Going, going, gone: Workshop tonight to focus on homes on eroding bluffs
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Tim Smith looks at the bluff that broke off behind the garage of his home on Gehrke Road in a July landslide. Smith said erosion has taken away a good portion of his backyard over the past several years. -- Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News
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Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News
Michael and Carol Gentry's old house on Gehrke Road has sat empty since its backyard on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca disappeared in a landslide March 11, 2011.

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

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SEQUIM –– Michael Gentry went to sleep March 11, 2011, after spending the night watching footage of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.

He woke up the next day to find a disaster had struck his own backyard on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Sequim.

“I noticed the waves were a lot louder,” he said. “Then, when I looked out the back door, I was looking at the beach.”

A 40-foot chunk of the bluff behind his Gehrke Road home had slid into the Strait during the night.

It's a problem growing more common for those who live on the bluffs between Sequim and Port Angeles, said Anne Shaffer with the Coastal Watershed Institute.

“The bluffs are eroding, and these houses are in more and more danger every day,” Shaffer said.

The institute is conducting a workshop tonight to help those who own land on the bluffs manage and reduce erosion and stabilize the ground below their property.

The workshop is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dungeness Schoolhouse, 2781 Towne Road.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The event is free, but seating is limited so registration is required. Registration can be accepted today. To register, contact Nicole Harris, 360-460-5092 or nicole.harris@coastalwatershedinstitute.org.]

The Coastal Watershed Institute is studying bluff erosion with a $320,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Gentry, speaking from San Francisco where he was on a business trip, said he lost his home. He could not get insurance for such a catastrophe.

While the home still stands on the site, it is marked with red tape, warning trespassers to stay well away from the bluff that is right behind it.

The land sold this week, reported real estate agent Thelma Durham, for $19,900 to a buyer who plans to use it as a recreational vehicle property.

“It was a magical place to live,” said Gentry, an architect who is now working on new standards for designing waterfront development.

“I thought it should have been kept as an interpretive site to try and teach the dangers of trying to live on the edge.”

Tim Smith lives just down the road from Gentry.

A landslide took a chunk out of his back yard in July. Along with the ground, the slide took down a portion of his concrete patio, a large tree an cut the power line between his garage and house.

“I used to mow around that tree all the time. I hate to think what would have happened if it ha gone then,” he said.

Smith's father moved the house off its old foundation several years ago to get further back from the bluff.

The garage is now unusable and is moving off its foundation as the bluff beneath it continues to erode.

“God only knows what it looks like under it,” Smith said.

The houses that sit on the bluffs are atop 20,000-year-old deposits of Canadian soil that were pushed southward by the Cordilleran ice sheet, according to Dave Parks, a geologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Waves and wind attack the silty soil on the bluffs' north faces, while runoff of stormwater from the higher ground at the south can carve schisms in the bluffs that weaken their stability.

It's a problem all along the Strait, he said.

Earlier this month, a large chunk of the bluff below Port Townsend's Elmira Street Park by North Beach dropped some 300 feet into the Strait.

Through his own studies and those done since the 1970s, Parks has found that the bluffs between Morse Creek and the Dungeness Spit have receded about 40 feet in the past 40 years.

“Erosion of a foot a year was accepted as common knowledge, even back when my parents bought the property [in the 1970s],” Gentry said.

The Monterra subdivision sees an average erosion of 3 inches to 6 inches per year. The erosion intensifies to about a foot per year near Dungeness.

“It's even more impressive when you look further back,” Parks said.

A survey monument set “13 paces” from the edge of the bluff by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1892 is now underwater 161 feet away from the bluff, he said.

That erosion has led to massive accumulations in the Elwha and Dungeness drift cells, areas where sediment transport occurs.

The Dungeness drift cell receives an average of 134,913 cubic yards of sediment a year, he said. The Elwha cell gets 31,148 cubic yards.

Because of erosion concerns on the bluffs along the Dungeness Spit, County Engineer Ross Tyler said he heard a lot of concern about the future of Marine Drive, which runs along the bluff above Dungeness Bay.

“That came up a lot during our Sequim budget road show,” Tyler said.

Many proposed making Marine Drive into a one-way street to reduce traffic and erosion.

Just a thin strip of grass runs between the road and the bluff.

“The bluff erosion along Marine Drive has been on our radar for many, many years,” Tyler said. “There's not a whole lot you can physically do about it.”

He noted that erosion has slowed since irrigators piped their ditches in the area.

Changing the road into a one-way thoroughfare has been an unfunded project on the county's transportation plan for years, Tyler said.

“It's something I'm planning to bring to the county commissioners to take a look at this year,” he said, though he noted that erosion in that area is slower because the cliff has a good growth of vegetation, and wave deterioration is lessened because it is blocked by the Spit.

“As a community, we've got to figure out something. If we don't — and quickly — who are we going to blame?” Gentry asked.

Gentry said he and his family had planned to move the house farther inland as the bluff eroded closer to his backyard.

“But then it just hit,” he said, “which I think shows how quickly we need to do something for the other people who still live out there.”

Some of the more dire spots are the Gehrke Road neighborhood near Green Point, where Gentry's house was, as well as The Bluffs subdivision on the west side of Siebert Creek and the Monterra subdivision further to the east.

“We need to find ways to slow it down so these people can stay in their homes,” Shaffer said.

Vegetation can stabilize the bluffs, as roots condense the soil around them.

Another suggestion is to redirect stormwater so it runs inland instead of over the bluffs.

“That's probably the No. 1 factor that I think accelerates the rate of bluff erosion,” Shaffer said.


Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 30. 2013 10:42AM
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