Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Overstocked Forest and Fire

I know just enough about wildfire and land management to know I don't know much. Its complicated stuff. Lots of factors that cause me to be always a bit skeptical whenever I read anything regarding fires in areas I do not know well. Fire and its role on the landscape is far from simple. Any given fire is a mix of causes. 

I had a traverse through a forest stand on the east slopes of the Cascades through a thick stand of fir and pine with no underbrush. Perfect fuel for an explosive fire if a one were to reach the slope under the right weather conditions.

The slope in question was adjacent to a forest service road and some fire wood cutting had been taking place as many of the trees were dead.

The slope was a north facing slope and hence moister with a shorter period of being dry enough to burn. The opposite slope of the valley, a south facing slope, was mostly treeless and rocky scree - too dry for trees at all. At the top of the south slope were clusters of pine and fir and larch. Most of the large trees had burn marks around their bases.

Fire is a routine event on the east slopes of the Cascades, but a few hundred yards and various slope angles make a big difference in the results. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Notes on Wood Waste

Wood by itself is just part of the environment; however, large quantities of wood waste piled up along the shore or accumulated within water way sediments can lead to anoxic conditions as the wood decays. The anoxic conditions in areas where anoxic conditions would otherwise not be present can have an obvious impact on the biotic environment. Once the pile of decaying material goes anaerobic, the chemistry of the water and soils in the vicinity is going to be significantly altered. Oxidized metals in the soil have the oxygen stripped off and become mobile. 

The decay process in landfills that leads to anaerobic conditions cause landfills to generate methane gas, hydrogen sulfide gas and production of leachate (leachate-iron-stains-in-ditch)

While piles of wood and organic matter leading to leachate and methane off gassing can and does occur naturally, wood waste is a legacy issue in many Washington waterways. Lots of wood material piled up around saw mills, paper mills and log storage areas. Due to the potential for this old wood waste to cause harm, the Washington State Department of Ecology has developed a guidance for wood waste assessment and cleanup (Ecology 2013) 

There is some difficulty in determining the difference between wood waste and natural wood or figuring out where the source of the wood waste came from (who to blame). For some sites such as the former Scott Paper Mill in Anacortes the answer is fairly straight forward. 

Former Scott Paper Mill, Anacortes

Wood waste in tidal zone (Ecology)  

Leachate seep in tidal zone (Ecology)

The north shore of Bellingham Bay poses a bit of a different problem. Large swaths of fine woody debris cover the upper beach - and it has a history of being moved around as the shoreline in this area is dynamic with the interaction of the Nooksack River. Where did all this material come from? 

Drifts of fine woody debris, Bellingham Bay shore

Compact mat of woody material along eroding shore.
Willow trees on this shore reach are holding some of the wood in place 

Fine grained woody material

I have no answers to this problem. I have a vague understanding that others have had a go at trying to solve the question of where the woody material came from. Perhaps a case of multiple working hypothesis. There is also a question as to what harm the material may be causing. Bellingham Bay has some health issues which have been a bit perplexing and wood may be a part of the problem.

Oblique shore pictures may provide some clues but nothing definitive.

2005 shore view (Ecology)
Note dark woody debris on the right along shore is same as pictures above.
Nooksack River on left is playing a role in the erosion rate at the shore.
Note dirt road to shore.

1977 view of same shore reach only a broader view (Ecology)

There is a bit of wood waste history in the image above and the one below. Within the near acute angle intersection at the airport note the trees in the above 1977 image. In the next image from 2000, the trees are gone. Georgia Pacific operated a wood waste landfill at the site from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.   

2000 view of shore reach and Bellingham Airport (Ecology)

The wood waste landfill at the airport points to a change in how mill handled wood waste. Initially burning the wood was a common practice. But with the Clean Air Act starting in the 1970s another solution was needed for the wood waste. Some could still be burned in better designed, cleaner boiler furnaces, but these were limited to the types of wood that could be fed into the furnace. Another solution was to land fill the wood waste such as Georgia Pacific did in the Bellingham area. GP had two wood waste landfills with some rumors about other smaller sites and even a rumor that some of the material was hauled out into the bay and dumped. The window of time when the mill was transitioning from burning waste to landfilling is one of those potential sources of uncertainty. 

Of course the other issues is that there were prior to GP other mills on Bellingham Bay and currents and wave movement could also float material in from elsewhere.  And then there is also the river itself. Wood waste from up river may have been a contributor. And there is certainly a large volume of natural wood coming down the river.   

Nooksack delta with channel filled with wood

Monday, July 20, 2015

Some Healthy Sea Stars

I spotted a cluster of sea stars under the edge of this glacial erratic boulder on the shore below Birch Point in Whatcom County.       


Typically this would not be a big deal; however, a virus has been decimating the sea star population along the west coast including in Whatcom County. These stars appeared be free of the virus, but the sea star wasting syndrome was reported on a site a bit north of here and on the next point south at Point Whitehorn.

An interactive map showing the documented sites of sea star wasting syndrome and the presence or absence of the stars or the illness can be found at piscoweb.org/marine1/seastardisease.html. The term syndrome was due to the unknown cause of the wasting of the stars. There was some deep concerns about the ecology as the die off was huge and the broad implications of the loss of this predator species was very uncertain. But late last year the cause of the illness was reported to be isolated and is apparently caused by a virus that has been around for a long while (Hewson and others, 2014). These adult survivors and reported young stars elsewhere are good news for sea star population comebacks.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Coal Mining Deaths in Washington

I have previously posted bits about coal mining in Whatcom County. This post is a bit of a revisit of the Glen Echo Mine (coal-in-whatcom-county-glen-echo-mine) based on new information passed onto me. George already corrected one of my assumptions and Gomer informed me that indeed the main building in the image was a rendering plant that was built on the site after the mine had closed.
Former rendering plant near Glen Echo Mine

1960s aerial of Anderson Creek and former mine site

Gomer Owens indicated that the coal wash site was located just above the letter r in creek. He also pointed out the structure below the letter o in Anderson was a home. A home he lived in while his father was foreman at the mine. He also told me about the portal collapse in 1945 and that his father was there and was working on the collapse when the mine inspector, a man named Walsh, sent his father home as he was tired and had worked too long. A second collapse then took place and Mr. Walsh was killed.

Subsequently I found a list of all mine fatalities in Washington State from 1885 - 1960 (denverlibrary.org/sites/history/files/WAfatal1885-1960.pdf). W. Walsh was killed at the Glen Echo Mine on July 21, 1945.  Paul Cooper was also killed in the same accident. It was not the first fatal accident at Glen Echo; Willam Van Etten was killed in the mine on June 1, 1933.

Other Mine Fatalities in Whatcom County:

Blue Canyon

Blue Canyon coal facility at south end of Lake Whatcom
This image was apparently before the rail line was extended to the mine 

I already knew about the horrific mine explosion at the Blue Canyon Mine on the south end of Lake Whatcom that killed 21 miners on April 8, 1895. Blue Canyon was the deadliest mine in Whatcom County. In addition to the 21 fatalities in the 1895 event, five other miners were killed at Blue Canyon.

The Bellingham Mine

1950 aerial view of Bellingham Mine entrance
Bellingham Country Club is to the north

The Bellingham Mine (when-bellingham-had-coal-piles) entrance was located in Northwest Bellingham at what is now the Albertsons shopping center.

There was no single accident that killed a lot of miners at this mine, but over its years of operation 13 miners died.

All told the mine fatality list for Washington State lists approximately 1,100 miners having died. Scrolling down the list of mine names shows that all of the mines were coal mines. Some of the mine names not familiar to me are old mine sites with towns that have now disappeared. A reminder that Washington State had several coal mining districts in the early 1900s.

Coal faded to essentially nothing in Washington State as trains began to switch to diesel fuel and natural gas, oil and hydroelectic power replaced coal for home heating. One area coal hung on in Washington was in the Centralia area with strip mining the coal and an adjacent coal powered electric power plant. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Atmospheric Pictures

A bit ago I noted the very unhealthy air that covered northwest Washington (a-bad-air-night-in-northwest-washington). I took a picture of the disappearing sun on what was otherwise a cloudless day. The air got progressively worse from the fires in BC.

I took some other atmospheric pictures while heading to the San Juan Islands for some work.

Ground fog on the Skagit Flats south of Highway 20

Sunrise over the Anacortes refineries with Mount Baker

Early light and Peavine Pass between Blakely Island and Obstruction Island

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Lummi Tidelands

On a trip to Sandy Point I took a walk out onto the broad tide flats of Lummi Bay. The tide was far out during my visit and the water was perhaps a mile distant. The day was hot and with the dark silt and little wind it was a toasty walk - a rather different experience compared to the typical tideland walks on the cool shores of Washington.

The broad tide lands are part of the Lummi Nation Reservation. President Grant issued an Executive Order expanding the Lummi Reservation in 1873 to include all the tidelands extending to the "low-water mark on the shore of the Gulf of Georgia". The idea was that the broad tide flats were very much a part of the Lummi's homeland. Walking out on the tide flats of Lummi Bay is a lesson that President Grant's Executive Order was no small thing - the tideland areas cover miles of tideland.

View south across the Lummi Bay tideland to Lummi Island
The southern part of Sandy Point is on the right

View west to Sandy Point Spit with
Orcas Island and Mount Constitution in the distance

View east towards the mainland

There have been numerous court cases associated with the Lummi tidelands and trespass, encroachment and ownership. In recent years there were extended federal cases at Sandy Point where shore defense works were built (US v Milner and Nicholson). The short story is that the U.S. government owns the tidelands in trust for the tribe and as a trustee has defended that ownership and essentially won every time. The U.S. v Milner case has an interesting discussion on tide land boundaries that starts with:  "The problem of riparian and littoral property boundaries is a recurring and difficult issue. These disputes can be especially complicated where the land borders tidal waters, because the waters fluctuate dramatically and because private title claims often have to be balanced against federal and state interests in the ownership and use of the submerged lands." Milner and neighbors were dealing the U.S. Government acting as a trustee and not with the State of Washington or a private tide land owner. An interesting read for shoreline policy and law wonks. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Wave-cut Terraces at Semiahmoo Peninsula

On a trip out to Semiahmoo Peninsula I noted the step-wise slope up a road on the peninsula. I knew from previous work in the area as well as LiDAR imagery that the area had been submerged below sea level during the late stages of the last glacial period as the ice mass retreated from the area. The mass of glacial ice, as much as 6,000 feet thick in this area, had pressed the local land surface downward hundreds of feet. As the land surface rebounded from the mass of ice and emerged from below the sea surface. Wave action on the emerging land surface left faint wave cut terraces on the landscape. For the most part these features are very hard to see. But the road view below appeared to be a nice example.   

Step-like slope of wave cut terraces
Selder Road, Birch Bay
The wave worked soils  also show up in aerial views as subtle differences in the soils. The soils in the area are dominantly silt/clay drift, but where thin beach deposits of gravel have been left, the drainage difference is reflected in the plant growth depending on the time of year. 

I've put up a few posts on wave cut terraces in the San Juan Islands with LiDAR imagery:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Central Washington Ice Margin: Haystack Rocks South of Highway 2

Haystack rock south of Highway 2 on the Waterville Plateau
This large boulder marks the approximate southernmost reach of glacial ice.

The farthest south extent of the continental ice in central Washington during the ice age was the Okanogan ice lobe. The ice flowed down the Okanogan valley blocked the Columbia River and extended south across the Waterville Plateau.

This ice lobe and its associated blockage of the Columbia River has led to a cluster of five landforms that have been listed as National Natural Landmarks on or at the edges of the Waterville Plateau. One of those features is the huge deflation gravel bar in Mosses Coulee crossed by Highway 2 west of the picture above (huge-deflation-bar-at-moses-coulee).

Another National Natural Landmark is the Withrow Moraine and Jameson Lake Drumlin Field. The moraine marks the former edge of the ice lobe across the Waterville Plateau. For the most part the best place to see the moraine is to take a road north to Jameson Lake or do a loop north of Highway 2 to Mansfield and thus cross the main moraine ridges of boulders and debris.

The haystack rocks south of Highway 2 indicate that the ice at least for a short time extended south of Highway 2 perhaps a mile or two at most.

Dashed red lines mark approximate moraine lines
Some of the moraines are subtle such at the one south of Highway 2


Monday, July 6, 2015

Still unhealthy air, but improved

Still well within the unhealthy range for fine particulates but an improvement versus the peak conditions last night a-bad-air-night-in-northwest-Washington.

A Bad Air Night in Northwest Washington (Bellingham)

The smoke from fires in BC has descended on parts of northwest Washington. Bellingham's air is flat out unhealthy - a very unusual circumstance. It was poor all day on July 5 but this evening it progressively got worse and is on the border of unhealthy for any activity.

Air quality stations and status of air health can be found here: https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/enviwa/.

Plot of the Yew Street station:

One can see the July 4 fireworks peak and the rapid drop off. Slightly after noon the smoke which was already present and noticeable began to get worse and has continued all evening. Close to real time data can be found here: http://www.nwcleanair.org/airQuality/current.asp


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Charter Review: Whatcomcentric (but with broader State implications) and Wonky

Whatcom County's Charter Review Commission is winding down their review of the Whatcom County Charter (Charter Commission) with a bit of a rush due to the fact that the County Council appears to be poised to put forward some of their own amendments to the County Charter.

Whatcom County is a home rule county under the State Constitution. This allows the County to have some flexibility as to how the county government is structured through a home rule charter. Otherwise Washington State Counties are governed with a set number of elected officials with the 3 County Commissioners charged with running both the County legislative branch and administration. King, Pierce, Snohomish, Clallam, San Juan and most recently Clark are also home rule counties with charters. All the home rule counties are set up a bit differently mrsc.org/Governance/Forms-of-Government-and-Organization.

Whatcom's Charter calls for a periodic review of the Charter by a Charter Review Commission. The Commission is elected every 10 years with 5 members elected from each district. The Commission can then propose amendments to the County Charter that must be approved by the voters. There is a question regarding if this approach is consistent with the State Constitution on a couple of grounds - more on that later.

This year's review has been a bit bumpy because the Charter Commission majority is very out of step with the current Council. This is in part due to the Commission being elected by district only voting while the council reflects the majority of County voters having been elected by county-wide voting. The split is result of the way the districts were drawn up with District 1 being overwhelming Democrat leaning and the other 2 leaning Republican.

That background provided, what follows is a brief take on the Charter Commissions proposed amendments and the four proposed amendments up for hearing by the Council.

Charter Agenda with list of amendments

Charter Commission 1: District Only Voting

This is the partisan part of the package. The Charter Commission majority are Republicans and they can do math. By going to district only voting, they can pull off minority rule for the elections of county council. District 1 under district only voting will be two Democrats as that district is overwhelming Democrat. District 2 will be 2 Republicans as it leans much towards Republicans although not so much as District 1 leans Democrat. District 3 leans Republican by a little and will likely be 2 Republicans as well at least in the near term. The results of district only voting can be seen in the Charter Commission election itself. District 1 all Democrats, District 2 all Republicans and District 3 four Republicans and one Democrat. A majority of Commission members have been fairly clear that main purpose behind this scheme is overcoming the majority voting that has led to the Council currently being 6 Democrats (one was appointed) and one independent. The last council election saw Democrats sweep Republican candidates.

One of the problems with this proposal beyond the minority rule motivation is the County has only three districts and the way the current districts are drawn is a bit off for meeting State law on district boundaries. This was never much of a problem since council (and by the way Port and Public Utility District) were elected county-wide. But with Bellingham carved up by three districts the district lines should be redrawn to meet state rules - a difficult task with only three districts. None of that matters though if your goal is to accomplish minority rule.

Charter Commission 2: Change of ballot measure word limit from 20 to 40

This is a modest change to rules governing ballot measure descriptions for county initiatives and received broad commission support.

Charter Commission 3: Limits Council Charter Amendment Proposals

This amendment is an effort to try to prevent the County Council from putting forward amendments that would undo any of the charter amendments that might pass. A bit of history: the last charter review put forward an amendment for district only voting for council. That amendment passed. The County Council put forward an amendment in 2007 calling for county-wide election of council and that amendment passed. Hence, the Commission wants to prevent a replay of history. District-only voting sounds good to voters, but so does county-wide voting.

Full disclosure, I was on the County Council that voted to put county-wide voting on the ballot. My reasoning was that vote trades and swaps were likely to become a problem for governance, most county residences want all the council members to be concerned about their issues, and very few people have any idea what district they live in and who is their district representative.

A further problem with this proposal is that it is likely not consistent with the State Constitution as the Constitution is pretty clear that the authority of putting charter amendments to the voters lies with the county legislative body. (This constitutional provision calls into question the authority of the Charter Review Commission.)

Charter Commission 5: Reduce citizen Charter initiative signatures

This proposal is to reduce the number of signatures citizens need to gather to bring forward initiatives more in line with state initiative rules.

Charter Commission 6 and 18: Term Limits for Council and Executive

This would limit council and executive to three 4-year terms. Currently there are no limits.

Charter Commission 10: Limits Council Proposed Charter Amendments regarding council selection

This amendment has a similar goal as Number 4. It prevents Council from exerting its State Constitution granted authority to propose charter amendments and thus allows for maintaining the minority rule the Charter Commission hopes to accomplish with Amendment 1.

Charter Commission 13: Four parties in District Review Commission

The District Review Commission draws the election district boundaries in Whatcom County. This amendment would modify the makeup of the commission based the results of the last election.

Charter Commission 19: Proportional Voting for Council

This proposal failed to pass the Charter Review Commission by a 7-6-1 vote. If the absent member or the abstaining member had voted for it, the proposal would be moving forward. This would be a very different way of electing Council and is very different than the district-only voting scheme of Amendment 1. One of the concerns being raised about county-wide voting is that county-wide voting might limit diversity of view points. This approach would be an attempt to address that issue. The fact that it gained 7 positive votes shows that at least one Republican on the Commission (Ken Bell) saw past the raw minority rule scheme and thought that this approach would address the diversity of viewpoints.

Council Proposals

The County Council appears to be receptive to the idea of putting forward their own charter amendments and have thus far introduced four amendments for public hearing on July 7. This use of their State Constitutional authority has very much agitated the Republicans on the Charter Review Commission.

The Council proposals that the Council is considering are described below. I have heard rumors that there may be others brought forward.

Council: 5 District Proposal

This proposal would shift the County from the current 3 districts to 5 districts and thus would address the problematic issue of the current district boundaries and with more and smaller districts might also assure broader diversity on the Council.

Council: Per State Constitution Proposes Charter Amendments

This amendment simply points out that the State Constitution gives authority to submit amendments to the Charter to the council. There is no language in the State Constitution on home rule that even mentions Charter Review Commissions. The current process of having a Charter Review Commission put forward amendments is problematic constitutionally. In the past either no one noticed or the Commission did their job in a manner that there was no controversy so this issue never came up.

Council: Charter Review Commission Should be Elected County-wide

This amendment better matches how the election of a Commission would be more consistent with the Constitutional language regarding election of County Freeholders - the group that crafts the original charter in any county must be elected by county-wide voting. This amendment would also apply to the review Commission.

Council: Lowering Number of Signatures for Citizen Charter Proposals

This is a similar proposal to the Charter Commission Amendment 5.

Friday, July 3, 2015


Fireworks village

This year there is probably about as much anxiety regarding fireworks as any previous year. It is dry everywhere in Washington State. Relentless warmer than normal temperatures and almost no rain over the past two months.

Hopefully "safe and sane" will prevail.

Bellingham has restricted fireworks (Bellingham/2013-06-043.pdf) and Whatcom County has limited use of fireworks. The County ordinance received general support and I have been struck at how rapidly folks began following the law in Bellingham. A big change to the past when fireworks in Bellingham was like a week battle as far as noise. All the talk about the law being ignored has not head true - Bellinghamsters are generally law abiding after all. Given the dryness this is all good - and good for the dogs as well (although my dog is past being bothered as she is fairly deaf).

If you do use fireworks keep in mind the vegetation is very dry just about anywhere in Washington. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Huge Deflation Bar at Moses Coulee on Highway 2

Highway 2 east of Wenatchee crosses over the Waterville Plateau. At one point while crossing the plateau the road dips down into a cliff lined canyon - Moses Coulee. Moses Coulee was one of the major ice-age flood routes before the Grand Coulee captured all the flood waters in later floods.

I snapped this picture while heading southwest into the coulee as I headed down through the eastern cliff side of the coulee. The initial rise of the road out of coulee bottom ahead is the slope of a huge deflation gravel bar left behind by the ice-age floods. The coulee widens from north to south at this location and the bar formed due to the slight loss in energy.