how marine plants and animals react to shade during the day and artificial light at night; how changes in waves and currents alter the beach substrate; and how human activity can affect sea life and create a pollution threat, experts say.
Two University of Washington researchers, Charles Simenstad and Barbara Nightingale, compiled a 177-page report for state agencies about problems created by overwater structures.
"The first question we need to ask is how big a shadow footprint will be produced, and can it be mitigated," said Simenstad of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. "You can raise the height to reduce the size and intensity of the shadow, and you can move it offshore."
While there are no critically important eelgrass beds in the vicinity of the boardwalk, other plants, called macroalgae, could die if they don't get sunlight. That's why the boardwalk was proposed in deep water, where the sun is less of a factor, said Tom Knuckey, managing engineer for Bremerton Utilities.
Also affected by shadows are many kinds of fish, Simenstad said. For most fish, seeing is important for catching prey, escaping predators and finding their way through the water. Shadows may delay migration of juvenile salmon and sometimes drive them into deeper water, where they may be eaten by larger fish.
Since most of the main boardwalk would run north and south, no part of the seabed would stay in shadow all day, Knuckey said. The greater concern is for the east-west finger piers that run through shallow water and up to the shore. There, the shadow would cover some areas all the time.
For that reason, city designers chose to reduce the number of finger piers to two and narrow their width to 16 feet. That's less than ideal from an operational standpoint, because it requires larger and more powerful equipment to suction a sewer line up to 1,000 feet away, Knuckey said. Furthermore, the need for larger trucks makes it difficult to reduce the 20-foot width of the main boardwalk, he added.
Allowing light to pass through or around the boardwalk would also address the shadow problem. A city-hired consultant offered ideas ranging from glass fibers for transmitting light to reflective materials and white paint under the boardwalk.
Experts frequently suggest using metal grating on the deck to let light pass through, particularly for pedestrian walkways. Knuckey said structural engineers have not ruled out the idea, but they have concerns about what kind of grating could support an 85,000-pound sewer truck.
To reduce the number of vertical pilings, the city has elected to use epoxy-coated steel every 60 feet, he said. Concrete pilings would be able to span only 40 feet.
Another major issue is artificial light on the boardwalk at night. Simenstad said studies have shown that such lights can change the behavior of fish. Some species are attracted to bright lights, making them vulnerable to predation.
Knuckey said the city intends to use low-intensity lighting on the boardwalk, and locating safety lights on the deck or low on the hand rail, directed inward. Lights to direct boats away from the structure would be designed with fish in mind, he said.
Knuckey said wave studies have shown that the beach would be little affected by changes in currents around the boardwalk, except at the manholes that must penetrate down into the beach. A solid material that mimics natural rock has been proposed for those locations, but no final decisions have been made.
Other problems include leaking oil from trucks, stormwater runoff and litter. Each of these can be addressed individually, such as with proper maintenance, filtration and adequate garbage cans.
Simenstad said he would not find it unreasonable if the community decided that no more overwater structures were needed in Bremerton. "We should get rid of overwater structures where we can," he said.
On the other hand, proper mitigation can usually reduce the impacts enough to allow projects deemed important to the public, he added.
Balancing the public's desire for waterfront access with effects on the environment can be difficult.
Andrew Light, director of global ethics at George Mason University, spent three years teaching philosophy and environmental ethics at the University of Washington.
"When you have diverging values like this, when there are overlapping public interests, what you need to avoid are intransigent positions where you get a deadlock," Light said. "Each party has a responsibility to articulate the reasons for the positions they're taking."
In some cases — such as when a project might cause a species to go extinct or an ecosystem to collapse — a hard-line position is reasonable, Light said. Otherwise, there needs to be a balancing of interests to avoid resorting to courts or legislation.
In the case of the Bremerton boardwalk, the Army Corps of Engineers could mediatate by getting all parties to lay their cards on the table, he said. But if the Corps takes the "path of least resistance" and fails to bring the parties together, the likelihood of a lawsuit is increased, he added.
U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, has served as a mediator between the city and the Suquamish Tribe, but so far he's been unsuccessful in finding middle ground.
Whether a boardwalk is neccessary to address the sewer problem remains a question for many.
Kathleen Barrantes, a grant writer who has worked for the city, said the cost increaes from $10 million to more than $24 million means it's time for a new look at the project.
"I would like to see what it would cost to buy those properties on the sewer," she said. "If you bought those properties, you could retire that (sewer) line and get it off the beach."
The result could be an upland trail to Evergreen-Rotary Park with fewer environmental consequences than an overwater structure.
Williams, the Public Works director, said buying and tearing down all 54 homes served by the sewer line would be possible. But such a major action would require eminent domain to force everyone to move — including those with prime waterfront property. Amid the turmoil, the financial cost probably would exceed that of the boardwalk, he said.
"It would not be a popular thing," he said, "and it doesn't strike me as practical."
Knuckey said there aren't many options. Most of the homes connected to the sewer line lie at the top of the steep bluff. Because the bluff is unstable, city officials don't want to risk building a new line on the slope.
Installing the line at the top of the hill would require an inordinately deep excavation along Washington Avenue to allow for gravity flow or the installation of pressure pumps for every house on the system.
The existing 6-inch cast-iron pipe in the beach is failing, Knuckey said. Like a clogged artery, it is about 65 percent constricted in flow and subject to ongoing breaks and clogs. The city wants to replace it with a parallel 8-inch plastic pipe.
When clogs occur, city crews try to dislodge the debris with a high pressure hose dangled off the Manette Bridge. When that doesn't work or if a break in the line occurs, crews must wait for low tide and drive heavy equipment along the beach, causing environmental damage in addition to the raw sewage spilled onto the beach during maintenance.
Servicing a new line in the beach by barge is an option. But barges cannot operate in the swift current of Port Washington Narrows unless they are grounded, also damaging the shoreline, Knuckey said.
Williams and Knuckey say they don't mind the scrutiny over environmental effects, but they hope for fair treatment from those making decisions.
"We have some minuses in this project," Knuckey said, "but we have a lot of pluses. We just want this project evaluated on its merits."
For a discussion about water-related issues, check out the blog Watching Our Water Ways at kitsapsun.com.
The Scope of Sewer Maintenance
The basic dimensions of the boardwalk are dictated by the need to drive a sewer truck onto the structure, said Tom Knuckey, managing engineer for Bremerton Utilities.
The vacuum-equipped truck would move along the 20-foot-wide structure and turn into two finger piers connecting the boardwalk to the shore. The boardwalk would be 28 feet wide at the turns, and the finger piers would be 16 feet wide.
The truck would clean out the sewer line through a vertical tube, or manhole, that reaches down from the boardwalk to the sewer pipe. Sewage would be flushed into the manhole and vacuumed into a tank on the back of the truck.
While some people would like to see the boardwalk made narrower — which would be fine for pedestrians — a narrower boardwalk would not resolve the sewer problem, Knuckey said.
Other city residents would like a wider boardwalk to provide more space for downtown festivals, but the design remains focused on the sewer trucks.
Steven Kalinowski of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the boardwalk proposal has been examined from many angles.
"It is clear to me," he said, "that the need to replace and upgrade the sewer line was the driving force on this project."