The Dungeness River is steep, fast moving and wild. That is, other than where humans impeded its flow.
Both private landowners and the Army Corp of Engineers set dikes along the river's banks decades ago, resulting in increased channel confinement, increased sediment load, dwindled habitat and water quality issues.
Clallam County has been looking to get the dikes set back and has received about $1.8 million in state and federal grants for a dike setback project.
"The grants fund two projects, possibly acquiring land along the river where the dikes are located, about two miles south of the river's mouth, and creating a detailed plan of how the dikes could be set back," said Hannah Merrill, project manager. "The county is providing matching funds, but the overall impact to the county budget is minimal compared to the scope of the project."
The state's Salmon Recovery Board awarded the grants to the county. The grants originated from the federal Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and the state's Recreation Conservation Office.
The county is providing about $150,000 for land acquisition and $168,000 for dike planning. Most of the matching funds come from prior grants related to the Dungeness River.
The county has "willingness" forms from two landowners along the river between the 2100 and 2700 blocks of Towne Road, north of Sequim. By signing the forms, landowners indicate they might be willing to sell land depending on the results of appraisals.
One of the landowners has been an integral part of prior and ongoing efforts to improve the ecology of the Dungeness River, Clallam County commissioner, Salmon Recovery Board chairman, Dungeness River Management Team chairman and Dungeness River Flood Control Advisory Board member Steve Tharinger.
But for this project, Tharinger has removed himself from all board-level discussions.
"I wear a lot of hats in the area, but in this project I am just a landowner," Tharinger said. "My wife and I have not made a decision yet, although we've shown interest. Right now, we are waiting for the appraisals to come through."
Tharinger's land abuts the river and includes a section of the Army Corps of Engineers dike built in 1963. The county does not need to own the land to create a dike setback project, but the plan is to have ownership, much like what was done with the River's End project at the river's mouth.
"In addition to our acquisition efforts, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are looking to buy property on the opposite side of the river, where there are dikes as well," Merrill said. "So ideally, planning would be done for both sides."
Whether or not the two landowners sell, the dikes span more than the two properties.
"We can also work with property owners unwilling to sell if they are willing to make their land along the river more habitable for fish," Merrill said, indicating the improvements would benefit the spawning and rearing of summer chum, lower river pink salmon, chinook, bull trout, steelhead and all other migratory salmonids. "But we're a ways away from taking that step - right now we are coordinating how to move forward with property and plan."
The setback plan is likely to include different options for how to set the dikes back and include the effects and costs of the alternatives. It must be completed by May 31, 2011.
The plan would identify the amount of habitat gained for different setback distances, at what height the new dikes should be to avoid hazardous flooding and what work can be done to the river channel to bring it back to "normal."
"Because the edges of the river has dikes, it has nowhere to wander, like in other areas, which results in more things settling at the bottom of the river and a faster flow," Merrill said. "Right now the river channel is higher than the ground on the other side of the dikes, which is likely something the study will look at."
This isn't the first county project to re-establish habitat on the lower sections of the river. In the River's End Project, the county purchased several plots of land at the mouth of the river. While the county has most of the land, it continues to try to get the entire delta from willing landowners without forcing them to sell.
"Right now we are concentrating on finishing upland acquisitions at the river's end while at the same time planning for structure removal and repropagation of the natural landscape for habitat at those sites the county does own," Merrill said.
For more information on the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and its mission, visit www.rco.wa.gov.
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