Birch Bay berm performing as it should, public works says no project will prevent all damage

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Whatcom County Public Works said in a news release on January 14 that the Birch Bay berm performed well during the  previous week’s storm and any flooding occurred in an area not protected by the berm.

While some debris – driftwood and beach rock – was thrown onto Birch Bay Drive, Bay Breeze Restaurant and Bar and the parking spaces near the restaurant, public works said this is to be expected and that the berm prevented any damage from being done to Birch Bay Drive.

If it weren’t for the recent construction on the berm, the combination of high tide and strong winds last week could have caused similar damage to what Birch Bay experienced in 2018, said John Gargett, emergency management director for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. The storm surge two years ago left Birch Bay Drive in tatters and incurred over $5 million in local damage. 

Last week, the bay experienced a similar surge of high tide and strong winds that backed up Terrell Creek, causing flooding in Birch Bay State Park and surrounding neighborhoods in the freshwater floodplain.

“The berm is designed to keep seawater from inundating Birch Bay Drive and the surrounding areas,” the public works news release said. “It is not designed to protect the freshwater creek floodplain.”

Marie Duckworth, communications specialist for Whatcom County Public Works, said in an email that there is very little public works can do about flooding in that area. With king tides and strong winds acting as a dam and already high water levels on Terrell Creek due to recent heavy rains, flooding will happen in the creek’s floodplain, Duckworth said.

To alleviate the flooding in that area, public works would have to re-route the water away from these low-lying areas, which she said would require a very expensive and time-consuming project that may not provide a guarantee of flood protection.

Along the berm, officially called the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility Project, the storm had minor effects, like driftwood and beach rock strewn onto the roadway and path.

Gargett, who was out on the bay around 6 a.m. the morning of the storm, said he saw waves crashing over the limestone pathway of the newly constructed Birch Bay berm and the Bay Breeze Restaurant.

Justin Myers, general manager of Bay Breeze Restaurant and Bar, said the storm didn’t cause major damage to the restaurant.

“We had a little bit of water come underneath the exit door,” he said. “But no real damage. We’re still open.”

Myers said they boarded up the western-facing windows prior to the storm and reinforced them with boards on the inside of the building the morning of the storm. He also said they had minor debris strewn around the property that was easy to cleanup.

“No engineering project will be able to prevent all the damage from every storm,” the public works news release said. “What the berm project does is mitigate and reduce the potential damage.”

The berm uses the natural slope of the restored shoreline to dissipate the force of waves, thereby mitigating the damage done from these kinds of storms, according to public works.

Gargett closed Birch Bay State Park because he said there was about a foot of standing water that was intermixed with debris from the bay and creek on Birch Bay Drive.

Birch, Sunset, Terrill, Willow and Wooldridge drives and Morrison Avenue were also closed that morning due to standing water on the roadways. Gargett said there were many properties with water up to the door seal level in that area, but there have been no reports of any damage to those properties.

“It is an unusual event for that to occur simultaneously,” Gargett said about the high tide and winds backing up Terrell Creek, causing the flooding. “It’s not a normal thing.”

Duckworth said most of the water clears when the tide recedes, which was already beginning to happen when public works crews arrived.

The park and roads were opened by the following day.

Duckworth said public works received a few phone calls from people advising them of the debris near their homes but there was no mention of property damage.

The department said no damage was done to the berm, the walkway or construction equipment, but some of the plantings along the slope of the berm were either lost or damaged. They will assess the plantings through the spring and summer to see what will need to be replanted.

The berm project will also remain on schedule, the news
release said.

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