Tag: Shorelines

Puget Sound meets 2020 bulkhead-removal goal; new indicators will chart the future

In a turnabout that offers hope for Puget Sound’s nearshore ecosystem, old bulkheads are now being removed faster than new bulkheads are being constructed, according to permit figures provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In fact, officials with Puget Sound Partnership recently announced that the agency’s 2020 goal for reducing shoreline armoring had been reached — just barely — by the end of last year. Specifically, the goal, or target, was to remove more bulkheads, seawalls and other armoring (measured in length) than what was added from 2011 to 2020. One caveat: Not all armoring projects were captured in the permit data.

This old bulkhead on Sinclair Inlet near Port Orchard was once part of a residential property. It was removed two years ago to improve shoreline habitat. Photo: C. Dunagan

Now that we’re past 2020, new targets are in the works along with new Vital Signs and indicators of ecosystem health. Last year, 13 revised Vital Signs along with 34 indicators were approved by the Puget Sound Leadership Council, as recommended by staffers. The Leadership Council oversees the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency responsible for coordinating dozens of public and private partners in the recovery of Puget Sound. Reporting on the new indicators is expected to begin early next year.
Targets, which will define goals for future ecosystem improvements, are currently being developed for a few of the revised indicators and should be available before the end of the year, according to a timetable set by the Leadership Council. Work on other targets will continue through next year.
As for all the old indicators and targets, a final report on progress, or lack of such, over the past 10 years will be a major part of the biennial State of the Sound report, scheduled for submission to the governor next week. The document reports on every target with a discussion about the factors that have led to current conditions.
Many experts were surprised that overall shoreline armoring was reduced enough to meet the 2020 target, given that new construction outpaced removal for five of the past 10 years, based on permit data. In fact, from 2011 to 2013, nearly 2.5 miles of new bulkhead construction was matched with barely a mile of removal. But public efforts eventually kicked in to encourage and fund bulkhead removal while discouraging new construction. Last year, total removal reached 0.71 mile, compared to only 0.18 mile of new bulkheads that were built. (Details can be seen by hovering your curser over bars in the chart.)
Among the concerns with shoreline armoring, experts point out that bulkheads often occupy areas of the beach used by forage fish, which are important food for salmon. Hard seawalls also can reduce natural erosion and concentrate wave energy, leading to a beach devoid of sands and gravels, which forage fish use for spawning. Check out article on effects and ongoing coverage of shoreline issues in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Jeff Cordell and Erin Morgan survey sea wrack on a Puget Sound beach. Photo: Megan Dethier

Bulkhead replacement, rather than removal, still dominates shoreline construction, according to the permit data. Some 1.31 miles of armoring was replaced last year. That’s nearly 50 percent more than the total amount that was removed combined with new construction. Thankfully, experts say, an undetermined amount of that replacement work involved taking out hard vertical bulkheads made of logs, rocks or concrete and replacing them with a more natural “soft shore” design. Such soft-shore construction involves reducing erosion by sloping the beach and placing individual logs and boulders in strategic locations to attenuate the wave energy.
In April, the Washington Legislature passed a law that requires shoreline owners who wish to replace a bulkhead to consider designs that reduce erosion with the least impact to the natural environment. The law went into effect in July, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife intends to involve the public in drafting rules to carry out the new law along with a separate law meant to streamline permitting for habitat-improvement projects.
The long-term goal is to replace hard bulkheads with more natural systems capable of better protecting the environment without allowing damage to shoreline houses and other structures. Where homes are built close to shore on small lots, bulkheads may be the only feasible solution, especially in areas where the sea level is rising dramatically due to climate change. Sea-level rise varies from place to place, even within Puget Sound, depending on long-term ground movement. Waterfront owners are beginning to confront these issues, as described in articles in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
In total from 2011 to 2020, the Department of Fish and Wildlife permitted the removal of 4.85 miles of shoreline armor while allowing 4.71 miles of new construction. Although that meets the target and calls for a celebration, WDFW officials are quick to point out that about 715 miles of shoreline remains hardened, so that a variety of habitat problems remain unaddressed.
These numbers also do not account for unknown shoreline modifications built illegally without permits. Such illegal construction and other compliance issues are now getting increased attention from WDFW.
New efforts seek greater compliance
As new laws and regulations come into effect, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has created a new Compliance Division to make sure people have adequate technical assistance for their projects and that they follow all legal requirements.
Four new compliance inspectors have been hired, three with state funds and a fourth with federal funding to focus on the Stillaguamish watershed in North Puget Sound. The Stillaguamish inspections are a special focus of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, because fishing in both countries has been limited by the low natural returns of salmon to the watershed.
Training for the first compliance inspectors is nearing completion, and they are expected to be in the field in early November. Their responsibilities involve working with property owners and checking on construction in both streams and saltwater shorelines. They will work in conjunction with local habitat biologists (the WDFW officials who sign off on hydraulic project approvals), as well as with uniformed enforcement officers from the agency.
Some new authorities for WDFW came out of recommendations to the Legislature by the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force (PDF 2.9 mb). In 2019, lawmakers strengthened civil penalties for violations of the state’s Hydraulics Code and related permits, thus moving the agency away from criminal citations for shoreline violations. The Legislature also allowed new permits to require mitigation for habitat damage caused by shoreline construction.

This year, other changes were made to require that replacement bulkheads, as well as new bulkheads, be designed to cause the least damage to the shoreline environment. The favored option is to remove a failing bulkhead and restore the beach to a more natural condition. If a shoreline structure is needed, natural (“soft”) materials are preferred over solid retaining walls. When solid walls are necessary, they should be located upland of the existing bulkhead wherever possible.
To help shoreline owners understand their options, experts have created a technical document called “Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines” along with a less technical booklet called “Your Marine Waterfront” (PDF 12.2 mb). Another change this year is to allow a streamlined process for habitat-recovery projects. A pilot program is getting underway to establish a revised permitting process for habitat improvements.
Randi Thurston, who is managing the new Compliance Division, said the incoming compliance inspectors, supported with the increased legal authorities, will provide “boots on the ground” when it comes to checking on permitted projects, investigating reported violations and launching patrols to locate and take action against construction done without permits.
At the same time, the Legislature has built upon the success of an older pilot program that provides financial and technical support to property owners who wish to remove shoreline armoring or work on other habitat-improvement projects. Originally developed in 2014 with federal funding, the Shore Friendly grant program continues to work at the local level throughout Puget Sound, operating through six county-based organizations along with the Northwest Straits Foundation, which serves six counties.
Shore Friendly is now funded by the state’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, which also continues to fund competitive grants for individual projects. The Legislature this year has enhanced ESRP funding with $15.7 million directed toward three dozen prioritized projects (PDF 148 kb).

For further information about efforts to protect and restore nearshore habitat, check out WDFW’s webpage on Puget Sound recovery. For technical reports about the effectiveness of grant-funded projects aimed to improve nearshore habitats and other ecosystem conditions, check out Puget Sound Institute’s synthesis reports.
Strategic planning with new shoreline indicators

As the old indicators and their 2020 targets are phased out, new indicators are being designed to better describe ecosystem conditions. For that reason, the shoreline-armoring indicator — which measures construction and removal of bulkheads rather than habitat condition — has been removed from the list of future indicators.
The old indicator — net change in permitted shoreline armoring — may still be reported as a so-called intermediate measure of progress, but other habitat measures will be used to describe changes in shoreline conditions, according to Nathalie Hamel, who heads up Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs reporting program.
It is important to understand that state permits don’t capture all shoreline construction taking place, Nathalie told me. In addition, the “replacement” of shoreline armoring can represent a wide variety of habitat changes, all lumped into one category. For example, replacement of a concrete wall with the right type of “soft shore” protection could bring a major habitat improvement. But if one concrete wall is replaced with another, the result could be no improvement at all. For these reasons, the measure of armoring construction, removal and replacement should be modified in some ways if it is to be retained, Nathalie said.
Despite the measure’s shortcomings and the newly approved indicators, reduction in shoreline armoring is still considered an important goal. That’s one reason that strategies to reduce armoring were retained in an updated Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy (with links), completed this past July.
The revised indicators (PDF 131 kb) of shoreline habitat, now listed as a Vital Sign called “beaches and marine vegetation,” still include an indicator for the total area of eelgrass in nearshore habitats. New indicators include:

  • Extent of forest cover in nearshore marine riparian areas,
  • Floating kelp canopy area,
  • Percent of feeder bluffs in functional condition, and
  • Short and long-term eelgrass site status.

While these conditions are generally measured as part of an agency’s ongoing work, some refinements are needed to report numbers and trends. Also, definitions of “functional condition” and “site status” may need to be clarified.
Other indicators that could be helpful in describing habitat conditions but still needing considerably more work include:

  • Drift cells in functional condition,
  • Miles of intertidal beach in functional condition, and
  • Understory kelp abundance and condition.

(Drift cells, by the way, refer to sections of a shoreline where sands and gravels move naturally in the same direction.)
At the larger scale, the revision of Vital Signs has retained six Vital Signs that report on biophysical measurements: birds, estuaries, freshwater, marine water, orcas, and toxics in aquatic life.
Just as “shoreline armoring” was converted to a Vital Sign called “beaches and marine vegetation,” the Vital Sign for “land development and cover” was converted to “forests and wetlands.” New indicators were added for every Vital Sign, as described in an 87-page report titled “Revisions to Puget Sound Vital Signs and Indicators” (PDF 11.9 mb).
Since human-related Vital Signs and indicators were developed after extensive studies before the latest update, no immediate changes were proposed to the Vital Signs for the statutory goals of “Healthy Human Population” and “Vibrant Human Quality of Life.”

Shoreline armoring in Puget Sound gets new scrutiny from the Army Corps of Engineers

Shoreline bulkheads, which can damage beaches and destroy fish habitat, could come under more extensive review and permitting as the result of a revised shoreline policy announced last week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The revised policy (PDF 163 kb), which resulted from a federal lawsuit, now requires a Corps of Engineers permit for shoreline construction below the high-tide line. The previous line of jurisdiction was lower on the beach, effectively exempting most shoreline armoring from federal permits.

Shoreline Armoring, such as this bulkhead on Maury Island, can reduce forage fish spawning, affecting the Puget Sound food web, experts say. // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

One of the key results of the policy change is to bring shoreline armoring under the purview of the Endangered Species Act, said Amy Carey of Sound Action, one of three environmental groups bringing the lawsuit against the Corps.
“Until this change was made, the Corps was not looking at the impacts to endangered salmon and orcas (from bulkheads),” Amy said, noting that shoreline armoring can reduce spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance. Since salmon depend on forage fish and orcas depend on salmon, shoreline armoring can affect a significant part of the food web.
The effort to get the Corps to change its policy and better protect the shoreline ecosystem has been a five- to six-year battle, Amy told me. The new policy better aligns the federal shoreline jurisdiction (under the Clean Water Act) with state and local jurisdictions (under the Shoreline Management Act and the State Hydraulics Code).
The Endangered Species Act, which requires studies of biological effects before a project is approved, is a powerful “tool” for protecting the environment, Amy said, and it’s not directly available to state agencies.
State agencies, including the Puget Sound Partnership, have made a concerted effort to inform the public about damage from shoreline armoring. State and local regulations have been updated to prevent new bulkheads unless absolutely necessary to protect a structure from shoreline erosion. Shoreline property owners have been encouraged to replace old bulkheads with more natural methods of erosion control, such as large logs and rocks anchored to the beach. This is called soft-shore protection.
The Washington Legislature also has focused on the issue, last year granting the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife increased authority to oversee bulkhead construction for single-family homes. And this year, lawmakers are considering a bill to require property owners to analyze the feasibility of soft-shore protection before replacing an aging bulkhead.
Previously, the Seattle District of the Corps, a federal agency, declined to regulate construction — including shoreline armoring — proposed in areas above a line defined by the average of the highest tide of each day — known as “mean higher high water” since there are two high tides each day. Most bulkheads are built above this line.
A revised policy by the Army Corps of Engineers expands the agency’s jurisdiction up to the high tide line, not shown above but akin to “ordinary high water” — that is from MHHW to OHW, an area where most bulkheads are built. // Graphic: Puget Sound Institute

About one out of four high tides in the Seattle area exceed the mean higher high water mark used by the Corps since 1977, according to legal pleadings by the environmental groups. A more suitable line for regulation would bring about 8,600 acres under Corps’ jurisdiction, the plaintiffs argued.
By moving the line of jurisdiction higher on the beach, the Corps is now expected to review most proposed bulkhead projects, along with other shoreline structures. Docks, floats and other construction close to the water have been subject to federal permitting since the Clean Water Act went into effect in the 1970s.
Amy told me that over the past five years more than 500 permits for shoreline protection were approved by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, but only a few of those came under federal jurisdiction.
The new line of jurisdiction is called simply the “high tide line,” defined by changes in vegetation, deposits of shells and debris, along with other evidence marking the highest tides under normal conditions. That’s similar to state jurisdiction under the Hydraulics Code, which goes up to “ordinary high water.”
While the term “high tide line” has been defined in federal regulations since 1977, the Army Corps of Engineers has used various tidal datum points in different jurisdictions, according to the lawsuit. Seattle and Portland districts have used “mean higher high water;” the Alaska district uses “extreme high tide;” and the Los Angeles district uses an on-site determination of the highest tide of the year.
Several agencies have complained that the Seattle District’s use of mean higher high water neglects potential damage to the shoreline environment.
“The ecological effect is that extensive area of intertidal and estuarine habitat that are important to ESA-listed salmon and multiple other species of shellfish and other marine life are not adequately protected,” stated a 2013 letter from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Later, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and Gov. Jay Inslee called for a change in jurisdictional policy to better protect listed salmon.
In 2016, a group of experts from the Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studied the issue and recommended using the “mean average high tide,” said to be a more predictable standard and “reasonably representative of the intersection of the land and the water’s surface at the maximum height reached by the rising tide.”
In 2018, Major General Scott Spellmon, commander of the Corps’ Northwest Division, rejected that recommendation in a memorandum, noting that other jurisdictional regulations were still under review by federal agencies and the courts as part of the debate over the so-called “waters of the U.S.” Spellmon said it would not be a good use of Corps’ resources to continue the discussion about the tidal jurisdiction boundary.
In 2018, three environmental groups, led by attorneys for Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Spellmon’s decision to continue with the status quo in violation of the Clean Water Act’s specific references to the high-tide line.
“Puget Sound is one of the nation’s aquatic crown jewels, a vibrant and diverse ecosystem that sustains one of the nation’s most dynamic economies,” states the legal complaint from Sound Action, Friends of the San Juans and the Washington Environmental Council.
“The deleterious effects of shoreline armoring on the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem are well documented,” the complaint continues. “Among many other impacts, hardening or armoring of natural shorelines alters critical ecological functions such as erosion and sediment movement, causing beaches to lower, narrow, and eventually disappear. There is broad scientific consensus that this replacement of upper beach areas with hard barriers negatively impacts important habitat for plants and animals.”
Federal attorneys moved to dismiss the case, saying a decision on the shoreline jurisdiction was still pending and not subject to legal action. Last February, U.S. District Judge James Robart rejected that argument, saying Spellmon’s memo constituted a federal decision, if only a temporary one. Thus the judge established conditions for a full trial on the matter.
In October, the Seattle District of the Corps informed the judge of its intent to rescind the Spellmon memo and eliminate the policy of using mean higher high water as the jurisdictional boundary. Last Friday, the Corps followed through with a “special public notice” saying that it has removed all references to mean higher high water from its Seattle District website and regulatory documents.
“The District will locate the HTL (high tide line) through case/location-specific consideration of all factors identified in the (legal definition),” the notice states. “The District may consider all available tidal data relevant to the HTL definition when making jurisdictional determinations.”
The revised policy will bring federal jurisdiction and regulations to structures built above the previous boundary line up to the observed line formed by the highest tides. That will affect mostly bulkheads but sometimes stairs to the beach and other structures.
“If an application is pending with the Corps, applicants will be notified if any changes to application materials or additional information is required to continue processing the application,” Patricia Graesser, chief of public affairs for the Seattle District, wrote me in an email. “We encourage permit applicants to work directly with their project manager with any questions or concerns about specific applications.”
An information meeting on the issue is scheduled for March 19 at the Seattle District office.
Avoiding new shoreline armoring and removing existing armoring wherever possible has been a longtime goal of the Puget Sound Partnership, which was created in 2007 to coordinate recovery of Puget Sound. A “Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy,” adopted in 2018, spells out a series of programs and actions to reduce shoreline impacts — including incentives, technical support, revised regulations and increased enforcement of existing rules. (See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)
The issue of shoreline jurisdiction by the Army Corps of Engineers was discussed by a multi-agency review team that developed the strategy, noted Aimee Kinney, policy analyst for the Puget Sound Institute, who worked on the strategy.
Some team members strongly supported increased Corps oversight, because it would institute a formal review by federal experts involved in endangered species protections, allow tribal engagement in mitigation and increase fines for violations, Aimee told me.
On the other hand, some members were concerned that the federal process could inhibit efforts to remove existing shoreline armor by increasing reporting requirements for soft-shore replacements, she said. Going through a Corps permit will take more time, add complexity and increase cost. Also, unless followed up with a significant increase in enforcement, the extra federal scrutiny might encourage some people to illegally avoid permits altogether, she said.
One question is whether the Seattle District has adequate staff to handle the increased workload for permits, Aimee noted. The Seattle District averaged just 17 permits per year for “bank stabilization” from 2012 to 2017, she said. Meanwhile, in 2015 and 2016, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued an average of 165 permits per year for new, replacement or repair of marine-shoreline armoring, she said, pointing out that this is just a rough approximation of what the Corps may be facing because of differences between the two agencies.
To streamline the process, the Corps could develop a “regional general permit” to cover most conditions in Puget Sound, thus allowing for rapid approval, provided that a project is built to specified standards, including mitigation.
In the end, moving the line of jurisdiction a short way up the beach might not seem like a big change, but it could have profound effects on future shoreline-armoring projects and the survival of certain Puget Sound species.
For information about the effects of shoreline armoring, check out the special section in Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. For information about Puget Sound Implementation Strategies, including the Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy, start with this Puget Sound Partnership page.
Composite view, before and after, of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park. Such projects improve beach habitat and should be encouraged, experts say.
Image: Kris Symer, PSI, from photos by Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group