It’s a brisk December afternoon, but the rain is withholding.
Members of the San Juan County Public Works and Environmental Protection Departments gather behind new guardrails at the upgraded intersection of Enchanted Forest Road and West Beach Road, looking down on an ambling creek with hopes it will become passable for native cutthroat trout who migrate between ecosystems here.
“Is that white cedar or red cedar?” County Commissioner Rick Hughes asks Kendra Smith, the SJC Environmental Resources Manager who holds a long garland in her hands.
“It’s red cedar,” Smith replies, revealing the swathe will be the “ribbon” cut across the creekbed at the foot of the new culvert to celebrate the completion of a challenging, 20-year enterprise.
After 11 weeks of construction, the West Beach County Road Project is complete. According to Jacob Heinen, lead county technician and designer on the job, the new aluminum culvert and mechanically stabilized earth wall shouldn’t need to be replaced for roughly 75 years.
“So many factors came together to influence this project — the trees, the fish, the roadway, the culvert — all of which are competing interests, not very complimentary when you try to put them all together in an economical and viable project,” said County Engineer Colin Huntemer on Dec. 11. “So many people over the years have picked this project up and put it down. Heinen picked it up and refused to put it down before it was built. After 20 years, seeing it finally constructed, I don’t feel like this was a compromise on any front, and is a project we can be proud of.”
Ground broke in early September with the installation of a creek diversion system, which included upstream and down-stream check dams, silt fence and a bypass pump. Excavators were brought to the site to remove the existing roadway embankment. Nearly 5,000 cubic yards of material was removed during excavation, including a portion of the original timber trestle log over the headwall; dirt and clay surrounding the native streambed; an old car and a “suspicious number of empty beer bottles” were also unearthed.
Mike Carlson of San Juan Island, the contractor on the project, realigned West Beach Creek by building a rockery to define the new stream channel and installing a 19-foot tall, bottomless, aluminum culvert to replace the previous, 5-foot corroded one. A Hilfiker MSE wall, composed of interlocking galvanized welded-wire mats, with filter fabric to contain the roadway fill and topsoil, was then constructed on top of the new culvert.
“What we needed to compliment the bold design was a bold contractor. Mike [Carlson] has been digging holes like this one for years,” Huntemer said.
Carlson and his team worked to protect and preserve the surrounding old-growth cedar trees. The smaller felled trees were stockpiled on-site and reused as habitat features within West Beach Creek. Members of the Washington Conservation Core and Environmental Protections Deptartment planted 500 native plants along the creek bed in disturbed areas, including vine maple, indian plum, cedar and snowberry.
“We did our best to design an excavation plan that would give these trees a decent chance at surviving the construction activity while still allowing us to dig down past the elevation of the creek,” Heinen said. “Hats off to Brandon Baney and Kyle Whampler (Carlson’s operators for the project) who did a great job artfully excavating around the trees.”
Smith commented, “It was a challenging project, the creek corner was tight, it had a lot of big bold trees surrounding it. The bottom of the creek was very wet, almost like a bog, being able to come up with a design that could hold and not sink into the mud was part of the design challenge and still having a creek that was good and passable for fish. It took a long time to get it right due to all of those dynamics. The surrounding area will heal itself up nicely. I’m hoping for good overhanging cover. We’ll keep checking the pools for chum or trout and hoping for restoration.”
According to Heinen, Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration contributed $75,000 to the project and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributed $263,000. The remainder of the $630,000 needed for completion came from county funds.