Restoration of salmon habitat at Whiteman Cove is set to begin in 2024, following a $6.9 million appropriation in the state capital budget.
The project, led by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, will restore the cove’s historical channel, putting the cove under full tidal influence for the first time in six decades.
YMCA Camp Colman has been wrestling with the impacts to its camp programs. DNR Project Manager Birdie Davenport said that 90% of the design has been completed. DNR aims to put out a request for proposals by the end of the year. The plan consists of a 100-foot-wide channel in the same location as the historical channel spanned by a concrete bridge with precast girders. The new bridge will be just north of the current roadway, allowing the road to curve more gently with better lines of sight.
DNR aims to do the work in late 2024 after Camp Colman’s summer season ends.
Outdated water control structures will also be removed, including two large metal culverts, both failing, that were installed to allow water from Case Inlet into the cove. Following partial excavation on the Case Inlet side, the culvert pipes will be cut off. The remaining section will be filled with concrete before being buried when the beach is restored. A tide gate, originally meant to control water level in the cove and currently inoperable, will also be demolished.
“This is the last major fish passage barrier on DNR-managed land,” Davenport said. “It’s a really significant project in that sense, in terms of our meeting the federal injunction to restore fish passage and also honoring our commitments to tribes to do this work, particularly the Squaxin Island Tribe, who is keenly interested in this project.”
Whiteman Cove was impounded by the state in 1962 as a salmon-rearing facility. It was a failed venture. The lake-like cove had water either too turbid or too warm for young salmon to survive. “At the time they knew a lot less about salmon life cycle and their needs,” Davenport said. “That was a time with a lot of learning.”
Josh Sutton, facilities executive for YMCA of Greater Seattle, said, “What’s ironic, is now, in the name of salmon, some 60 years later, the state is going to come back and undo what they did.” Camp Colman moved to its current location on the south shore of the cove in 1966, when the state no longer needed land adjacent to the cove. The camp hosts summer campers and school-year students in the thousands. It focuses on outdoor skills, personal empowerment, and environmental education. Boating and swimming on the placid cove have been hallmarks of the camp experience. Two years ago, the YMCA received an appropriation of half a million dollars to study the impacts on the camp of the cove’s restoration. “We’ve been through a few iterations of conversations, some of them more adversarial, more of them lately friendly, with DNR,” Sutton said. “Where we’re at, it is what is going to happen. And it does provide great opportunity to have conversations. We have thousands of kids who come every year for outdoor environmental education. It provides a great opportunity to teach about salmon habitat and the importance of salmon in the community and to our environment. We like that.
“But the impacts are huge. Depending on how you stage it out, we’re talking 40, 50 million dollars by the time you’re done. For us, that’s not something we can do on our own. That’s something we need the state to help us with for the impact that they’re creating.”
While the camp’s main lodge is safe, two cabins and a campfire area will have to move, as the return of tidal action creates a risk of hillside erosion. New fire suppression systems will be required. Without dependable water levels, swimming will have to move to an as yet un-constructed pool. The boathouse and dock will be removed and possibly rebuilt on the Case Inlet side, where boating conditions are generally rougher.
With 120 acres, Sutton said, the camp has room to work with. But the challenge of finding funding means they will be forced to adopt a phased approach.
“It will be a better habitat when it’s done,” Sutton said. “That’s absolutely true. This will become the largest classroom.”
While Whiteman Cove does not have a spawning stream, it has been identified as key habitat for salmon. Studies in the South Sound have shown that juvenile salmon circulate throughout the South Sound, seeking food and shelter in pocket coves as they grow. Similar projects throughout Puget Sound have created a network of safe havens for young salmon. Whiteman Cove is in an important location within Nisqually Reach, according to Davenport.
Historical photographs and nautical charts going back to the 1800s show remarkable consistency in the configuration of the cove’s sandspit and tidal channel, according to Merri Martz, project engineer with the firm Anchor QEA. Earlier project proposals involving tide gates and fish ladders, which aimed to maintain the cove’s current water level, were rejected by DNR as being too likely to injure juvenile fish. Several rounds of hydrological modeling have resulted in the design of a 100-foot bridge spanning a natural channel in its original location.
Martz said that juvenile salmon tend to avoid water with currents over two feet per second and high turbulence. Only by restoring the cove’s full tidal prism through a wide channel could the design ensure that juvenile salmon would be able to enter and exit the cove at all tidal stages. There will be space under the bridge for the channel to meander and morph naturally.
Most of the cove at present is two to three feet deep, with water up to eight feet deep near the Camp Colman docks.
At low tide after restoration, the cove will be a mudflat with branching finger channels. At high tide, it will fill with water. Martz said she expects its fringing salt marsh to “expand and create a high and low marsh, edging down toward the mudflat.”
The project includes extra funding to elevate the roadbed along the sandspit, much of it on YMCA property, by 18 inches, putting it above the level of the 100-year flood tide. “That’s as high as we can elevate it without taking out a lot of madrone trees,” Davenport said. Several trees near the bridge will be removed. While the additional work on the roadbed will ensure that access to Camp Colman remains safe, Sutton said the project’s impacts reach far beyond the channel and sandspit.
“I think we’re all going to learn a lot in the next few years,” Sutton said. “For salmon? Maybe it’s worth it. If you had asked us five years ago, you would have heard a lot more heartburn, a lot more heartbreak. We still have a lot of heartburn about how this actually happens, how we actually make it work, where does that money come from. But that being said, it’s going to happen. We’re adaptive. And kids are.”
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