Study for Birch Bay shoreline project released

Published on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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After studying the possible impacts of the proposed Birch Bay shoreline enhancements, five Western Washington University (WWU) students have concluded the most serious effects will come during construction.

The students completed an environmental impact assessment of the proposed Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility in a class at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment. The assessment looked at numerous possible impacts of the project, which will remove beach groins and riprap, add a beach berm and pedestrian walkway on nearly the entire length of Birch Bay, and improve storm water treatment structures. The $10 million project is in the design phase, and Whatcom County Public Works officials say construction won’t start until 2014 or 2015.

The 74-page impact assessment report is the product of WWU students Ellen Cole, Laura Higashi-Poynter, Ashley Hill, Rachel Morton and Brian Noel. The team spent five weeks this summer poring over documents, interviewing Whatcom County and state officials, and conducting site visits to produce the report.

Noel, a WWU senior majoring in environmental policy analysis, said one of the biggest challenges of writing the assessment was making it easily readable for the average person. Although the group did not have access to the data sources available to government agencies conducting real impact assessments, Noel said his team’s goal was to write a thorough report that covered as many impacts as possible in a clear, concise way.

“I think we produced a document that is much more readable than most of the documents available,” Noel said.

The report details a number of areas that the project could impact, including water and air quality, vegetation, wildlife, transportation and other public services. Noel, who focused on the transportation, earth and air aspects, said each team member picked a type of impact that most interested them.

“It was a group effort to figure out what the project entailed,” Noel said. “We played off the strengths of the members of the group.”

The general consensus was that the project’s impacts would be highest during construction. Noel said while most of the impacts of construction will be mitigated, others, such as increased noise and dust, would be unavoidable. Once completed, the report predicts few lasting detrimental effects to the beach, Birch Bay Drive and the community.

Construction impacts include increases in emissions from construction vehicles, noise, dust and reduced access to the beach in construction areas. The report also listed potential impacts to wildlife, including shellfish, salmon, herring and Great Blue Herons, though construction will be limited to specific time periods in order to avoid disturbing wildlife.

As with formal environmental impact statements, Noel and the four other students were tasked with creating an alternative to the project they were assessing and describing its impacts. The group decided to keep the alternative low-cost and simple, proposing recycling bins, garbage cans and solar-powered street lights for the planned beach berm pedestrian walkway.

Noel said the group wanted solar-powered street lights because Whatcom County Public Works officials have yet to confirm what will happen to the existing street lights along Birch Bay Drive. The current street lights are on top of utility poles lining the bay, but the project calls for removing the poles and constructing new electric lines underneath the berm.

Noel said he and his partners were glad to see so much community involvement and interest about the project at a July 18 community meeting in Birch Bay.

The student group was just wrapping up research at that time and were feeling a bit ragged, but Noel said it was refreshing to see so many residents still cared after years of uncertainty about the project.

“It was very exciting to see that people had been going to these meetings for decades, [so] it sort of revitalized us a bit,” Noel said. “Having a willing community can make all the difference.”

With one quarter at WWU left to go, Noel said he’s not quite sure what he wants to do after graduation. When asked if he would like to work with Whatcom County and assist in the project in some way, Noel said he would most likely pursue the opportunity because he wants to see the Birch Bay community enjoy the shoreline enhancements.

“I would love to see the project through to the end, given the opportunity,” Noel said.

Click here to read the assessment.