Posted on 29 January 2014.
There isn’t much argument anymore that we’re well down the path of human-induced climate change. Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, tells us that as the results of our behavior remain the same, we have to change business as usual to keep from reaching the point of no return for life as we know it on our precious orb Earth.
So what better place to start than our own immediate home of Bainbridge Island? How is climate change affecting our Island ecosystem, how will it likely affect it into the future, and what do we do to mitigate the current and inevitable changes coming down the pike and prevent the still preventable?
As the climate turns, I turned to Lara J. Hansen, Ph.D., for some insights into our local problems. Hansen’s reach extends literally and figuratively across the globe. She serves the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a Switzer Environmental Fellow and a United States Environmental Protection Agency Bronze Medalist, and she founded and directs EcoAdapt, an organization that assists and trains governments, organizations, and individuals to adapt to and plan for climate change. Oh yeah, and Hansen lives here on Bainbridge.
Hansen rapidly identified several “hot” button environmental and policy issues on Bainbridge that are directly related to the causes and effects of climate change.
Wyckoff-Eagle Harbor Superfund Site
Operated for 85 years from 1903 to 1988, Wyckoff is a former creosote plant, wood-treating facility, and shipyard that used creosote, a cancer-causing oily liquid, to pressurize and preserve wood. With plentiful supplies from the massive lumber mill operation also on Bainbridge, Wyckoff became one of the world’s leading producers of pilings used in dock construction and other building infrastructures. An actual town called Creosote grew up around the plant.
Creosote from the plant and other toxic heavy metals from the shipyard, including mercury and lead, flowed into Eagle Harbor and contaminated its bottom sediments. As Hansen put it, “Eagle Harbor became world-renowned as a toxic site.”
Efforts to remove some of the contaminated sediments were quickly abandoned when it became clear that “capping” the contaminated areas was a safer way to contain them. According to the EPA, approximately 60 acres of contaminated sediments near the site have been capped with thick layers of added sediment on top.
Hansen explained that rising sea levels pose a new threat to an already unstable situation at Wyckoff: “There are two aquifers there—one that people get water from and one that is contaminated with creosote. Sea level rise could alter the hydrology,” potentially contaminating both aquifers.
At this point the EPA and Department of Ecology only “have a plan to make a plan,” said Hansen.
On a side note, I asked Hansen about the safety of swimming or allowing dogs to swim at Prichard Park next to the site. She said, “Ingesting is the main issue. Dogs lick themselves off. People take a shower. Still, I wouldn’t do it.”
Proposed Visconsi Shopping Development
Clear cut for single family home on Manzanita Bay
Hansen cited the continued removal of forested land and wetlands in Winslow as a potentially serious threat to our community water supply: ”The lesson for Visconsi from Wyckoff is being careful about unintended consequences,” she said. “Our Island’s sole source of water is groundwater. Climate change is expected to alter our rainfall patterns from distributed lighter rain across the year to fewer and heavier downpours. This changing condition threatens our wetlands and the recharging of our aquifers because heavy rain tends to run offer faster and does not allow for adequate holding time in wetlands to percolate into the ground.”
“A denser Winslow could represent a lower carbon footprint for our community. But we can’t continue denuding existing forestland. Instead we should be increasing the density of already developed areas,” said Hansen. She pointed out, as many opponents of the Visconsi development have done, that the drugstore, bank, and medical buildings are redundant with currently existing nearby businesses. She called the numerous unoccupied commercial spaces around Winslow unsustainable hazards. “If I were a city planner I would have some occupancy cutoff point.”
Pilings off BI
Returning to the subject of rising sea levels, Hansen said, “We are a coastal community. The island’s northeast corner spit of land is already inundated with water during king tides.”
Hansen believes our city needs to be asking and finding answers to difficult questions about the future of its waterfront: “What does shoreline loss and inundation mean for the homeowners and community? When people are living in hazard zones or can’t stay in or sell their homes, does it become the city’s responsibility, a bigger zoning issue?”
She continued, “Many people bought those properties before we had a cultural realization of climate change. We have to agree as a community on mitigation plans and zoning regulations. We also need to be addressing the future consequences of so many of us being on septic systems [in relation to rising sea levels].”
Waterfront Park madrona
“We’re about to spend money to renovate Waterfront Park. We need to plan for rising sea level so we don’t use our money on something we’ll have to rebuild in 15 years,” said Hansen.
Regarding Waterfront Park, she identified two main planning areas to consider in terms of climate changes ahead: the physical infrastructure and the biological ecosystem.
Hansen pointed out that there are ways to build the dock infrastructure with predesigned gradations so that it can be adapted to rising waters in the future without a rebuild.
In terms of the biology of Waterfront Park, she recommends putting in trees and plants that are suited to rising temperatures, earlier springs, and heavier rainfalls. It also stands to reason that where trees are planted will be affected by rising waters in Eagle Harbor.
Featured photo of Bainbridge shoreline and photo of pilings courtesy of Joe Michael. Other photos by Julie Hall.