Monday, May 30, 2011

Bellingham Waterway and Bay Cleanup: Port Alternative - Chapter 3

As noted in previous posts, (HERE and HEREthe Port of Bellingham took over the cleanup of the Whatcom Waterway and Bellingham Bay when they acquired the Georgia-Pacific paper mill. I forgot to mention that the Port paid $10 for the GP property. That is right - $10. The cleanup liabilities with the site are that daunting. GP had developed Alternative J as a preferred cleanup for the Whatcom Waterway and Bay, but this plan only covered those areas; significant contamination areas are located on the uplands at the former mill site.

The Port's New Plan

The Port made a key policy decision that centers on the ASB. The Port proposed changing the land use of the ASB from an upland to a marine environment. They wanted the ASB to become a marina.

This policy position meant that Alternative J was no longer acceptable. This meant that the ASB had to be cleaned up before it could be opened to the marine environment. In addition ASB could no longer be used as a location to place dredged sediment from the waterway and bay. GP had considered lots of other alternatives, including dredging and hauling the dredge spoils to a landfill. GP rejected those alternatives because they would cost over $100 million. GP went with a $23 million solution of dredging and placing dredged sediment in part of the ASB. The Port was faced with the same problem as GP. Only the problem was bigger and self-inflicted because they were adding to the area that needed a cleanup plan; while GP was facing cleanup of the bay and waterway, the Port was now facing cleanup of the bay, waterway and the ASB.

Facing the added costs associated with the need to cleanup the ASB, the Port crafted a new policy regarding the Federal channel in the waterway. Remember that when GP was considering options for cleaning up the Bay, the Port insisted GP dredge the waterway to the mandated depth of 38 feet as a Federal Waterway. Now that the Port was faced with the cleanup costs of dredging the waterway and having a marina instead of ready made disposal site, the Port made a second fundamental policy shift regarding the federal channel designation for the waterway.  The Port along with the City of Bellingham's approval moved to have most of the waterway de-designated as a Federal channel. Deep draft boats would no longer be able to pull into the waterway. The Port and City began lobbying the U.S. Congress to remove the Federal Shipping lane status for the upper waterway. I have not researched this, but I suspect it is extremely unusual for a Port and a city served by a port to actively seek having a shipping channel removed from designation. That is why it takes an act of Congress.

The Port had decided that a federal shipping channel was not of much value anymore. Indeed because of the way Bellingham is hemmed in by mountains, the Port of Bellingham has never been a big shipping terminal relative to the huge ports in Portland, Tacoma, Seattle and Vancouver. With closure of GP the need for a shipping channel was greatly reduced at least in the near term. Further, with the channel no longer under federal standards, the Port would have greater flexibility in how the channel would be managed. The Port called the de-designated channel a "locally managed multipurpose channel".

With the Federal Channel no longer an issue, the amount of dredging was greatly reduced. The Port could now cap the contaminated areas with a layer of clean sediment. Capping is a much less expensive approach to cleanup. Another factor is that dredging is highly disruptive of the sediments and can cause short term harm when the sediments are disturbed. Previous testing had indicated that much of the contaminated sediments had been naturally capped by natural processes from the silt laden glacial melt water of the Nooksack River which empties into the bay. A few areas of dredging would still need to take place at locations where currents did not allow silt to settle on the sea floor and in areas where deep draft shipping could still take place. Just how thick the cap would need to be, and where dredging would take place would require a fair bit more detailed study and the port began those studies. The success of capping approaches are not without significant debate. Mercury can mobilize under changing oxygen and pH conditions on a very localized level; hence, capping approaches are not without significant risk and require lots of ongoing monitoring to ensure the cap approach is actually working.

Besides the Federal channel issue the Port needed to get the Department of Natural Resources to change the inner and outer harbor line boundary in order to have full control over most of the cleanup issues. That move was completed as well.

Schematic of the Port's vision. Click to enlarge and note dredge areas and cap areas

The Port's vision of the cleanup and the resulting land use is pictured above. A far cry from the existing industrial paper mill site with a large water treatment lagoon and a waterway hemmed in by docks. Instead a large marina, parks along the southeast side of the waterway and some sort of amorphous development on the old mill site. 

Besides the advantage of greatly reducing the costs, the Port could claim that by removing the federal Channel designation, they would have greater flexibility to do shoreline restoration work along the shoreline. Indeed the Port has completed a small scale version of a shoreline restoration project at another location along the shore of the bay. The possible shoreline restoration component had the potential for the Port to acquire some additional grant funding that would reduce the costs associated with capping.

By significantly de-designating the waterway, the Port greatly reduced the cleanup costs for the waterway and bay. Where GP would have been required to do a huge dredging project under Alternative J, the Port was able to avoid most of those dredging costs by shifting policy on the federal channel designation. However, the Port choice of turning the ASB into a marina added a major cleanup expense. The Port estimated that the cleanup of the Bay and waterway via primarily capping and the removal of and proper disposal of the ASB sediments would cost $44 million dollars. A fair bit more than GP's Alternative J which was estimated at $23 million.

With Alternative J, GP had made a corporate policy decision to remove permanently the contaminated sediment from the waterway and bay and placing that sediment in part of the ASB at an estimated cost of $23 million - a plan that was less expensive than the Port's plan and was supported by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources.

The Port has indicated they would prefer to convert the lagoon to a marina and follow a different alternative to clean up the waterway and bay. A plan that would cap most of the contaminated sediment in the waterway and bay and convert an upland site that did not require cleanup into an an aquatic one that does with a price tag of at $44 million dollars for cleanup alone. This plan meant that far more contaminated sediments would be left be capped in a portion of the waterway and that sediment cleanup and removal from elsewhere in the waterway and other sites around the Bay will cost more due to disposal costs.

At the time the Port did what is called a disproportionate cost analysis of various cleanup alternatives. Ecology accepted this analysis and accepted the Port's preferred cleanup approach.

Disproportionate Cost Analysis Diagram
Dashed blue line, green line and red rectangle and red arrow are my modifications 

I made some modifications to the chart. In terms of contaminated sediments left as indicated by the blue line in the diagram, I do not think sediment removed from the waterway in alternatives 3 and 4 should be considered as left on site as the chart indicates. If they are placed in the ASB, they are no longer in the bay or waterway as the chart would indicate.

I altered the green line based on new information that indicates that the alternative plan that the port has proposed will not be $44 million but will in fact be nearly $100 million. That will be discussed in a future post.

Next: Ecology offers cleanup money for building a marina. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ellensburg Formation - Side Trip off of I-90

I previously posted on the landscape seen driving along Interstate 82 in the Yakima Valley few-notes-on-interstate-82-landscape. As noted in that posts we often view landscapes at 70 mph as we drive along the interstate.

But every now and then it is worth taking a few extra minutes to get off the interstate for a short side trip. Interstate 90 is the main east-west route across the state. One short side trip along this route that won't delay the east-west traverse very much is to take State Highway 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Ellum. It won't add any miles to the trip but has some spectacular outcrop exposures of the Ellensburg Formation. There are two broad pullouts and the road is wide enough that it is a great spot to take a break and contemplate the violence of the Cascade volcanics during Miocene.

Locations of Ellensburg Formation exposures along Highway 10 between Cle Ellum and Ellensburg (Google Maps)
 Volcanic ash, lahar and volcanic sediment

Graded lahar and ash

Ash and lava fragments 

The three pictures above are from the western stop. There are multiple deposits and interesting cross-cutting features. 

Lahars and volcanic sediment

Pink conglomerate boulder of older lahar embedded within the lahar

Cobble within graded lahar deposit

Conglomerate at base of lahar deposit 

The Ellensburg Formation is the name given to units of alluvial and volcanic material between basalt flows of the Columbia River Basalts. The basalts primarily originated as massive huge flows from eruptive centers near the Oregon, Washington and Idaho border area. Some of these flows extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Cascade Range was lower at the time, but there were explosive volcanoes in the south part of the range. The bulk of material from the Ellensburg Formation was derived from those ancient eruptive centers that are long gone and now replaced by the current crop of Cascade volcanoes. The Ellensburg Formation can be thought of as the inter fingering of volcanics and alluvial material from the west with basalts from the east with the basalt being the predominant formation.

The second stop has nice views of the adjoining Yakima River that carved down through the Ellensburg Formation providing the views of the unit. An old timber and metal irrigation aqueduct that is no longer functional traverses the slope both below and above the road at the outcrop location.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bellingham Bay Cleanup: Death of Alternative J - Chapter 2

As noted in Chapter 1, Bellingham Bay Cleanup Planning 15 Years and Counting - Chapter 1, Georgia Pacific had selected an approved cleanup alternative called Alternative J in 2004 for cleaning contaminated sediments in Bellingham Bay and the Whatcom Waterway. Alternative J was derailed when the Port Of Bellingham acquired the GP property and proposed using the aerated sediment basin (ASB) as a marina. Because of that decision, the Port needed to develop a new cleanup plan. 

Sediment Cleanup and Soil Cleanup are not the same

Environmental cleanup is dictated by the contaminant, the media in which the contaminant is found and the guiding principal of protection of human health and the environment. The cleanup levels required for sediment in the aquatic environment is much more restrictive than for soil on land. The cleanup levels in sediment in an aquatic environment have typically been on the order of 0.5 parts per million (ppm) or less for mercury depending on a variety of biological actions and chemistry. This was the approximate level of cleanup for two other sites in Puget Sound with mercury contaminated sediments. Georgia Pacific's proposed cleanup alternative was to cleanup the sediments in the Whatcom Waterway to a minimum cleanup level of 0.59 ppm. Again this plan was abandoned when the Port of Bellingham took over the property.

The cleanup levels for mercury in soil in an upland setting for unrestricted land use (houses, parks, schools) are typically on the order of 24 parts per million (ppm). Again this is dependent upon soil chemistry, land use and potential contaminant pathways. For upland sites used as industrial sites the cleanup criteria for direct contact becomes much less stringent at 1,100 ppm and assumes little direct contact with soil. If the site has surface water that is impacted by soil contamination either through direct run off or ground water flow, or if the soil contacts drinking water, a more intensive cleanup may be required to 2 ppm.

It is possible to leave contamination at higher levels buried beneath the site as long as the buried contamination does not pose a risk to human health or the environment – that is as long as it stays put. If contamination above the unrestricted land use level is left in place either on the ground surface or below, land use deed restrictions are required to be placed on the property. These restrictions typically will require Ecology to be notified if any excavation will be done on the site.    

Current levels of mercury at the waterfront

Whatcom Waterway: currently mercury is in sediments in the Whatcom Waterway at, for the most part, less than 5 ppm with a high of 12 ppm. Hence, these mercury levels in waterway sediments will require cleanup as they are in an aquatic setting.

GP ASB Lagoon: Sampling done in 2004 showed mercury levels similar to the concentrations in the waterway with an outlier of 20 ppm. If the lagoon is treated as an upland site, the cleanup level would be 24 ppm and it would be unlikely that cleanup for mercury would be required. However, if the ASB is used as a marina sediment cleanup will be required. 

GP Mill Site: there are sites at the waterfront with significant concentrations of mercury such as the Caustic Groundwater Plume Area with mercury as high as 12,000 ppm. Contaminated ground water is also present beneath portions of the mill site. Any areas of the mill site not cleaned up to the unrestricted land use standards will require deed restrictions. As long as contaminated ground water remains on site long term monitoring will be required. Due to the proximity of the mill site to a sensitive environment, any contamination left in place will require monitoring to ensure it is not leaving the site and impacting the environment of the bay.  

ASB or Marina, Upland or Aquatic

Once the Port acquired the GP site, the Port argued to Ecology and stated publicly that the ASB is aquatic. If it’s aquatic, it would be considered contaminated and would require either a cleanup or capping. Ecology shoreline staff maintained that the ASB in its current configuration as a treatment basin not connected to the waters of the state is an upland. However, because the Port proposes converting the ASB to a marina, aquatic standards would then have to be applied before the ASB could be opened up to the bay as a marina.

When Georgia Pacific proposed using the ASB as a disposal site for the contaminated sediments excavated from the bay and the waterway as part of the Alternative J Cleanup, Ecology wrote this: “In this instance, the ASB (lagoon) is considered to be an upland as it was legally converted to a landlocked lagoon or pond and is not a shoreline of the state”. In addition, Ecology said this regarding the toxicity and future land use in regards to the ASB site: “Soil/sediment concentrations to be confined in the ASB (lagoon) under this alternative (as proposed by GP) would be below MTCA (Model Toxic Control Act) direct soil contact criteria for unrestricted land use”.

In other words, Ecology was stating that if the ASB was used as a disposal site as proposed by GP in Alternative J, the ASB site could be used for any purpose, including residential.

But the Port did not want GP's preferred cleanup Alternative J, because Alternative J meant the ASB would not be a available for use as a marina. The Port would need to develop a new preferred cleanup plan. The Port faced a public relations problem: The preferred Alternative J cleanup plan was the best plan for getting the cleanest bay and waterway cleanup.

Things Get Weird

As the Port began the process of developing a new cleanup plan things started getting weird. The GP cleanup plan Alternative J that had been declared as the preferred cleanup plan by Ecology was made out to be not so great. Editorials in the Bellingham Herald described the lagoon as the “dirtiest place in the bay” (Editorial December 2004 and July 2006) or as a “toxic waste dump site” (Editorial August, 2006) even though Ecology had clearly stated otherwise in evaluating the preferred alternative J.

Remember Ecology had concluded “Soil/sediment concentrations to be confined in the ASB (lagoon) under this alternative (as proposed by GP) would be below MTCA (Model Toxic Control Act) direct soil contact criteria for unrestricted land use”.  How could this statement be construed to "dirtiest place on the bay" and "toxic waste dump"?, when Ecology was stating that the site would meet unrestricted land use standards for direct soil contact. How did the editorials get things so wrong? That is a question I never could get answered.

It was a weird time in Bellingham.

As the Port moved towards developing a new cleanup plan they began suggesting capping the contaminated sediments in the bay and waterway with imported clean sand. They also suggested that mercury contamination at the mill site, an area that was proposed as a redevelopment area, would be left buried in the ground.

For citizens that were told that the preferred cleanup plan, Alternative J, would be create a "toxic waste dump", proposals for in place burial in the bay, waterway and at the mill site seemed to be a contradiction. Citizens concerned about mercury contamination left in the bay and on the site were told in a Bellingham Herald editorial that mercury was heavy and sinks. The desire to turn the ASB into a marina meant that Alternative J had to be killed.

Next: The Port of Bellingham's New Cleanup Plan

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bellingham Bay Cleanup Planning - 15 Years (at least) and Counting - Chapter 1

Whatcom Waterway, 1975
Georgia-Pacific Paper Mill is to the left.
Note plume of pollution within the waterway

Five years ago I wrote an article in the Cascadia Weekly on one of the cleanup aspects on the Bellingham Bay waterfront. Given that five years have passed, it may be worthwhile revisiting the site to see how things have been proceeding. Although this policy issue is Bellinghamcentric, the policy decisions made have regional impacts as the costs of the cleanup may impact available cleanup funds for other sites Washington State. And perhaps this story has some other lessons as well.

Some Background

The site of the Georgia-Pacific Mill is located on fill soils that were placed on the tide flats of Bellinghan Bay. The fill area had been used as an industrial site for many years and included a paper mill before GP acquired the site. GP built a chlor-alkali plant on the site in 1965. This plant produced chlorine for bleaching paper. The method of producing the chlorine used mercury cells as cathodes to separate sodium and chlorine out of salt water.

The plant was built prior to the Clean Water Act and as can be seen the above image the waste discharge from the plant, although impressive by today's standards, was not atypical of the pre Clean Water Act era. Pictures of the Whatcom Waterway were featured in Life Magazine during the period when the Clean Water Act was being debated. GP's initial solution to the pollution loading in the confined waterway was to move the discharge pipe one mile out into the bay where mixing dissipated and diluted the discharge. However, the discharge in the waterway as shown above left a legacy of mercury contaminated sediments that remain to this day. The discharge out in the bay likewise left an area of mercury tainted sediments near the discharge pipe.

GP made improvements to the operation of the chlor-alkali plant and other plant operations that greatly reduced the mercury discharges. They also built a large enclosed lagoon called the Aerated Sediment Basin (ASB) to settle out organics and aerate them before the waste water was discharged into the bay.

1988 Aerial Photo showing the ASB

The mill continued to operate through the early 2000s. However, the legacy of mercury contaminated sediments remained a problem and GP was required to cleanup the sediments. This started a long difficult process for GP. Geology had provided GP a lucky break in that the Nooksack River that flows into Bellingham Bay is a glacier fed river and therefore is very silty. Much of the contaminated sediment had been naturally capped by silt entering the bay from the river. But hot spots remained particularly in the vicinity of the Whatcom Waterway.  Clear water and currents from Whatcom Creek prevented the burial of mercury along much of the waterway. Furthermore, the Port of Bellingham wanted the federal designated shipping channel in the waterway maintained and wanted the waterway to be dredged to the federal mandated depth. In early talks, the Port encouraged the idea of using the dredge spoils to create a new upland fill area on the tide flats that the Port could use as additional land. But this required the cooperation of the land manager - the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR was not interested in allowing the tide lands they managed for the people of the State of Washington to be used as a fill site. The DNR was also hesitant to allow areas of the bay to be used as confined aquatic disposal areas (essentially underwater landfills). 
GP was faced with some serious costs of dredging and hauling wet sediment to a landfill. GP then proposed a plan of excavating the waterway and nearly all the contaminated sediment and placing the sediment within a portion of the ASB. Given that they were scaling back plant operation, they no longer needed such a large ASB. With this much cheaper approach, GP was willing to pursue an aggressive contaminated sediment removal and proposed this approach to the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) as the preferred cleanup approach for the contaminated sediment. The approach had the support of Washington Fish and Wildlife, DNR, and citizen groups as it would provide the maximum amount of mercury tainted sediment removal and avoid debates about the effectiveness of covering the contamination in place. This approach, known as Alternative J was estimated to cost $23 million.

However, the Port of Bellingham had other ideas about the ASB. The port saw the ASB as a perfect site for a future marina and with GP likely to close at some not too distant future date, the Port wanted the site as ready built marina. The Port proceeded to start condemnation proceedings to acquire the ASB property. In the end GP and the Port reached an agreement whereby the Port acquired the entire GP property and took on the responsibility for cleanup of the contaminated sediments as well as contaminated sites on the upland portion of the GP mill site. This agreement was completed in 2005. GP closed down at the end of 2007.

With the Port wanting to convert the ASB to a marina, the preferred Alternative J was no longer viable. A new alternative would need to be crafted by the Port that would fit their waterfront vision of a new marina in the ASB. In 2006 Carolyn Casey, corporate communications manager for the Port of Bellingham was quoted in the Northwest Business Monthly, "In 2008, we'll begin removing that waste to an upland certified disposal facility in eastern Washington, at an estimated cost of $30 million." Things have not gone that smoothly; no cleanup has been started and the waterway and portions of the bay remain contaminated with mercury.

Next: Understanding the cleanup

Monday, May 23, 2011

Willard Boyle's Impact on Geology

Willard Boyle died last week. Dr. Boyle won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2009 for his work on the charge coupled device (CDC). The charged couple device was invented in 1969. It took 30 years for the Nobel Committee to recognize the importance of the work. The digital camera is one of the great advances in field geology. I suspect that J. Harlan Bretz would have had a much easier time presenting his fieldwork regarding the Missoula Floods if the digital camera had been available.

Boyle also aided in the advancement of the ruby laser. The laser was used for very accurate range finding. Further advancements and laser techniques have supplanted the development, but accurate range finding is not only handy for field grunts like me but has been critical in measuring strain and uplift.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mount St Helens Eruption and Cold Beer

A geologist wished me Happy St. Helens' day last week. It has been 31 years since Mt. St. Helens' last really big eruption. I was not in Washington State when the eruption took place. I had been living in Washington State and the mountain had just started to do a little groaning when I left.

People that lived in Washington State at the time generally have the association of where they were and what they saw when the eruption took place. But I was not in Washington so my visual association of the eruption was a bit delayed.

I returned to Washington State in late August after the big eruption and a few other smaller ones as well. I had traveled via a truck filled with antiques for an auction in Seattle and was dropped off at Ritzville with my bike so I could head down to visit my parents before the auction in Seattle. The dry land wheat fields outside of Ritzville were covered with 2 to 4 inches of ash and the area looked like the moon with blue sky. It was very hot and towers of ash rose in giant dust devils into a deep blue sky. I said goodbye to my friends who looked a bit worried at that they were leaving me to my own devices in such a harsh landscape and I headed south towards the tiny hamlet of Ralston.

From Ralston I headed south past Washtucna and followed the former Palouse River valley called Washtucna Coulee towards Kahlotus. This is a quiet stretch of road and perhaps extra quiet since the temperature was over 100 degrees. 

Views of Washtucna Coulee looking northeast (above) and southwest from the turn off to Lyons Ferry 

A car pulled up beside me and the passenger rolled down his window and asked "What are you doing out here?" A legitimate question! I gave a short summary of my recent life, where I was heading and ended with the observation that I was used to the heat and was looking forward to resupply of fluid in Kahlotus. Through this brief conversation I maintained my cadence cranking up a rise as the road angled up the sidewall of the valley. The car passenger then said, "Well maybe this will help get you to Kahlotus" and handed me a cold beer. They wished me well pulled ahead and I noted the plates were from Minnesota. The car then slowed allowing me to pull alongside. "We think you need two."

So my association with the St Helens eruption is ice cold beer on a hot August afternoon while pedalling down the Washtucna Coulee. I have another association as well - Minnesotans are really nice!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Channel Migration Zone (a bit wonky)

I am meeting with a class of fluvial geologists on Friday. So I cobbled together a recent project I did and decided to post it. I worked on this project as a public service project as a question regarding channel migration had come up on a creek. This post is a bit wonky. (Maybe they all are)

A couple months ago I did a channel migration zone assessment on a creek in north Whatcom County. The purpose of the project was to determine if the creek channel was migrating or potentially migrating. Knowing channel migration potential is important from a geologic risk perspective, but it is also important from a habitat perspective. Channel shifts create new habitat particularly for fish and this can be even more important when the fish in question are an endangered salmon or trout species.

I faced some difficult constraints on this project. I had one day to visit the site, and then one day to do some historic research and write a report. Said report was then submitted to the hearing examiner and then I needed to defend my conclusions in an adversarial setting in front of a hearing examiner with another expert on the other side and attorneys asking questions. Yikes!

The first thing I did was I pulled up a LiDAR image of the area. The creek channel was reasonably apparent as was the valley the creek was situated within and it looked like old channels or terraces were present. The LiDAR is a bit rough due to thick tree cover along areas of the creek. The lumpy areas in the image are forested and the trees interfere with the number of laser shots that reach the ground, particularly if the trees are thick evergreens.

Creek LiDAR image with my markup of channel migration line
Numbers are discussed below
The dark blue line is my interpretation of the channel migration line

The methodology typically utilized for delineating CMZs is to identify historic migration zones, avulsion hazard zones, erosion hazard zones and areas that are disconnected from migration. Rapp and Abbe (2003) developed a framework for delineating CMZs for Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State Department of Ecology. Similar approaches have been utilized by Klowan (2004) and Perkins (2006) for rivers in Jefferson County, Washington 

Historic migration zones can be identified using historic aerial photographs or surveys. With much of the creek tree covered seeing the creek in historic aerial photographs was a bit challenging. It is even difficult to discern the creek location in the most recent aerial photograph in the vicinity of the area I was looking. However, upstream of the subject property, historic photographs do indicate that creek had migrated within the historic period. Rectifying and measuring these migrations can be very important in establishing migration distances if one has the time and budget. No such luck on this project, but the historic photograph review indicated that this creek did have a record of meandering about in its valley.

1950 aerial showing an old cut-off meander on upper right 

1961 aerial - note old cut-off meander on right

1975 aerial of same area with cut-off having faded after being farmed for years

1961 aerial - note old cut-off channel to left of trees 

1995 aerial - note old cut-off channel no longer as evident

So I had a LiDAR image showing that migration was certainly a possibility and had taken place in the past and I had historic aerials indicating past channel movement within the past century had taken place along the creek. I also had a county flood hazard map showing potential 100-year flood areas along the creek.

Part of a day in the field determining on the ground conditions with LiDAR, aerials and flood map in hand was the next step. It turns out this creek had a variety of channel migration features to consider. I numbered the features on the LiDAR and discussed the channel migration conditions for each location.

Area 1 (see LiDAR map above) is located upstream of the subject property but is a location where past erosion has taken place and where the creek is flowing directly into the bank at a nearly 90 degree angle. The LiDAR image indicates that a former channel was located to the west of this sharp bend. If the creek erodes through the bank this location is a potential avulsion point and the creek would follow the low ground to the west along the base of the slope to the upland area. Sure enough, after smashing through the blackberry brambles, I observed that the bank has clearly been eroded.

Area 2 would be subject to rapid erosion if an avulsion takes place in the low area upstream at Area 1. Area 2 is located along a low bank area on the northeast portion of the property. It appears that this area is subject to periodic flooding with overbank silt and fine sand deposits. However, most of this area was not flooded this past winter. Most of the recent erosion along Area 2 has been located on the opposite bank where upland slopes have been eroded, but a few spot locations of erosion are evident on the subject property in this area. It appears that this low bank is susceptible to erosion from large trees on the opposite bank falling into the creek and defecting flow against the bank.

Bank edge collapse along Area 2

Area 3 is an area of steep upland that has been undergoing recent active erosion. This area is outside of any historic or prehistoric channel area and the upland is well above flood levels but is actively being eroded as the channel migrates toward and undermines the bank area. This erosion hazard area and the resulting erosion and geotechnical setback would establish the CMZ back behind the steep slope well outside of the flood zone or ordinary high water mark.

High bank erosion. Bank consists of recessional glacial outwash sand and gravel

Area 4 is immediately downstream of the eroding high bank. This area appears to be flooded on a frequent basis and has a flood channel along the base of the high bank slope where some erosion has taken place, but the main channel is not located along the base of the high bank slope. The OHWM is located at the base of the upland slope in this area. The proposed Zone A flood zone does not include this area. The elevation of this area may not have been accurately picked up by the LiDAR.

Overbank flood channel along base of slope causes periodic erosion

Area 5 is a low bank area that is primarily brush and grass covered. A string of wetlands is located along the northwestern and western edge of this area at the base of the slope. The low spots with wetlands appear to be related to a partially filled in former channel. Flooding by the creek has deposited sediment in this area and over time has partially filled in the old channel. Area 5 is located on the outside bend in the creek. Recent erosion areas are present along parts of this bank.

Gravel bar downstream is directing the current towards the right bank

Undermined bank

Determining the potential for channel migration relies on geologic observations and interpretation and evaluation of overall stream processes taking place currently and projecting into the future. There is always a degree of uncertainty in this type of analyses. A very large significant flood event, major influx of sediment, or formation of log jams may alter conditions and cause very rapid channel migration even where little change had taken place historically. As observed on the site and in the vicinity, areas of upland that are outside of any previous channel area and that are well above the flood area are being eroded and should be considered to be within a projected channel migration area.

One final note. A lot of conditions that are current should not be considered as future conditions. Issues in particular come to mind regarding this creek: 1) a significant number of trees have been planted and maintained along the creek banks and over time some of these trees will fall into the creek diverting water against stream banks, 2) the head waters area of this stream has undergone some residential development and peak flows have been increasing, 3) beaver activity that has been greatly diminished for well over a century may increase as beavers recolonize the area.

Palouse Falls - A Remarkable Falls in a Remarkable Setting

Palouse Falls deep in a canyon carved through multiple layers of flood basalts.

John D'Onofrio did a write up on Palouse Falls in the Cascadia Weekly a_visit_to_palouse_falls. Palouse Falls is one of Washington State's true wonders. With the Cascade Range and the famous water falls of the Columbia River Gorge, Palouse Falls in the heart of one of the driest and hottest parts of the state is a remarkable outlier that is often forgotten. The waterfall alone is a wonder, but the setting and the story behind the landscape is a wonder as well.

The Palouse River flows from the moister and higher lands of Idaho and flows through the Palouse of Washington State. The Palouse is a large area of rolling hills constructed from a few million years of wind blown silt accumulations. The Palouse is a sea of wind swept wave-like hills with very deep, fertile soil. This soil overlays the Columbia River Basalts, one of the largest accumulations of basalts in the world.

Palouse with forest and prairie on steep slope between fields of winter wheat

Drier part of the Palouse showing hills constructed from wind blown silt

Massive silt typical of the Palouse area

The Palouse River previously flowed in a valley through the present day towns of Washtucna, Kahlotus and Connell and on to the Columbia River. However, during one of the great Missoula Floods, flood waters filled its entire valley with water spilling southward at numerous locations carving deep into fracture joints in the underlying bedrock of the Columbia River Basalts as the water headed towards the Snake River Canyon  (Previous Post on Devils Canyon). At a bend in the Palouse Valley this erosion was deep enough into one of the joints that after the flood was over the Palouse River continued flowing down this overflow route within a deep narrow bedrock gorge and the former river valley was left nearly dry with the exception of a few seasonal ponds.

Google Earth image of lower Palouse River
Dashed blue lines bracket the Missoula Flood corridor
Dashed blue arrows show former river route 

Former Palouse River valley near Kahlotus

As the Palouse River flows westward through the Palouse, it enters into an area of drier and drier climate. The area near Palouse Falls is one of the driest and hottest areas in the state with rainfall under 10 inches per year and very high summer temperatures that routinely pass 100 degrees. The river is in such a straight deep notch within the joint fracture, that unless you know the canyon is there it can not be seen until essentially reaching the canyon's shear edge. Note in the satellite image there are a number of other slots that were carved into the regional joint pattern which are now dry canyons. The uplands around the canyon have been stripped of soil from the Missoula Flood and the areas where the soil has not been stripped are just barely moist enough not to be active dune areas (there are active dunes a few miles to the southwest).

Road heading to Palouse Falls

This is a great time to visit the falls as the falls are in high water flow from snow melt in the mountains to the east. Jon D'Onofrio added a nice touch to his article, "We headed south out of the lonely hamlet of Washtucna through rolling hills that looked like a Lisa McShane painting and reached Palouse Falls State Park in the late afternoon". Indeed a number of Lisa's paintings are from that very area and she once lived in the now dry former Palouse River valley.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Drumlin Ridges on Mountainside

East side of Stewart Mountain from the South Fork Nooksack Valley

I took the picture above while investigating a riparian area on the South Fork Nooksack River. I liked the way the sun was lighting up the tops of the trees not only on the stand of poplars but on the slope behind. The step-like ridges on the mountain slope are glacial carved drumlin features on the side slope of the valley. Normally they are difficult to discern, but with light just right as when this picture was taken I can make out nine drumlin ridges formed by passage of ice from the right to the left.

LiDAR view of area. Image is approximately 2 miles across.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beavers in the Anthropocene

Longest beaver dam in world, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada

The fur trade began in Washington State in the 1700s when initially English ships soon followed by Russians, Spanish, and later Americans collected sea otter pelts along the coast for trade with China. Inland fur trading that had begun to the east progressed westward via river routes reaching what is now Washington State in the early 1800s. Fur trading posts established near the coast connected with the river routes and the river trade network. This era of fur trading had profound effects on the economics of the area and ultimately shaped the history and landscape of what is now called Washington State.

The rate of taking of furs was never remotely sustainable. For example the sea otter was nearly driven to extinction. Inland fur bearing animals did not fair much better. The Hudson Bay Company which ultimately developed as the dominant company may have developed some sense that fur trapping needed to be done in a manner that would not trap out the resource. However, with American encroachment and concerns that furs were attracting Americans, the Hudson Bay Company began an aggressive trapping approach to clear out furs that were attracting American interest in the hope of stemming the tide of American settlement in the Pacific Northwest.

The result was vast riparian areas devoid of beavers. As a consequence, the stream processes we observe today may not correlate well with the geomorphic features observed. I remind myself that beavers might once have been present in a stream system I am working on. And in trying to project into the future it is important that the possibility of future beaver activity could result in much different stream behavior than that currently observed.

Part of living in the Anthropocene is recognizing that human impacts on the geomorphic processes are not always by direct action. In addition, we need to recognize we are not the only species that impacts geomorphic processes.

Gloomy Weather Antidote

Thinking sunshine

It has been a remarkable spring in western Washington. Cliff Mass applied the barbecue index to our spring weather and determined it has been our worst spring (as measured by the index) ever coldest-spring-confirmed-with-barbecue-index. Even with early sunrise it is very dim this morning. I changed my computer screen background to the image above to brighten up the gloom. Silver Fox's write up and pictures on cross bedding HERE and Dana's bits on Arizona sediments HERE and HERE make for thoughts of sunnier climes to the south.

A brief note on turkey vultures - I have seen lots more vultures over the past few years and despite the cold and wet I observed several a couple of weeks ago while out on Orcas Island. This particular bird is enjoying the high plains of New Mexico during a very bad drought a few years ago.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Everson-Sumas Overflow

Overflow flood ways on the Mississippi River are in the news as flood waters are directed into overflow routes to ease flooding at other sites. A natural overflow route is located in northwest Whatcom on the Nooksack River. During large floods, part of the Nooksack River spills into the much smaller Sumas River and flows north into Canada and on to the Fraser River. 

Nooksack River with overflow route shown by the long arrow directed to the northwest

Nooksack River overflow route between the two small towns of Everson and Nooksack

The Canadians on the north side of the border are never very thrilled with part of the Nooksack River flooding the Sumas Valley which is a former lake bed so the flood waters cover a large area. The border town of Sumas is deeply flooded as well during these big floods.

The area where flood waters exit the Nooksack has been reduced by a levee in Everson. That levy combined with the widening of the bridge span has reduced frequency of flooding upstream of Everson, but may be causing more frequent downstream flooding. A good reason for coordinating flood plans and development planning.

Bridge at Everson and the Nooksack River

Everson Levee

The overflow route has been planned for flood water including flow. The road between Everson has been designed to be overtopped by flowing water.

Everson-Sumas overflow route looking east. Flood water approaches from the right. 

Over flow route looking west. The shoulder slope is paved so road shoulder is not eroded.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

WA Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Fire District, Upholding Lone Council Member

Last Friday the Washington State Supreme Court issued a decision regarding an appeal filed by Fire District 21 in Whatcom County. The Court ruled that development projects should have been denied by the county because the Fire District had determined that it could not serve the projects and maintain the level of service (response times) they had determined A number of development projects were proposed within the Fire District service area and the fire district would not issue a service letter. The district claimed that they could not maintain an adequate level of service in the district if the development projects went forward.

The County approved the developments anyway stating that, "on a more likely than not basis, that the Fire District will be able to continue to provide an adequate level of fire protection and emergency response services to the district, even with significant new growth, based on the currently authorized funding mechanisms available to the Fire District and increased taxes and fees paid by the new growth."

The County approval of the development was granted despite the county's own code which states, "No subdivision, commercial development or conditional uses shall be approved without a written finding that: (1) All providers of water, sewage disposal, schools, and fire protection serving the development have issued a letter that adequate capacity exists or arrangements have been made to provide adequate services for development, and (2) No county facilities will be reduced below applicable levels of service as a result of the development."

Goal 12 of Washington State's Growth Management Act. "(12) Public facilities and services. Ensure that those public facilities and services necessary to support development shall be adequate to serve the development at the time the development is available for occupancy and use without decreasing current service levels below locally established minimum standards."

The Washington State Supreme Court ruling may impact the direction of growth in Washington State toward areas where efficient delivery of service is more readily achieved and to areas where developers are willing to cover the costs that the development will have on a service provider. There is plenty of case law that service providers can not be arbitrary and capricious in denial of service as foot noted in the Court decision. An interesting take on the ruling and possible consequences by Tada Lisielius of GordonDerr is HERE.

On a personal note I heard the initial appeal of one the County approvals in 2007. It is nice after standing alone against the Hearing Examiner, County Planning Department, County attorney and my fellow council members to have the Washington State Supreme Court see things the same way I saw them.