Little Creek Causing Big Dilemma

COPALIS BEACH, Grays Harbor County - Fierce storms, which can produce wall-sized waves and rearrange the dunes in a single afternoon, compete with the razor clams as the major tourist attraction here this time of year.

Connor Creek, by contrast, easily goes unnoticed. Flowing north and parallel to the beach before making a left turn and emptying into the ocean, the creek reaches perhaps 50 feet wide and 5 feet deep on a calm day. The Columbia River it is not.

But this obscure creek - and a proposal to divert and ultimately dry up much of it - has kicked up its own squall.

Over the past seven years, Connor Creek and its mouth have pushed north nearly 1 1/2 miles through the sand, transforming the front yards of blue-collar resorts, RV campgrounds and seaside retirement homes from valuable oceanfront to creek front.

At the half-century-old Tidelands Resort, a collection of sea-weathered cabins, manager Ginny Wyscaver says high water in the creek carved away at least 10 more feet of dunes during this fall's first storm. She says much of the resort's business has vanished with the loss of direct beach access.

"A lot of people just keep driving on further up the road," says Wyscaver. She and her husband, retirees from Tacoma, became the resort's caretakers five years ago. "Unless something is done, we're going to lose our jobs, not just our beach."

But the Wyscavers and their neighbors in this ramshackle little community are finding out that "our beach" doesn't mean what it once did.

The fate of Connor Creek has become entwined in a much larger environmental drama. Some scientists believe the state's coastline may be undergoing major ecological changes: the Pacific, after a century or more of depositing sand, has begun reclaiming it, threatening a variety of human developments, from a highway near Willapa Bay to a dunefront condominium in Ocean Shores.

There is debate over how much new building should be permitted on Washington beaches and how much human interference should be allowed to protect what's already there.

Those big questions weren't on the mind of Grays Harbor County officials last year when they first proposed diverting Connor Creek.

Their plan, designed by Harry Hosey, head of Edmonds-based Pacific International Engineering, called for forcing the creek to make a 90-degree left turn toward the ocean into a channel lined with 50- to 80-foot-long sandbags and giant tree roots. The barriers were to be covered with sand so they would look like natural dunes.

The diversion channel was intended to keep Connor Creek in one place. But it also would have dried up a mile of what fisheries experts describe as ideal salmon habitat, at a time when the state is under pressure to preserve endangered fish runs.

Seven state and federal agencies, have objected to the county proposal.

That's led to some unusually blunt lobbying from Democratic U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, whose district includes Copalis. Dicks wrote both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency asking them not only to speed up the review of the diversion plan, but to approve it.

So far, the agencies haven't budged.

Hosey, trying to put the most agreeable face on the squabble that has resulted, spoke last month with three dozen Copalis Beach residents who turned out for a meeting at the local Lions Club. "It's phenomenal," he said, "to see persons of this stature working so hard on this postage-sized parcel way down here."

"The War"

Most of those residents could do with a little less attention.

John Rod bought the property for what is now Rod's Resort, his 15-unit motel and 100-space RV campground, right after World War II. Known on the beach for his crusty and sometimes combustible personality, Rod refers to his long entanglement with Connor Creek as "The War."

War against nature. War against neighbors. War against bureaucrats.

Starting in the 1950s, long before regulators cared much what people built on the beach, developers and homeowners frequently rerouted the creek by piling junked cars, logs or tree roots chained together in its path.

Such ad-hoc fixes have continued. A few years ago, Rod threatened to sue his neighbors, the owners of the Tidelands, for building a riprap to keep the creek from flooding their resort. Rod claimed the structure channeled the creek's overflow during storms onto his property.

The Surfcrest condominium complex was given permits by the Corps of Engineers in 1985, and again in 1991, to dredge and maintain an old diversion channel to keep the creek from flooding them out. But the creek didn't stay put, breaching the channel during a fall storm.

So residents of homes north of the Surfcrest threatened to sue the condo association. They never went to court, and the creek kept nosing north.

Neighbors put aside their differences this year to back Hosey's proposal.

Agency officials concede the diversion plan probably would have been approved just a few years back. But salmon have changed the rules.

"This creek was always being played with before. That's why it's down here in the first place," said Dick Tobin, who built a retirement home on the beach north of Surfcrest in 1992. "It doesn't seem fair now to come down with such a hard-line decision."

In January, two state agencies - Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology - rejected the plan to plug and divert the creek. The agencies' questioned whether any homes were actually in danger.

More significantly, fisheries officials discovered salmon - the same coastal coho that are expected to go on the federal endangered-species list later this year - in Connor Creek. Fisheries officials say the creek and its adjacent wetlands provide valuable rearing grounds for juvenile salmon.

In September, frustrated members of the Grays Harbor County Commission tried to outflank the state agencies by declaring an "emergency" on Connor Creek, which would have exempted the project from some state regulations. But such a declaration isn't binding on federal agencies.

Last month, both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the salmon habitat made Connor Creek an "Aquatic Resource of Natural Significance" - a rarely invoked designation that creates more federal environmental oversight.

"As the creek moves northward, freshwater tidal wetlands have been developing," said Fred Weinmann, a wetland ecologist for EPA's regional office in Seattle. "You just don't find that stuff hardly ever anymore."

State and federal agencies have suggested to Copalis Beach residents that they restore their beach access by building bridges, not diverting the creek.

The residents, skeptical that anyone would help them pay for these bridges, have not been persuaded. Ocean reclaiming beaches

The discord at Connor Creek, says Tom Fitzsimmons, Department of Ecology (DOE) director, is a preview of what can be expected along the Washington coast for years to come.

Coastal management questions were on the back shelf at DOE for a long time because Washington beaches were some of the only ones in North America still growing through sediment deposit. And as long as the beaches were growing, there was minimal need for controversial protection measures like building sea walls.

But some coastal experts believe the trend of beach growth has begun reversing itself in recent years, evidenced by severe wave erosion in several locations.

A land spit in Grays Harbor near Westport was breached in 1993, threatening the city's sewage-treatment plant and costing $8 million to repair. A bit farther south, at the entrance to Willapa Bay, Hosey has proposed spending $15 million to stop erosion threatening a state highway. At Ocean Shores, the resort 10 miles south of Connor Creek, recommendations made by Hosey to keep several expensive homes from being lost to erosion could cost $30 million or more.

In repairing such damage, Fitzsimmons says state and local government want softer, less disruptive alternatives to the "we can stop the waves, we can shore up the shoreline" style of past coastal management. Examples: pumping in new sand rather than building sea walls, or building bridges instead of diversion channels.

Though the problems at Connor Creek are unique, state officials say there are some important lessons.

"It's a tricky dilemma," says Joe Witczak, a DOE manager who is overseeing a $1 million joint federal-state study of Washington's coastline.

"When you continually show people that you're willing to keep protecting them from the ocean, you create an expectation and comfort that that's going to go on forever. And that leads you into allowing more and more structures in sensitive areas."

That kind of philosophizing does not go down easily in coastal towns, where beachfront real estate pretty much is the local economy.

Last summer, Orrin Pilkey, a prominent and opinionated Duke University coastal geologist, blasted several coastline projects, including the Connor Creek diversion, for relying too heavily on plans by Hosey's engineering firm for "armoring" beaches. State Rep. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, wrote Pilkey a response telling the professor he was "plain full of it" and telling him to "please, stay out of our business."

Judith Shulman, Hosey's wife and a fellow consultant on coastal projects, charges that too many state environmental regulators are pushing a hands-off approach, like Pilkey's, to beach management.

"I believe there is a strong movement among some agency people at Connor Creek and elsewhere toward saying any engineering, any structures on the beach are bad. Period," says Shulman. "I don't think you can say to people who are already living on the beaches, `We're going to let nature take your property away.' "

Access road threatened

One thing that Hosey, the residents and the bureaucrats agree on is where Connor Creek is headed next. Sometime this winter, Connor Creek is likely to push far enough north to wash out the beach-access road through the tiny hamlet of Copalis Beach itself.

Those who want to drive on the beach will have to go a couple of miles farther north - a small inconvenience to visitors from the city, but one that residents fret will send another ripple through what passes for Copalis Beach's economy: small resorts, a tavern, a tiny yarn shop, a general store and a couple of cafes.

Among those who accuse the government of ignoring homeowners and businesses is Janette Hursh, a full-time resident whose family has owned property at Copalis Beach since the 1930s.

She would like to see the creek diverted. She is also philosophical about taming nature at Copalis Beach. That comes of living at what she calls "the edge of the continent," where 70 mph windstorms drive the rain sideways rather than down. She's watched wind, waves and the flooding creek take out 40 feet or so of her beachfront in a weekend.

"When you live down here, you hide out and watch through the winter," Hursh said. "Come May, you breathe a sigh of relief and see what you have left. We're asking for a better chance to have more of it left."

Jim Simon's phone message number is 206-464-2480. His e-mail address is: