Submitted by Greg Alderete. Founder “Citizens for the Protection and Preservation of the Farrell Marsh” in Steilacoom.
At the top of Chambers street in Steilacoom, lies 62 acres of hidden paradise with a 15-acre pond called Farrell’s Marsh. This treasured wetland and park is home to a diverse biosphere of native plants, birds, mammals, and amphibians.
The main trail of the park is a vestige of the historic road between Fort Steilacoom and Fort Nisqually constructed in the 1830s by the Hudson Bay Company. A pre 1917 Assessors Map shows the marsh, then known as Light’s Swamp, as a continuous swamp of approximately 40 acres.
Around 1917 the marsh was drained to create a pasture for livestock. In 1930 Fort Lewis bisected the land with a road off Union Avenue. By the 1960s pastoral farming ended to urbanization as Steilacoom expanded. The new developments increased street drainage and outflow, partially reviving the marsh. In 1975 it was purchased by the town with a State grant to be preserved as a protected wetland.
Wetlands are ideal for beaver, natures ecosystem engineers, and provide habitat for many endangered species. The algae and plants in the pond improve water quality by absorbing dissolved nutrients, processing organic wastes, and detoxifying toxic street runoff (e.g. heavy metals, pesticides and fertilizers).
Through the years beaver have inhabited the marsh and in December 2019 returned, strengthening the derelict dam at the 1917 man made outflow. During the wet months of January, the dam held fast with heavy rains exceeding 5.5 inches in just 5 days, while still allowing a continuous flow of water.
The park has recently become a local controversy over how the town plans to mitigate the beavers and the dam. The concern is the potential to downstream flooding, should the dam break. Past flooding has occurred largely due to undersized, substandard and blocked culverts along Union Avenue.
Mayor Ron Lucas confirmed he hired a trapper to trap and kill the beaver after a park visitor discovered a lethal “Conibear” kill trap and surveillance camera near one of the trails. There was an immediate concern for public safety since no warning signage was posted and these dangerous traps which could easily kill a large dog or injure a child. The traps, according to the mayor, have been removed with the plans on hold, but as of 29 May, the trail camera remains.
COVID-19 has restricted wildlife management from dispatching specialists to the field. However, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) advised council woman Nancy Henderson that the impact of the beaver should be objectively assessed prior to implementing any further plans.
Pursuant to RCW 77.55 a Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) permit must be issued by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) to remove or modify a beaver dam on a natural or modified watercourse.
Dees and Associates 1998 Farrell’s Marsh Basin Study advised to effectively achieve flood control a 2.25-foot-wide outlet should be installed. Driveway culverts should be up sized to between 36-42 inches. None of the recommendations were implemented.
WDFW stated beaver trapping is both costly and temporary, as beaver will return. Other mitigating more effective measures are available such as a flexible pond leveler or a beaver deceiver.
So where are we today? Before further public monies are expended on trapping, subject matter experts must conduct a risk assessment of the current ineffective culvert drainage system on Union Avenue. WDRW Region 6 habitat biologists should be consulted regarding all recommended interventions. Decisions on the long-term impact of this wetland park should be discussed in public forum, including the elected members of the city council; not the unilateral decision of one person. Let’s learn to live with them, not without them.
Those who wish to remain current on this issue can join the Facebook Group, “Citizens for the Protection and Preservation of the Farrell Marsh.”