Storm-battered county road on Lopez target of relocation efforts - Salish Current
May 2, 2024
Storm-battered county road on Lopez target of relocation efforts
Nancy DeVaux

Passersby view piles of driftwood pushed ashore at Agate Beach on the south end of Lopez Island in January; flooded yards inside the road received a share of storm debris as well. County planners are looking at recommendations for dealing with both access for residents and habitat recovery for fish, in the face of rising sea level. (Gretchen K. Wing / Salish Current © 2024)

May 2, 2024
Storm-battered county road on Lopez target of relocation efforts
Nancy DeVaux


Access to Iceberg Point National Monument and 80 properties at risk

Near the end of MacKaye Harbor Road on the south shore of Lopez Island is Agate Beach Park and a parking area for those walking in to the Iceberg Point San Juan Islands National Monument.

Same location, 10 years apart: the stairway to the beach (at left) has been washed away, leaving a notch in the shoreline. (SJC)

Early in January, high winds and a storm surge closed this section of road, and the county encouraged residents to stay home until a passable one-lane road could cleared of water and driftwood. Portions of the road have been one-lane since 2018. This winter a stairway to the beach washed out, making the beach inaccessible.

San Juan County has been studying the road in this area for over 20 years and is exploring how best to keep access open. Most recently, a community meeting took place April 25 at the Lopez Grange Hall, with five county staff members and a full house of local residents.

County council member Jane Fuller welcomed the public and explained the county’s “realization of imminent sea rise and the need to insure that our infrastructure is resilient.” She pointed out that the county has identified 13 miles of roads throughout the islands that are under a similar  threat, so this is “just the beginning.”

The section of MacKaye Harbor Road from Barlow Bay hugs the shoreline and serves as the only access to nearly 80 property owners, including tribal lands, and public lands. The shoreline bank next to the road by the park has been reinforced with rip-rap since the mid-’60s, and the county Public Works department has done several projects adding revetments, or shoreline armoring, to protect the road over the decades. 

Tom and Sally Reeve, property owners south of Outer Bay, described some of the problems associated with the eroding road. Utilities are being uncovered including water lines, electricity and phone cables. “Even if sea level doesn’t rise another inch,” Tom said, “that road is going away.”

MacKaye Harbor Road at Barlow Bay lies along the shoreline. (SJC)

The area is also rich with cultural resources. According to a 2017 engineering report, “MacKaye Harbor Road Relocation Feasibility Study,” within a 1.0-mile radius of the study area there have been “40 cultural/historical surveys conducted, with 30 archaeological sites, six historic properties, and four Historic Register-listed properties recorded.” 

The 2017 engineering report said that sea level is expected to rise in the San Juan Islands by 1.57 feet by 2050, and by 4.69 feet by the end of the century. That would increase the current highest observed water level (HOWL) from 10.3 feet in 2017 to 15 feet in 2100.

At its lowest, the elevation of MacKaye Harbor Road along Outer Bay is +13.5 feet mean lower low water (MLLW) — the average height of the lowest tide recorded at a specific site during a 19-year period — and Barlow Bay road is +11 feet MLLW. At the end of the century projected water levels, these areas would be flooded.

It’s complicated

The 2017 report identified options for dealing with the deteriorating road, ranging from doing maintenance on the existing roadbed for as long as possible, to exploring various options for moving the road inland. To date, efforts have focused on maintaining the road as-is, to protect access, but this is seen by the county as a short-term solution.

More recent efforts to obtain grant funding for longer-term solutions were outlined in plans presented by county staff at the April 25 meeting (view the video of the meeting here [1:23:13]).

Two grant applications totaling $7 million have been submitted to a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) program, as part of the Climate Resilience Regional Challenge. This is a 2023 federal program, and the first-ever regional approach to strengthening climate resilience. San Juan County has partnered with 17 entities, with Snohomish County as the lead, which as a group is seeking $72 million.

A concept map shows potential and planned projects discussed at the April 25 meeting. (SJC)

The Public Works department is seeking $5 million for the road relocation project. When asked by a member of the public if the funding was for both planning and construction, Grant Carlton replied, “all of the above.”

The Department of Environmental Stewardship seeks $2 million for a Shoreline Protection and Enhancement beach restoration project grant, which would “combine engineering with nature-based solutions” to protect MacKaye Harbor Road along Outer Bay.

Tyler Davis of the Environmental Stewardship department said at the meeting that Pacific sand lance and surf smelt use the area as for spawning, and the area is also a refuge for juvenile chinook salmon. Restoration is needed because the negative impacts of armoring the shoreline include habitat loss, displaced erosion, changing sediment patterns, aesthetics and future conditions such as the lifespan and cumulative expense of repeated armoring. 

Moving the low-lying shoreline road inland is also complicated by the extent of wetlands in the area. Davis pointed out that the wetlands and shoreline function together as an ecological system, another reason to avoid armoring.

Kendra Smith, San Juan County’s director of Environmental Stewardship, said in a phone interview that the county had previously received a $316,000 grant from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB) to plan for a smaller section of the shoreline restoration and protection project at the county park. That planning was put on hold while pursuing the larger federal grants and the majority of the SRFB grant funds were returned since its 2025 deadline could not be met.

Pounding waves turn Outer Bay to “chocolate” in a 2009 photo provided to San Juan County by a resident. Sea level rise will continue to compound the effects.

Public Works Director Colin Huntemer said at the meeting that the county has received a $3.5 million grant to relocate a short section of the road behind the county park, away from the shoreline, and add a new parking area. These federal funds were made available to ensure access to Iceberg Point in the San Juan Islands National Monument. That project is now in a preliminary design stage, and negotiations with property owners are expected soon. 

Some attending the meeting expressed concern about the relocation of the road inland. Since it would be constructed on private property, access will require negotiation or eminent domain. Some property owners have expressed an unwillingness to sell.

Others asked questions about the restoration efforts and impacts on wildlife.

In response to a question about whether Salmon Point is projected to become an island, Carlton said “it doesn’t appear that it will be cut off year-round” but “possibly, access will be seasonal” by mid-century. When asked what the County would do if people were cut off, Acting County Manager Brandon Andrews said the Public Works department, the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Emergency management would work together to ensure the safety of residents.

In the 2017 engineering report, a more dramatic relocation of the county road, a concept not intended to identify an exact route, is presented.

An aerial photo taken before recent storms shows earlier erosion at Agate Beach County Park. (Coastal Geologic Services)

Mike Rust, who leases the property that would need to be used for the inland road, said he believes the site of the proposed road is problematic for a number of reasons. It would “cut up the only intact forest in the area” as well as disturb wetlands, he said. He said the location of the proposed road is actually lower than MacKaye Harbor Road and would cause more environmental damage, and favors continuing to support the existing road.

If the county receives its Climate Resilience grant, there would be more planning. The county expects to be notified in mid-May.

After the meeting, Sally Reeve commented, “I felt like we’ve had seven years of not doing anything.” 

The process of road relocation may take years to accomplish. Rising sea, high tides and storm surges will arrive again to batter the road at Agate Beach. Will it be planners and engineers or will the sea determine how long the current road can be maintained until an alternate route is created?

Updates are being posted on the county’s engagement website at Sea Level Rise Adaptation — Outer Bay and Agate Beach Areas, Lopez Island.

— By Nancy DeVaux

Also read in Salish Current:

• “Rising seas force adaptation to climate change,” Jan. 12, 2024

• “Rising seas, high tides, storm surges and waterfront homes: does value outweigh the risks?” Jan. 20, 2023

• “Rising seas, surging storms put many low-lying areas at risk,” Oct. 13, 2022

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