Can We Fix Puget Sound’s Beaches?

by Christopher Dunagan

Editor’s Note: This series was originally published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Recap of Part 1
If building a new bulkhead has undesirable effects on the Puget Sound ecosystem, then removing old bulkheads should help with the recovery effort, experts say. As part of a four-year focus on shoreline issues, the Environmental Protection Agency funded seven major beach-restoration projects involving the removal of bulkheads.

But it’s not easy. And it’s not cheap. In all, those projects cost about $8 million dollars between 2012 and 2016 to remove just under a mile of shoreline armoring. Such restoration projects go beyond just armor removal and are critical to Puget Sound recovery, agencies say, but they won’t solve the problem on their own.

Of those seven projects, the type and amount of habitat improved with the bulkhead removal varied from project to project. By measuring habitat conditions before and after the work was done, researchers hope to describe the benefits of each project.

Part 2
A more in-depth study of habitat conditions and the process of recovery will examine how quickly various species and habitat conditions return to an area after bulkhead removal and without any additional restoration efforts.

Megan Dethier, a research biologist at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, led an extensive study of armored and natural shorelines in Puget Sound.

The study found that beaches containing bulkheads were generally narrower and contained less shoreline vegetation and driftwood, leading to lower species diversity and less food for juvenile salmon, marine birds and larger animals. The study was undertaken at Edgewater Beach on Eld Inlet near Olympia, where a bulkhead-removal project had been previously planned.

What the Numbers Mean
The annual statistics on shoreline armoring — which are derived from state permits issued to allow construction or repair of shoreline structures, called hydraulic project approvals — do not distinguish soft-shore projects from hard bulkheads, despite their impacts on the shoreline ecosystem. Soft-shore approaches count as new armoring, just like hard bulkheads.

Likewise, when a concrete bulkhead is replaced with nothing more than logs lying on the beach, the project is counted as a “replacement” — the same as if the replacement structure were made of concrete. In 2015, 1.8 miles of replacement structures were installed. The data do not describe how much of this work involved soft-shore techniques.

Dave Price, restoration division manager for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, acknowledged that the overall restoration effort is not fully reflected in the report that shows the amount of armor added versus removed. He hopes to change the permit application so that future reports can show what appears to be a rather surprising shift from hard to soft armoring the past few years. Some projects are a combination of both types of armoring. Besides changing the application form to include more information, a clear definition of “soft armoring” is needed, he said.

The new-versus-remove statistics for shoreline armoring make up one of the “vital signs indicators” used by the Puget Sound Partnership to measure progress in restoring Puget Sound. To meet the partnership’s goal, the total amount of armoring removed must exceed the total amount of armoring constructed during the period from 2011 to 2020. That’s a considerable challenge, considering that things were going in the wrong direction for the first three years, but it remains possible to make up lost ground.

Another challenge for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Puget Sound Partnership is to account for new armoring built without permits. Limited studies involving shoreline surveys in King, Kitsap and San Juan counties revealed numerous armoring projects completed without approval. Such projects never show up in the statistics. Even worse, many of the unpermitted projects fail to meet state or local construction standards. And even when permits are obtained, contractors may build structures longer than allowed by the permit.

Lack of Enforcement
Further studies have revealed that cities and counties generally place a low priority on tracking down shoreline violations and checking on compliance. Many rely on complaints from neighbors. A lack of enforcement was found to encourage further violations.

Many officials agree that a better enforcement program is needed to ensure that all waterfront property owners are treated fairly and must live with the same standards. And, despite ongoing outreach, many shoreline owners still need information about the latest scientific findings.

At the most basic level, people may simply not understand the importance of shorelines to the entire Puget Sound ecosystem, said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership.

“We’re talking about food and nurseries for baby fish,” she said. “The food chain is all messed up, from the bottom all the way up to orcas. With the privilege of living on the shore comes the stewardship of that treasure.”

In some ways, Sahandy said, the issue has been framed wrong. It’s not about what government makes a person do. It’s about whether people desire a natural beach that works for fish and wildlife as well as humans. People have the power to decide if they want more natural conditions, she said.

“We should frame this so that people see the possibility of having a nice beach, a place where you can walk down and put your feet in,” she said, adding that people who have installed soft-shore protections often rave about their easier access to the shore.

Of course, any older homes were built so close to the shore that nothing but a solid bulkhead will work, she said, and everyone recognizes that. But in many cases improvements can be made to help the environment.

Jay Manning, a member of the partnership’s governing Leadership Council and a former director of the Department of Ecology, said healthy shorelines are one of many factors in restoring salmon runs, and they may be a critical factor.

Salmon Recovery Not Working
“Whatever we are doing on salmon recovery is not working right now,” he said. “We need to refocus and see what levers we can turn to get recovery going in the right direction.

“We can’t do much about ocean conditions (where the salmon spend much of their lives),” he said. “But where we can do better by investing money or coming up with better policies, we should do that. Many things are in our control, and we need to work with tribes and local governments.”

Manning noted that shorelines are just one part of salmon habitat in Puget Sound — along with streams and water quality — and there are other important issues, such as harvest, hatcheries and dams. But the importance of shorelines to salmon growth, survival and migration must not be overlooked, he said.

“We are really determined to turn the salmon numbers to a better trajectory,” Manning said, “and nearshore marine habitat is one of the most important areas to focus on.”

Shoreline Planning:
“No Net Loss” Removing more bulkheads than get constructed in Puget Sound may be a laudable goal, but the approach by the state’s Shoreline Management Program is to build no unnecessary bulkheads at all, according to Tim Gates, who heads up shoreline planning for the Department of Ecology (Ecology).

Furthermore, when shoreline stabilization is truly needed, he said, it must be as protective of the environment as possible.

Ecology’s shoreline policies call for “no net loss” of ecological function, he noted. Potential losses from shoreline construction should be offset through mitigation, such as planting native vegetation or restoring another part of the property.

Shoreline requirements, including the “no net loss” provision, will become more uniform around Puget Sound once all the counties have updated their shoreline master programs under state guidelines, he said.

“We need to work on known problems rather than chasing after a magical number,” Gates said. “The issue is way too complex to reduce it to the number of bulkheads being built versus removed.”

Although it is understood that shorelines can vary greatly from one beach to the next in the type and function of habitat, the Puget Sound Partnership needed a way to measure progress toward shoreline restoration. The organization settled on permits approved under the state’s Hydraulic Code, known as hydraulic project approvals, or HPAs.

In the latest HPA statistics, the three counties with the most new armoring — Pierce, Mason and Skagit — are among those that have not yet completed updates to their shoreline master programs. Out of the 12 Puget Sound counties, only six have been fully approved: King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Whatcom, Island and Jefferson.

Pierce County, including its cities, is listed in the 2015 statistics with 880 feet of new armoring in nine new construction projects. That’s more that twice the amount of armoring in the next highest county, Mason County.

Three bulkhead projects built in Pierce County in 2015 totaled 563 feet — more than the total armoring of any other county around Puget Sound. Two of the three were large residential bulkheads — a 225-foot structure on Fox Island and a 175-foot structure on Key Peninsula fronting on Henderson Bay. Permit applications submitted for both projects included reports from professional engineers willing to certify that the projects were needed to reduce bank erosion and prevent possible landslides.

Dave Risvold, the county’s shoreline program supervisor, said a revised Pierce County Shoreline Master Program will give the county more authority to scrutinize bulkhead plans to make sure that erosion controls are needed and that no soft-shore alternatives exist. The new “no net loss” standards call for mitigation to fully balance lost habitat, he said. Such an approach will push designers to minimize shoreline damage from the outset of the projects.

The new Pierce County shorelines plan has been adopted by the County Council and is in the final stages of state review.

The third largest new bulkhead in Pierce County was proposed by the Port of Tacoma and permitted by the city of Tacoma. The project was designed to prevent a washout of Marine View Drive along Commencement Bay, where erosion increased rapidly after several old buildings were demolished.

The port intends to restore the shoreline, according to the permit, but until then large concrete blocks will help stabilize 163 feet of bank along the roadway.

While Pierce County ended up with 880 feet of new armoring, at the other end of the spectrum were Clallam, San Juan, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, where no new bulkheads were built, according to the HPA statistics from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As for removals, Jefferson County had by far the largest removal project last year, when about 1,400 feet of armor was removed along an old railroad grade at the edge of Discovery Bay near Port Townsend. The armor removal was part of a larger restoration project in the bay.

Initially, the Discovery Bay removal was reported as 1,000 feet, based on the original permit. Later, after the annual armoring report was released, WDFW discovered that 1,400 feet was actually removed during the project. This extra 400 feet is not reflected in the annual report, and agency officials acknowledge that this demonstrates another weakness of using permit data in its current form.

The second largest removal project in Puget Sound was the Bowman Bay project in Skagit County, where 540 feet of bulkhead was removed in a project partially funded by the EPA, according to the permit statistics.

The third largest removal project in Puget Sound involved about 400 feet of rock bulkhead near Lakebay on the Key Peninsula in Pierce County. The rock structure was constructed several years before without permits. The removal project, which was subject to state and county permits, was the result of a legal settlement with the county to resolve the alleged violation. In this case, the bulkhead was never counted in the statistics until it was removed and listed on the removal side of the ledger.

2018 Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy Finalized

Following a public comment and external review period, the Habitat Strategic Initiative team is pleased to officially release the Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy, which aims to reduce shoreline armoring in Puget Sound. They developed the strategy in partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Puget Sound Partnership, Puget Sound Institute and an interdisciplinary team of experts.

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Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Washington.

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