Camano Island residents worry removing a dike for wildlife habitat could harm water

CAMANO ISLAND — Ralph Ferguson’s been a fighter since the 1960s, when ARCO wanted to build an oil refinery at Kayak Point.

Then came the fight against the state fisheries department in the 1970s over dredging in Port Susan.

Ferguson, who has lived on Camano Island since 1962, now is opposing a plan by Ducks Unlimited and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove a dike on Leque Island west of Stanwood in order to begin a chinook salmon and waterfowl habitat project there.

Ferguson, 75, and other members of the Juniper Beach Water District and Camano Water Systems Association believe allowing salt water from Skagit Bay to flow over Leque Island could contaminate the sole-source freshwater aquifers that feed their drinking water supplies.

“The state hasn’t looked around the corner,” Ferguson said. “This is a basic environmental issue, and we have a valid concern.”

The Snohomish County Farm Bureau and some area hunters also oppose the plan, which would turn about 150 acres of Leque Island’s century-old farmland into a tide-influenced estuary.

Even though it is not now farmed, this would take Leque Island out of farming forever, the bureau says. The salt water would create a slippery mess for children, elderly people and hunters with physical disabilities who want to use the island for recreation, Ferguson said.

The salmon and waterfowl habitat restoration project currently is stalled at the county level. The Snohomish County planning department hasn’t released the required permits because of questions over the balance of farmland and natural habitat.

Last week, the Island County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to the Snohomish County Council asking that Fish and Wildlife address the concerns of the Camano Island residents.

Included with the Island County letter was a copy of a hydrogeology report by the U.S. Geological Survey, which concluded that there is a possibility that groundwater from the mainland east of Camano Island could be flowing under Leque Island and recharging the aquifer under the northeast part of Camano.

While Island County supports salmon recovery projects, it is important that any impacts on drinking water supplies from seawater intrusion be checked out, wrote commissioners John Dean, Angie Homola and Helen Price Johnson.

Ducks Unlimited, a hunter’s group based in Vancouver, Wash., commissioned a study by a Redmond hydrology consultant that concluded that the Leque Island salmon and waterfowl project would not adversely affect the Camano Island groundwater resources. Among the stated reasons were that the discharge of fresh water from the Stillaguamish River keeps the salinity of the water in the project area lower than that of normal seawater, that the Camano aquifer is recharged by rainwater, and that Leque Island will be flooded for only a limited period of time during each tidal cycle.

Ferguson hotly contests the study, saying that Camano hardpan prevents rainwater from seeping down to the aquifer. He also said that any salt water in the flow of underground water would affect the drinking water and that tidal water stays put much longer.

Juniper Beach Water District can’t pay for its own study to prove what they suspect, said district president Kevin Plambeck.

“The Ducks Unlimited study threw a lot of data out there, but there was nothing specific to prove there is potential for salt water to contaminate our aquifer,” Plambeck said. “We don’t want to take a chance, and this seems like an oversight.”

The Ducks Unlimited study is all that the state needs to feel confident in proceeding with the Leque Island project, said lands agent Kye Iris at the Mill Creek office of Fish and Wildlife.

“I don’t know why we would need (another study),” Iris said. “There’s no way this restoration project could contaminate the (Camano Island) wells. There is absolutely no impact.”

In a letter last month to Plambeck, Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson said Camano’s groundwater won’t be harmed.

The area’s geology, aquifer type and location, existing channels, and fresh river water — and the surrounding bodies of salt water — all play a greater role in Camano’s water quality than the relatively small restoration project, Anderson said.

Ferguson plans to keep on fighting.

“If this ruins our water, we’d be looking at spending millions of dollars to pipe over water from off island,” Ferguson said. “The state needs to go the extra mile to protect good clean drinking water.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427, gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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