High tides and winds test Birch Bay berm, flooding closed roads

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In a January 7 “Coffee with the Contractor” meeting, Whatcom County Public Works’ Roland Middleton said public works was pleased to see how well the nearly completed Birch Bay berm protected the community’s shoreline during the gale storm and king tides on January 1 and January 2.

When asked if pleased with the berm’s recent performance in stormy weather, Middleton jokingly referenced the storm surge two years ago that left Birch Bay Drive in tatters and incurred more than $5 million in damage locally. “Were you pleased not to have to drive through logs and rock and seaweed?” he responded.

On January 1, the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for January 1 and January 2, which saw winds up to 35 mph and 5-foot waves. But because of the berm, Birch Bay was left unscathed, Middleton said.

Beach debris, such as logs and rocks, were strewn onto Birch Bay Drive and the Bay Breeze Restaurant & Bar parking lot by the hide tide on Wednesday morning, January 13. However, there was no standing water on the roadway or properties along the berm.

The berm project, officially called the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility, is designed to protect Birch Bay from storms.

This week, Granite Construction, the county’s contractor, will be pouring concrete sidewalks near the Harborview Road intersection, importing the remainder of gravel sediment for the northern end near Cottonwood Beach and continuing planting.

The Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce hosted a “Coffee with the Contractor” meeting via Zoom on January 7 for resident’s to ask the project’s contractor and manager questions. In the meeting, Middleton, public works engineer Jim Karcher and Gairrett Orelup with Granite Construction each gave a brief progress report and answered questions from residents.

“We’re getting really close to nearing the end of this project,” Orelup said in the meeting.

He said the majority of the berm material has already been placed. With another 10,000 tons to bring in and some already installed material not yet shaped, he estimated the berm to be fully shaped by early to mid-February. Then the rest of the concrete flat work and plantings will be completed, he said.

The limestone path transitions into a concrete pathway in multiple sections along the berm, where there is adjacent parking on the west side of Birch Bay Drive.

Orelup also said enough of the project is complete so crews will no longer need to work night shifts. “I’m sure, as residents, everyone’s glad to hear that – that there won’t be trucks and equipment running all night,” he said.

Middleton reminded community members to avoid walking through the plants along the berm because there are many between those visible that if they do not sprout will have to be replanted.

Karcher said there have been many requests from members of the community for additional features to be made to the project. However, he said it would be best to avoid making changes and adding costs when the project is so close to completion.

Below are some questions and answers from the meeting, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Were you pleased with how you the berm handled the recent king tides?

Middleton: When we had the gale storm and the king tide that was followed up by the wind I was out there. I went at about six o’clock in the morning, at the height of it, and [the wind] was blowing like crazy. The white caps on the bay looked significantly larger than two years ago when we lost half the road. And there was nothing, and Granite hadn’t even finished that section yet. The berm was getting beaten up pretty bad, but three days later, when I went out, you couldn’t even tell it had been beaten up really bad.

I would love to give all kinds of credit to amazing engineering, and there are all kinds of credit for the wonderful engineering. But at the same time, a natural beach berm works like a natural beach berm. So, we’re very pleased how it worked.

It won’t take more than two storms for people to drive by and say, “Look at this beautiful natural beach.”

Q: Is it possible to put handrails on the stair access points on the south side of the berm, near Evergreen and Cedar lanes?

Middleton: The decision was made – because we are in the middle of this project, and the middle of the contract, and there’s a couple other things going on in the office that we have to take care of – to make a commitment that we will go back out and look to see what might be able to be done as a standalone project, most likely when the repave is done. We’ll take a look at that. It’s going to be rather difficult to get any additional ramps up there just because the walkway part of the berm is closer to the road right in that area. But we can certainly take a look at whether or not we can put up appropriate handrails.

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