From a Bogey to Birdies, from Fairway to Flyway-Golf Course Gets a Mulligan, Converts to Habitat

What does it take to convert a former golf course into fish and wildlife habitat?

That was the question plaguing Mountlake Terrace, Washington, a city just 14 miles north of downtown Seattle, after taking ownership of a 16-acre golf course on Lake Ballinger’s shores and allowing it to return to its natural condition starting in 2012.

Today, the area is unrestored open space and parklands, with a degraded Hall Creek flowing through it. Invasive plant species and degraded channels jeopardize what could be valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the urban sprawl.

City officials developed a master plan for restoring the wetlands, riparian corridors, and fish and wildlife habitat, creating and preserving critical habitat for amphibians, and providing significant habitat for migrating birds and many waterfowl species using the Pacific Flyway.

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Bringing the plan to life required engineering expertise in water resource stewardship and ecosystem restoration. City officials knew the nation’s engineers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), has this expertise and experience in delivering world-class solutions to environmental challenges. They called upon USACE’s Seattle District for assistance exploring an aquatic ecosystem restoration project under Section 206 of its Continuing Authorities Program (CAP).

“Ecosystem restoration projects like this allow the Corps the opportunity to partner with local communities, to create and preserve critical habitats in rapidly developing urban areas,” said district Civil Works Programs Section Chief Jeff Dillon. “The local community is actively engaged and motivated to move forward with this restoration opportunity.”

The city received USACE’s technical assistance under Section 206 to restore and protect aquatic ecosystems and wetland habitats to improve the quality of the environment. Section 206 projects include channel modifications and wetland restoration.

A fish removed from Ballinger Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Washington, as part of the preparatory activities for the creek’s dewatering and re-channeling of Lake Ballinger as part of the $5.5 million BIL-funded project to return a golf course to a natural state, and restore habitat in which animals can live. USACE PHOTO BY NICOLE CELESTINE

“Collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers makes habitat restoration possible for over 16 acres of a previous golf course,” said the city’s Stormwater Manager Laura Reed. “When this project is completed, park visitors can enjoy an environment full of bird song, plants that originally thrived in this area, and little wild spaces close to home.”

USACE awarded the contract in January 2023. The $5.5 million construction contract, of which $3.4 million came from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funding President Joseph R. Biden signed into law in November 2021, was also funded through a grant from Washington state taxpayers.

Dillon and Reed agree this project’s importance to the Mountlake Terrace community, the region, and more importantly wildlife, is no exaggeration.

Specialists with The Watershed Company, a Seattle-area environmental services and landscape architecture firm, sift through seine nets for fish and transfer them to fish buckets in preparation for dewatering Ballinger Creek, in Ballinger Park, Mountlake Terrace, Washington. USACE PHOTO BY NICOLE CELESTINE

“The urbanized area of Puget Sound, especially in heavy residential areas, has eliminated much of the native habitat for fish and wildlife,” said Dillon. “What remains is often heavily degraded and overcome by invasive plant species. This project is important because the location is wetlands, it’s close to a large lake, and it can re-establish a notable corridor of native plant habitat.”

Construction began in early summer 2023 and will run through spring 2024.

Additional project components include creating a wetted creek channel, installing diverse plants, replacing a vehicle crossing, and adding a pedestrian boardwalk to limit plant and wetland soil damage. Minor enhancements to pond habitat are also in the plan.

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“The number of places animals can call home is shrinking,” Reed warned. “This project switches up that dynamic and provides more homes for these creatures. Five years from now, this park will be full of birdsong, the creek will have otters and maybe even salmon. It will be a place to experience nature right here in the neighborhood, a place where the sounds of the city will fade away.”

This article is featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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