Ocean City residents at odds with environmental regulations

Few local communities know more about the will and brutality of Mother Nature than residents of Ocean City.

For the past 25 years, they have watched the small but significant Connor Creek change its course — and change the landscape of their properties along with it in the process. In 1987, the creek used to dump into the ocean about 1.5 miles farther south than it does now, and its creep northward has spelled destruction for residential lots, recreational facilities, and local infrastructure.

“What used to be beachfront property is now creekfront property, and that has led to a lot of devaluation,” said Ocean Shores Outdoor Recreation Club (OSORC) President Gary Clarke.

According to Clarke, Connor Creek is now less than one-half mile away from connecting with the fiercer Copalis River. Should the two connect, the Copalis River will force water back up Connor Creek, worsening flooding at the properties that have come to be located along its banks.

While attempts were made to mitigate the creek’s destruction from 1997-2002, efforts have largely tapered off in the past 20 years. After king tides, snowmelt, excessive rainfall, and debris in the creek caused prolific flooding in Ocean City in the beginning of January 2022, residents tired of watching their homes flood almost annually and decided to mobilize.

District 3 Grays Harbor County Commissioner Vickie Raines was joined by representatives from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for a forum of Ocean City residents and business owners on Monday, Feb. 28. Representatives from Washington’s 24th Legislative District Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman were also present over Zoom before leaving for an appropriations vote.

The meeting was attended by more than 80 individuals between in-person and Zoom, many of whom shared their experience with consistent flooding due to the creek.

Screamin’ Eagle Campground owner Richard Guzinski, whose business is traversed by the creek in 7 acres, lost around $30,000 in this January’s flooding. Despite raising his possessions 18 inches off the ground, he still lost a vending machine, ice machine and files when his office was submerged in 2.5-3 feet of water.

“This is getting worse and worse,” he said. “I can’t afford to continue operating this business when I go continuously underwater, and this year was probably the worst flooding yet.”

Guzinski also lost several 150-pound benches to the swelling creek, and was only able to retrieve two after considerable effort.

OSORC member Marianne Reese incurred $4,000 in damages from the flooding at the beginning of this year, a figure that she considers to be on the low end of costs for properties in her community.

“The damage to my parcel was only in my shed, and I literally lost 100 percent of the contents in that. All the electrical, the flooring, and all four walls will need to be replaced because they’re covered in black mold,” she said.

Reese echoed the desire of her fellow residents for agency stakeholders to realize the burden that the creek places on the community and to take action. But human settlements aren’t the only residents considered in the decision-making process.

According to longtime resident Fred Thatcher, Connor Creek used to empty out near the Surfcrest Condominiums, where a channel to the ocean was maintained to ensure the steady flow of the creek. In the past few decades, high tides have dumped sand into the channel, and the creek has since decided to cut in northwards through beachfront properties.

Fred and his wife Roseanne were a part of a small group of Ocean City residents who joined previous Grays Harbor County Commissioner Norm Dicks in Olympia for a stakeholder meeting about the creek in 2002. Environmental concerns over the presence of potential salmon habitats have hindered progress on the issue, and Fred and Roseanne watched as resident mobilization faded and the hope of state and federal action being taken dwindled.

As their home was flooded with 8 inches of water in January 2022, the Thatchers were forced to leave the space they had just remodeled for the safety and consistency of their RV.

“That’s our retirement home, we’ve lived there for 30 years and had no intentions of leaving. Now it has little value and we can’t even sell it,” said Fred.

Thatcher has spent time along the banks of Connor Creek since he was a teenager, and believes that the mud-bottom of the creek prevents any real salmon spawning from occurring. According to Fred, salmon only end up in the creek when they’re severely lost. Despite his skepticism over the presence of salmon, clearing and diverting the creek has been stalled by environmental standards set by state and federal agencies for the protection of threatened species.

Environmental concerns have been compounded by the possible presence of the Olympic mudminnow, a fish native to the western lowlands of Washington that has been designated a “State Sensitive” species according to WDFW.

“Even if we want to clean out property that is the county’s, there’s certain permits that we have to apply for from state agencies,” said Commissioner Raines. “It is challenging when you’re up against an environment that has wildlife in it, and it’s very difficult to work around that.”

According to Raines, the county will be conducting its “due diligence” in the immediate future, and will be employing a drone to get a better sense of the situation. The interagency cooperation and environmental nuance of the problem will cause the process to be slow, she warned, but agency stakeholders are prepared to cooperate and maintain lines of communication to speed up the permitting process.

“There’s a lot of frustrations amongst the residents and amongst the people of our club, because it’s gone on for 20 years and the issue gets raised time-to-time, but nothing ever happens,” said Clarke. “People have to be patient, and not overanxious, and we have to realize that this is a long-term thing; I was happy with the meeting as a starting point.”

Not all residents share Clarke’s patience. Some called for the creek to be dredged to alleviate blockages and to divert excessive water outward toward the ocean rather than onto their properties. Others questioned why the debated presence of protected wildlife species are more important than the human costs of the creek’s trek northward.

“I’m very grateful that Vickie got involved here and is attempting to address the issue,” said Roseanne Thatcher. “I’m optimistic that something could evolve here because it’s definitely going to get worse if they don’t do something.”