WINTER LAKE — Every resident learns to live with the flood.
Each year, with cruel seasonality, this peat-land is transformed into a 1,700-acre soup.
But this year, emotions have piqued over a different deluge.
Next year, earthworks are slated to begin on a $3.5 million project to restore 400 acres of pasture to wetland.
Sarah Crawford, an organic farmer on Garden Valley Road, worries that new body of water will radically alter the valley’s water table.
“That would ruin us,” Crawford said. “That would ruin this community garden property which has been this way since the ’70s.”
Crawford is not alone. According to Coos County commissioner Bob Main, 37 residents have emailed him with concerns about the proposal.
“They are upset,” Main said. “They are very upset, and I don’t blame them.”
Spearheaders of the wetland project are battling to quell those fears. The group promises that channels and tide gates will protect surrounding landowners.
“We have said from the beginning, they will be no worse than they are in the present,” said Fred Messerle, Coos County commissioner who is heading the project in his personal capacity as a rancher.
But, for some landowners, that’s become a tough sell.
“We don’t have a voice at the table,” says Lisa Foster, who owns a 6.25-acre section of Garden Valley Road.
“We never have. And I think Fred (Messerle) has repeatedly made it abundantly clear he doesn’t give a crap what we say.”
At the heart of the dispute are questions over how much water to be channeled from the Coquille River water the proposed wetland refuge.
Foster says from what she has seen in a draft hydrology report, the proposed amount will inundate her property on Garden Valley Road and several others.
“If this thing goes through, it will put one to 3 feet of water across the whole thing,” Foster said. “It’s completely useless.”
Foster owns a separate property in Langlois where she lives, but she had planned to build a home on her Winter Lake property. She has scrapped those plans.
But Messerle says the final hydrology report won’t be complete until September. Then, project leaders can balance the needs of the landowners with conservation.
“In fairness to the people doing that work, we have got to wait until they have a report you can work with,” Messerle said.
He suspects that in the worst case, water could affect three landowners on Garden Valley Road. But if that looked like the case, he said, they would consider adding new water-control structures to protect them.
If that didn’t appear feasible, they would look at compensation.
“The impact on individual landowners would be subject to negotiation or compensation or whatever,” he said.
‘We have got to find something that would make it work for everybody.”
Sharon Waterman, a rancher with the second largest share of Winter Lake land after Messerle, empathizes with Garden Valley Road residents.
“They are concerned about their production and how it will affect them, and it’s the same for us on a bigger scale,” she said.
Waterman’s 419-acre share of grazing land rubs up against the proposed refuge. She says she opposes the project until she learns more about how it will affect her groundwater.
But the Nature Conservancy, a partner in the wetland project, says it’s too early to tell how Waterman’s land will be affected.
Steve Denney, the South Coast conservation director for the Conservancy, says if the water table changes, they can adjust drainage levels.
“I think there’s option to not impact them, and that’s what will be done,” he said.
Commissioner Bob Main, Messerle’s opponent in November’s election, has his own concerns about the project.
While Main says consultation with surrounding landowners has been poor, he has a bigger issue with the loss of productive farmland to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We spent 150 years trying to make that ground produce to food, and now they want to take it back to marsh?” he said.
Main is also concerned about the loss of land from the county’s tax rolls.
But Denney says the county won’t lose any land from its tax rolls because the state is trading for the wetland, not buying it. Bandon Biota will give the department 280 acres in exchange for timberland around Eel Lake.
“I’m not convinced it’s a land grab because it’s a land trade and it has got some pretty good benefits to the citizens of Coos County,” he said.
Denney says he hopes concerns about the project will be allayed when residents see the final design for the project. That said, he wants to work closer with residents.
“That’s a commitment for us to do a better job of it.”
He says the difficulty, for any project, is deciding what stage to approach landowners.
“Do you bring people in after the draft study that isn’t complete but shows some information? Or do you wait until the final report is done?”
For some landowners on Garden Valley Road, the answer appears to be sooner rather than later.
“If it had been open from the beginning and honest, I don’t think it would have been a big deal,” Foster said.