Birch Bay repairs could help beachfront weather big storms

Birch Bay project would repair storm damage and remake a beach

Whatcom County officials hope to build a long-planned project to restore the beach at Birch Bay and prevent the kind of catastrophic damage that occurred in the December 2018 windstorm, when crashing waves destroyed part of Birch Bay Drive.
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Whatcom County officials hope to build a long-planned project to restore the beach at Birch Bay and prevent the kind of catastrophic damage that occurred in the December 2018 windstorm, when crashing waves destroyed part of Birch Bay Drive.

Repairs are slated this summer for storm-battered Birch Bay Drive, where wind and waves from a furious Dec. 20 gale tore the asphalt to shreds, battered a seaside restaurant and flooded businesses across the two-lane coastal road.

Whatcom County officials said that work to stabilize the shoreline as part of a project already planned in the area might have prevented the kind of damage that occurred when a seasonal high tide and fierce winds combined in a perfect storm of devastation.

A key feature of the nearly year-long project is a berm that slopes gently up from the water, replacing the decades-old riprap, seawalls and concrete strips called “groins” that have failed to prevent beach erosion and road damage from storms.

The project, slated for Birch Bay Drive from Lora Lane north to Cedar Avenue, will make that northern stretch of road resemble Birch Bay Drive south of the damaged area that was rebuilt with a beach berm in the 1980s, Whatcom County officials said.

“That’s the question — would the berm have saved the road?” said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.

“I’m not an engineer, but every engineer I’ve talked to has said yes,” he said in a telephone interview with The Bellingham Herald.

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The bayside Bay Breeze restaurant on Birch Bay Drive in northern Whatcom County, Wash., is closed after the damage it sustained in the Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, windstorm. Bellingham

“It’s absolutely stark if you go out there and see where they did the work (in the 1980s).”

Joe Rutan, the county engineer and assistant director of public works, said the $400,000 road project has been in the planning stages for several years as part of the larger $12 million beach restoration.

“Certainly now, with all the (storm) damage, that makes it that much more important,” Rutan told the Herald in a telephone interview.

“That’s a very modified beach where waves come ripping in, hit that seawall and cause enormous damage,” Rutan said.

Seasonal “big blows” occasionally cause damage and flooding along Birch Bay Drive, including in massive storms that struck in 1982 and 2012.

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High tide and a windstorm combined Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, to flood Birch Bay Drive along the bay in northern Whatcom County, Wash. Bellingham

Rutan said that stretch of Birch Bay Drive south of the Birch Bay Leisure Park — where a berm was installed in the 1980s — fared better than the northern portion during the devastating Solstice Eve Windstorm of 2018.

“That berm, it suffered some damage, but the waves rolled up and down,” Rutan said Monday. “We want the waves to roll up and down and not have that energy” that sends surf crashing across the roadway.

“That’s the intent — to limit damage from these types of storms,” he said.

“It will provide a more natural shoreline and give people a place to walk,” Rutan said. “ We’ll get pedestrians off the roadway and on top of the berm.”

Rutan said the project will protect the beach from damage and erosion, protect the road, and protect beachfront homes and buildings from periodic storm damage.

A windstorm left a handful of businesses on Birch Bay Drive in Whatcom County, Wash., flooded on Dec. 20, 2018. One day later, business owners and staff are assessing damage and beginning the cleanup process.

With a pedestrian path atop the berm, bike lanes will be installed along Birch Bay Drive, he said.

Beach and habitat restoration on northern Birch Bay Drive also will help protected species such as the surf smelt, an important food for salmon.

Other improvements will include removing the storm drains that send street runoff directly into Birch Bay, replacing them with “bioswales” that filter the runoff through plants, rock and soil.

Discussions on the beach restoration and road project have been underway since 2014 among Birch Bay residents, tribal representatives and public and private agencies, according to the Whatcom County Public Works website, which includes a video that explains the plan.

“if the berm had been done, there would’ve been far less damage,” said Patricia Alesse, co-owner of The C Shop, a seasonal candy store.

Local merchants such as restaurants depend heavily on summer tourism, Alesse said in a telephone interview with the Herald.

“A lot of the businesses have a hard time getting through the winter,” she said.

Alesse’s husband Patrick said The C Shop won’t face as many disruptions form the road repair and shoreline restoration as others whose businesses are in the damaged area.

“There are lots of people who will be much more affected,” he said. “It will affect some of the businesses — but there’s this thing we say in business : ‘You always think you can overcome anything.’ ”

Rutan said the start date isn’t final, but that the project will take about three months to complete.

He said drivers should expect delays, but that at least one lane of road would remain open during construction because officials are aware of the seaside enclave’s reliance on summer tourism.

Whatcom County’s portion of the road repair is $2.4 million, along with about $1.6 million in federal funds, Rutan said.

The entire cost of the road and shoreline restoration project is $9 million, according to the county’s website.

More federal money could be available if Gov. Jay Inslee issues a disaster declaration for a series of severe windstorms that hit Western Washington starting December 10.

Gargett said Whatcom County damages had amounted to $5 million and were climbing as more damage reports are filed.

The cost of the road repair and beach restoration and the timing of the projects was corrected Jan. 23, 2019. Rutan’s title was also corrected.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.