BELFAIR STATE PARK - Environmental engineer Pat McCullough grinned as a bulldozer chewed away at a boulder-studded dike he can't wait to tear down.
When that 1950s-era dike at Belfair State Park goes down sometime this week, Big Mission Creek will flow back into its natural streambed, 600 feet of Hood Canal shoreline and beach will return to a natural state, and an estuary that was filled in with 20,000 cubic feet of dirt 50 years ago will be reborn.
"We expect to quickly see salt marsh, pickleweed and grasses," McCullough said. "The neat thing is that people will get to see and use a restored beach, and it's good for salmon and Hood Canal."
But McCullough, who oversees the project for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, also feels a little guilty.
That's because a short distance away is an investment house he owns that is tucked behind a $250,000 concrete bulkhead. McCullough and his business partners are afraid to tear down the bulkhead because they could lose half of the house's valuable waterfront to salt water.
McCullough and his partners bought the house in June.
"Taking it out is not an option at this point," McCullough said. "We own 750 feet of waterfront there, and 650 feet of it is bulkheaded."
McCullough's personal dilemma isn't unusual around Puget Sound, where habitat loss from population growth and development has robbed dozens of Puget Sound plants, birds, fish and marine mammals of their homes, their food sources and the water quality they need to survive. For instance:
These are some of the reasons restoring and protecting Puget Sound habitat is a cornerstone of the Puget Sound Partnership's emerging plan to restore Puget Sound health by 2020.
Bulkheads damage beaches and estuaries, which are nurseries for dozens of plants and animals, including struggling salmon runs. Beaches and estuaries are vital links in the complex web of life in Puget Sound.
But those same bulkheads keep increasingly valuable real estate intact. "That's what makes it tougher to do anything about bulkheads in Puget Sound," McCullough said. "People worry about losing their houses, and a lot of homes were built too close to the water."
Nevertheless, a wide-ranging coalition of environmental groups, tribes and local, state and federal agencies is poised for a restoration of some of Puget Sound's shorelines and estuaries.
The Puget Sound Nearshore Partnership recently awarded $2.5 million to nine restoration projects, including $200,000 for the Belfair State Park work.
The partnership has worked on a restoration plan since 2001.
Restoring Puget Sound's nearshore habitat could eventually become one of the biggest environmental projects in U.S. history.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Army Corps of Engineers co-chair the partnership.
The partnership is a year away from releasing a report on how to restore beaches and estuaries, but the actual work is starting right now.
"We're spinning out our early knowledge into projects," said Curtis Tanner, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and partnership project manager. "We also will monitor the projects and learn from them."
Why bulkheads hurt
About 70 percent of Puget Sound's intertidal wetlands - estuaries and marshes - has been lost to fill and dikes, Tanner said.
"Thirty to 90 percent of the shoreline is armored, depending on the region," Tanner said.
In Thurston County, about half of the sandy and gravel beaches are armored with bulkheads, according to a 2005 shoreline assessment by Herrera Environmental Consultants.
Bulkheaded beaches and diked-off estuaries wreak havoc on many key species in the Puget Sound web of life - including herring, salmon, crabs and eelgrass.
A bulkheaded beach no longer gets silt and sand from the land, so waves and currents erode the beach into a steep, densely packed mass of rocks.
No fresh water oozes over the beach during low tides, which means the eggs of sand lance - an important baitfish and food for other fish - dry up and die.
As the beach gets steeper and harder, it resembles asphalt. The silty, sandy area just offshore washes away, and eelgrass beds have no place to set roots.
Eelgrass is vital spawning and nursery habitat for salmon, crabs, herring and dozens of other animals.
Take away the natural beaches, and you break the chain of life in Puget Sound, Tanner said.
"In the South Sound area, the marine bluffs feed the beach," said Roger Geibelhaus, a Thurston County planner. "When you block that with a bulkhead, you starve the beach."
Geibelhaus said about 90 percent of the proposed bulkhead permits the county reviews are to replace old bulkheads with new ones. County officials encourage property owners to look at alternatives but don't require them to do so.
"We don't encourage people to construct concrete walls," he said. "We're trying to get more woody debris in the tidal area."
Estuaries - the places where rivers and streams empty into Puget Sound - form giant shallow, silty areas where aquatic plants, including eelgrass, grow. Estuaries and marshes are important habitat for young fish, crabs, shellfish and birds.
The loss of nearshore habitat - especially estuaries and beaches - interferes with the complex cycle of life in Puget Sound.
Without beaches and estuaries, Puget Sound will remain sick and could die, said Tim Smith, Fish and Wildlife's representative on the partnership's council.
Decades of work ahead
It took more than 100 years to armor Puget Sound's shorelines, and it will take decades to bring the beaches, marshes and estuaries back. The project will take decades because there are so many armored beaches - and many people are afraid to tear down their bulkheads and risk their homes to the tide and storms, Tanner said.
But in many cases, the bulkhead isn't needed and could be removed without putting property at risk, Tanner said.
"How do I, as a biologist, convince a landowner that this is what needs to be done?" Tanner asked.
"We need to be able to use a model and be able to say: 'If you do this, this will happen,' " Smith said.
That's why the nine early projects now under way are so important: They will demonstrate safe ways to restore beaches without wrecking homes, Smith said.
Restoring the beach, estuary and natural streambeds at Belfair State Park isn't a risk, said Deborah Petersen, state parks environmental planner.
More than two years of studies went into the project, Petersen said.
A concrete tidal swimming area and some play areas will be lost, but the public will gain more than 2,000 feet of natural beach, a restored estuary and boosted salmon runs in Big Mission Creek and Little Mission Creek, Petersen said.
"It is a big step to pull armor off the shoreline," Petersen said. "But we are confident that this is right."
McCullough said Belfair State Park still will have grassy areas, bathrooms, parking lots and pathways.
"It will have all-natural beach," McCullough said. "And, as the population of the state increases, access to places like Hood Canal will become more and more valuable."
South Sound is home to some of the most significant estuary restoration work in Puget Sound.
Dike removal projects in the Nisqually and Skokomish river deltas should allow 1,100 acres of pasture land and freshwater marsh to revert to tidal-influenced estuaries.
"Preventing the Nisqually Delta from becoming Tacoma Tideflats South is one of the greatest successes in the Puget Sound cleanup effort," said Nisqually Valley resident Howard Glastetter, referring to derailed plans decades ago to turn the Nisqually Delta into an industrial port.
Habitat restoration projects on Puget Sound beaches, shorelines and adjoining streams serve more than one purpose, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the native Olympia oyster.
"Habitat restoration - it's all about building a constituency that can save this place," Peabody said.
"It's exciting, and it's something people can connect to," agreed Olympia City Councilman Doug Mah, a member of the Puget Sound Council, which directs the Puget Sound Action Team.
While restoring Puget Sound habitat is critical work, the need to preserve and protect the high-quality habitat that remains is just as important in the face of relentless population growth and development, said Eric Erler, executive director of the Olympia-based Capitol Land Trust.
The Puget Sound basin population of 4 million is expected to grow by 1 million in the next 20 years.
Thurston County could be home to nearly 400,000 people by 2025, more than the population of Miami today.
In the 2005-07 state budget, $572 million was allotted to protect Puget Sound and help it recover, including $51 million for restoring habitat and $27.3 million for protecting habitat.
"We're not going to have these functioning places left in a few short years. They'll either be developed or become too costly to purchase," Erler said.
Since 1989, the Capitol Land Trust has conserved through easements, land donations and voluntary sales 2,400 acres in South Sound, including 6 miles of marine near-shore and nearby upland habitat on lower Eld Inlet, Gull Harbor and Oakland Bay in Mason County.
"Puget Sound estuaries are some of the most productive living systems on earth," Erler said in explaining why their preservation and recovery is the land trust's top conservation goal.
Environmental laws and land use controls play a role in restoring Puget Sound, too, according to the Puget Sound Environmental Caucus, a coalition of environmental and conservation groups.
One of the reasons so many shoreline property owners need bulkheads is that local governments allowed them to build too close to the shoreline and edges of marine bluffs in the first place. The environmental caucus is calling on Puget Sound cities and counties to protect marine shoreline habitat and upland shoreline vegetation through revisions to their critical areas ordinances.
The proposed Thurston County critical areas ordinance would feature a typical marine shoreline building setback of 100 feet, compared with the 50 feet on the books since 1990, Thurston County planning manager John Sonnen said.
"We're trying to maintain water quality to protect shellfish and other marine life," he said of the proposed wider buffers.
When the county rolled out changes in its critical areas ordinance last year, they were met with much resistance from property owners who said the changes restrict what they can do with their land.
It's the same sentiment that's behind Initiative 933, the measure on the November ballot that, if approved, would require local governments to pay property owners for lost use of their property from wider buffers, zoning changes and the like, or to waive the environmental rules and zoning that lead to the devalued property.
"The initiative would force counties and states to be creative," said John Stuhlmiller, assistant director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau, a sponsor of the initiative. "We're saying the greater social good can't be at the expense of individuals."
Those trying to implement Gov. Chris Gregoire's Puget Sound Initiative, which calls for a clean, healthier Puget Sound by 2020, are concerned about the land use patterns Initiative 933 would allow in the Puget Sound basin.
"Initiative 933 would trump all the efforts under way to restore and protect Puget Sound," said Puget Sound Action Team executive director Brad Ack.
Restoration projects and cost
Federal and state agencies, local environmental groups such as the South Sound Salmon Enhancement Group and the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, local governments and tribes have worked on beach and estuary restoration for years.
The Nisqually tribe's restoration of the Nisqually River Delta - in partnership with the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and state agencies - started in 1999.
But the Puget Sound Nearshore Partnership - a partnership among environmental groups, tribes, local governments and federal and state agencies - recently accelerated habitat restoration with $2.5 million in grants. The grants match other state, local and federal funding for a total value of $20 million of work.
The funded grants and projects include:
$385,140 for restoration of the Qwuloolt Marsh in Snohomish County. The project sponsor is the Tulalip tribes of Washington.
$241,589 to restore the Wiley Slough in Skagit County. The project sponsor is Skagit River System Cooperative.
$200,000 to breach a dike and restore natural river and tidal actions to the Snohomish River estuary. The sponsor is the city of Everett Public Works department.
$96,250 to create an outreach program to highlight the benefits for juvenile salmon of 990 feet of waterfront salmon habitat in Seattle at the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park. The sponsor is the Seattle Art Museum.
$200,000 to restore the Belfair State Park estuary, Big and Little Mission creeks and the beach. This project is in Mason County, and the sponsor is Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.
$66,000 to pay for design work to restore Smuggler's Slough in the Nooksack River estuary near Bellingham. The Lummi Indian Business Council is the project sponsor.
$76,500 to pay for studies that will lead to the restoration of 115 acres of intertidal wetlands on the Leque Island Wildlife Area, which is at the mouths of the West and South forks of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County. Ducks Unlimited is the project sponsor.
$990,296 to remove 3,650 feet of dike on the west side of Nalley Slough, remove an elevated road network and build an elevated boardwalk on the former Nalley Farm property on the Skokomish Indian Reservation near the mouth of the Skokomish River in Mason County. The Skokomish tribe is the project sponsor.
$65,000 to buy a conservation easement for 3 acres of forested bluff and 300 feet of natural Puget Sound shoreline near Normandy Park in King County. The Cascade Land Conservancy is the project sponsor.