Schmitz seawall vulnerable

There's concern that waves during a bad storm this winter might break a vulnerable section of the seawall along Emma Schmitz Memorial Viewpoint, which could threaten a large sewer pipeline buried behind the seawall as well as Beach Drive.

There are signs of erosion along the bottom or "toe" of the seawall at the southern end of the viewpoint, where about 200 feet of the seawall bottom is exposed to waves. The toe of the rest of the seawall remains buried under beach sand.

There are large cracks in the 6-foot-high concrete base at the southern end of the seawall too.

Above the base of the 81-year-old structure is a sheet-pile wall of concrete partitions held upright and in place by old steel railroad rails set vertically. There's a football-size hole in the sheet pile wall near the southern end of the seawall. Some of the seawall's cap is missing at the southern end too.

Material on the landward side of the seawall has washed away, said Les Soule, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"If there is a major storm, there could be a loss of a portion of the seawall," he said. "We would sure lose the 54-inch sewer main."

Besides the threat of storms, the seawall also straddles the Seattle Fault that runs in an east-west alignment the width of West Seattle and farther east.

Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin ordered updated cost estimates for repair of the seawall. One early estimate was $1.4 million. He also seeks a selection of different ideas for fixing the problem as well as a proposed schedule for when repairs could be made. Conlin is chairman of the City Council's Environment, Emergency Management and Utilities Committee.

"The danger of catastrophic failure is real, which is why we are taking it up as an emergency preparedness mitigation project," Conlin wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "It did fail to the north of this project site in 1998 during a winter storm."

The sewer line behind the seawall carries about 50 million gallons of sewage a day northward along Beach Drive on its way to the West Point sewage treatment plant, Conlin said.

Paying the seawall repair bill will be complicated because there are four public agencies at three levels of government involved.

Emma Schmitz Memorial Viewpoint is a city park, so Seattle Parks and Recreation has an interest.

Another city agency, the Seattle Department of Transportation, is concerned about the seawall's ability to protect nearby Beach Drive.

The King County Wastewater Treatment Division owns and operates the sewer line.

Finally the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved because it regulates much of what is built along the shorelines of navigable waterways.

The Corps of Engineers began studying the problem in 2002 at the request of Seattle Parks and Recreation. The city wondered if money might be available to fix the seawall through the federal emergency bank-protection program.

The Army Corps of Engineers determined the project met the requirements, Soule said. The plan in 2004 was for the Corps of Engineers to pay 65 percent of the cost, with the city and county splitting the rest, Conlin said. There was even going to be enough to help pay for moving Beach Drive and the sewer line if need be.

In late 2003, Corps of Engineers' planners were in the midst of studying various ways to fix the seawall when Congress cut spending for the program and the money dried up, Soule said. The Corps of Engineers abandoned the study and turned to the city of Seattle to see if there was local tax money available to fix the seawall.

Some money could be available from the King County Wastewater Treatment Division. The county previously installed riprap, the large rocks that spread over part of the lower bank.

"We are willing to allocate funding for the project," said Annie Kolb-Nelson, spokeswoman for the King County Wastewater Treatment Division.

At this point it is unclear where the rest of the repair money will come from.

Tim St. Clair can be reached at tstclair@robinsonnews.com or 932-0300.

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