The Island Guardain
Locally Owned & Operated
360-378-4900 - PO Box 38, Friday Harbor, WA 98250
The Island Guardian is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists

$1,000,000.00 from tax payers. $1,000,000.00 handed out for a job never done.

Early in 2023 San Juan County contracted with an off-island construction company to fabricate a 100-foot-long fish passage on Orcas Island for one million dollars. Few of us know about the project.

After a comment period and meetings with the residents of Orcas Island, the project was canceled. The following comments from Mike Carlson and Russel Barsh give some insight into why the project was canceled.

Dear Cindy,
As you know, I spoke at the 3 minute Citizen Access time at the Orcas Center Council meeting yesterday. I was not as prepared to speak as I should have been and I’m sorry that you had to interrupt me while I was talking and then cut me off abruptly when my 3 minutes expired. I will try to do better next time.

As I mentioned when I spoke, our company was one of the bidders. Therefore I have a very detailed grasp of how that project has been designed and just how difficult it will be for any contractor to build it. In addition, our company built the West Beach Culvert Replacement in 2019. I am quite qualified to offer perspectives that you could benefit from.

  1. I am so glad we did not “win” this project. I completely empathize with those who will be inconvenienced by the detour. The folks are all making very important arguments. They have made everyone aware that this project should have had some community “vetting” in order to find some better solutions to at least reduce the road closure time if not a better temporary bypass.

  2. As a taxpayer, and an engaged citizen, I know that this project is one of the first projects to be led by the new SJC Environmental Stewardship Department. I have doubts about the return on habitat investment that spending over a million dollars there will have. I am completely surprised that this particular location even made a “short list” for a restoration project and then came to fruition! I’m surprised because there’s only about 100 feet of stream from the inlet of
    the proposed culvert to the next fish blockage. Specifically, just upstream there is a dam for the pond on the Grant property. Can fish swim up the spill way past the dam? With the project cost of at least $1MM that’s $10,000 per lineal ft. of habitat gained.

  3. This particular site is very difficult. The culvert is a split precast concrete box culvert. Our cost was $275K and it was to be delivered in 5 ft. sections weighing around 26,000 lbs. each. It requires a huge crane to set the sections. There are designated wetlands on both sides of the road, steep slopes next to the road and it’s 26 feet from the road surface to the stream bed. There is no room for a bypass to be easily constructed the way the project has been designed. Public Works has no easy options for a better bypass than the Dolphin Bay Road.

Unfortunately, we are in the best time of year for construction and this project is already under contract to be constructed. The county has a contractual obligation with the contractor. I admit I don’t have the “pre-project” engineering, permit or regulatory information. Absent my complete knowledge of those aforementioned aspects I wonder if the scope of the project could possibly be re-evaluated to increase consideration of local residents instead of only the laser focus on a minor fish habitat benefit. My opinion is that simple flat bottom large pipe instead of the currently designed precast box culvert could be used. This option will reduce the road closure duration and it will work for fish passage. It is not uncommon to make scope changes in public works projects. Changes could be made by a change order. That box culvert applied to that crossing on an island like Orcas is not even practical.

This project as planned is a “no win” for SJC Public Works, the contractor, and the affected citizens with only a very minute win for habitat restoration. It looks like a feel good project that lacks common sense.

  1. Russel Barsh June 18, 2023 at 11:11 am

I was part of the team that surveyed this stream for fish and potential fish habitat, under contract to the Army Corps of Engineers, in 2004. At that time, we did bring two adult Coastal Cutthroat to hand at the plunge pool below the first downstream culvert. In our report to USACE, we noted that trout access to hundreds of feet of historical stream habitat along LaPorte Road was blocked by road culverts and the Grants’ dam; and proposed working with landowners to reconnect more of the stream and increase the chances for survival of the trout we had found there. Not long after our report, the dam was rebuilt, and summer instream flows decreased significantly. No trout were subsequently observed in the stream. We received no response from landowners or the county when we reported the loss of this trout run.

As a result of the unexpected loss of the Bayhead Cutthroat stock, they were not available for inclusion in a 2016 genetic analysis of Coastal Cutthroat from Orcas and San Juan Islands by Maureen Small at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which identified two other genetically unique native trout stocks in San Juan County. It is therefore possible, but unlikely that the Bayhead trout were descendants of fish planted by local anglers, who are known to have planted Coho in Orcas streams; or by the state, which planted Coastal Cutthroat in Moran State Park despite the existence of a native stock there.

From a biological conservation perspective, the county should focus on its two native trout populations, which are unique and irreplaceable. The county lost its opportunity to save a third, likely native stock in the Bayhead stream when it failed to protect instream flow a decade ago. Removing barriers to passage now will not bring back the Bayhead Cutthroat population. That is not to say that reconnecting Bayhead with fish-friendly culverts would be without value; a restored stream could be stocked with native trout from another island stream, or left for natural colonization by other salmon and trout. But our surviving native island salmonids should be prioritized.

I am surprised that the county did not consult my lab about its plans for Bayhead, and I am disappointed by the county’s apparent failure to work with the islanders most impacted by this project. In my opinion, effective conservation is almost always built from the ground up.

The plot twist is that even though the project was canceled, the contract was still binding and the off-island contractor received $1,000,000.00…FOR NOTHING!