Liberty Bay is becoming shallower | Words from the Waterfront

POULSBO — The Port of Poulsbo commissioner meeting agenda now carries an ongoing item: Silt/Storm Water Runoff. Why? Liberty Bay is filling in.

The Dogfish Creek mudflats are extending, as are the flats off of Johnson Creek. The overall depth of the bay is decreasing. Slips at the Port of Poulsbo marina that were once useable for deep-draft boats are now only usable by shallow-draft. Some sit empty most of the year due to lack of depth.

Even the rowing shells are finding it difficult at extreme lows to use their launch dock at the port without damaging their shells. The port’s floating office now settles onto the bottom during some low tides.

Natural storm erosion along feeder creeks and banks has occurred since the geological formation of Liberty Bay, but according to one major study, upland urban development has substantially increased the amount of sediment to enter our creeks and stormwater runoffs that flow into the bay.

In 2006, Liberty Bay was selected as a study site to examine the effects of urbanization. About one-half of the Liberty Bay watershed was forested 12 years ago. The remainder consisted of urban and rural residential neighborhoods, commercial and light industrial centers, agricultural land, tribal land, and the naval base on Keyport peninsula.

It was hoped that the results of the study would help decision-makers balance the natural resource needs of human populations and the nearshore ecosystem. Since 2006, we have experienced rapid urban growth in greater Poulsbo.

Let’s put aside the ill-effects of pollutants contained in the sediment and stormwater runoff, and merely look at the depth issues, usage and financial ramifications.

Recently, there was a discussion between the City of Poulsbo and the Port about the possibility of placing a mooring buoy off the town for the visiting cruise ships to utilize. Not enough depth.

For the last several years, the Port has been planning on replacing the failing breakwater and designing it to accommodate larger visiting vessels, including allowing the cruise ships to tie up there. Not enough depth.

Poulsbo has long been a boaters destination, however, due to the filling in of the bay, fewer deep-draft vessels can tie up in guest moorage as many of the slips are too shallow.

Deep draft boats have to carefully watch the tidal depths in order to access the fuel dock and pump-out station. Visiting boaters who anchor out, patronizing the city businesses and restaurants by dinghy, are being pushed farther and farther away from downtown, making it less appealing to visit by dinghy.

All of this has financial ramifications to the Port, businesses in downtown, as well as property owners around the bay. If this continues, which it will, in a few short decades what was once a nice bay, will be predominately mudflats and extreme shallow waters. Commissioner Jonothan Saunders brought up the issue at the May 3 port meeting.

“It’s getting worse,” he said, “because of runoff from Dogfish Creek and this stormwater drain right here. The depth is getting worse and worse because of all the development around here. That’s a fact. We are about to endeavor a $4 million to $8 million dollar capital improvement project which may have a life-span because of that, making this a small boat marina in 20-30 years. This is something we need to think about. Are we in for the short gain, 10 to 15 years? Because in 20 to 30 years, this is going to be mudflats if this continues.”

The commissioners must now decide upon the feasibility of the planned capital improvement projects that were developed by the previous commission while keeping in mind their fiscal responsibility to taxpayers.

The port is still unhesitatingly replacing the failing creosote piling breakwater with an environmentally-friendly floating breakwater, allowing more water flow, which will possibly help slow the sediment build-up within the marina. But it will not solve the overriding issue: upland urban development causing increased sedimentation above and beyond the normal, natural process.

So what is the solution?

Development is going to continue, risking further increased sediment flow down the creeks and storm drains. Possibly, there is something that can be done to mitigate or greatly reduce the sediment entering the creeks and storm drains that has not yet been implemented. Dredging is an option, although getting the permissions is nearly impossible due to ecological restraints.

If dredging is permitted, it likely would only be allowed where a previous maintenance permit had been issued in the 1970s for the guest docks. This would not solve the issue the port is facing as the main revenue for the Port District is on the permanent moorage side of the marina.

It is a complex, long-term problem that should worry not only the Port of Poulsbo, but the City of Poulsbo, the downtown businesses, the waterfront property owners and all those who enjoy the waters of Liberty Bay.

— Pamela Benson, SV Spirit of Freedom, C Dock, Port of Poulsbo, Poulsbo Boaters Association.