It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales
that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary
prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.
It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough
to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could
be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a
growing fetus during times of a food shortage.
Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s
condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about
two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those
miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of
pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.
In a story published today in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with
other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft
(drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern
Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.
Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales,
which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how
hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated,
but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When
adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin
to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’
long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.
One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone
studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in
winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam
and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the
spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that
spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not
in significant numbers.
The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is
providing precise measurements about the length and width of each
killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it
will be important to document whether physical changes observed in
the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the
“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne
Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more
than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations
might be affecting their health and reproduction.”
Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and
oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern
By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its
five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition
to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the
risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether
actions proposed to help them have been carried out.
Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight
endangered species across the country that are headed for
extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight,
selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as
“Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans
were released for all eight species.
The plan called
“Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2
mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’
survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and
effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document
describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the
whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.
Puget Sound Partnership continues to struggle in its efforts to
pull everyone together in a unified cause of protecting and
restoring Puget Sound.
This week, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees
the partnership, adopted the latest Puget Sound Action
Agenda, which spells out the overall strategies as well as the
specific research, education and restoration projects to save Puget
The goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by 2020 — a date
established by former Gov. Chris Gregoire — was never actually
realistic, but nobody has ever wanted to change the date. The
result has been an acknowledgement that restoration work will go on
long after 2020, even though restoration targets remain in place
for that date just four years away.
A letter to be signed by all members of the Leadership Council
begins to acknowledge the need for a new date.
“As the scope and depth of our undertaking expands along with
our understanding, federal and state funding is on the decline,”
the letter states. “We’re increasingly forced into a position where
we’re not only competing amongst ourselves for a pool of funding
wholly insufficient to accomplish what needs doing, but we are also
feeling the impacts of cuts to programs supporting other societal
priorities as well. If we continue at our historic pace of
recovery, which is significantly underfunded, we cannot expect to
achieve our 2020 recovery targets.”
This is not necessarily an appeal for money to support the Puget
Sound Partnership, although funds for the program have been
slipping. But the partnership has always been a coordinator of
projects by local, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups and
research institutions — where the on-the-ground work is done. That
much larger pot of money for Puget Sound efforts also is
“These are threats that compel us to action, fueled by our
devotion to place,” the letter continues. “We at the Puget Sound
Partnership, along with our local, tribal and regional partners,
have a vision of a resilient estuary that can help moderate the
increasing pressures of a changing world.
“How we aim to accomplish our vision is found in this updated
Action Agenda. For the next two years, this is the focused,
measurable and scientifically grounded roadmap forming the core of
the region’s work between now and 2020 and beyond.”
The newly approved Action Agenda is the outcome of a greater
effort to reach out to local governments and organizations involved
in the restoration of Puget Sound. Priorities for restoration
projects were developed at the local level with an emphasis on
meeting the priorities and strategies developed in previous Action
The latest document is divided into two sections to separate
overall planning from the work involved parties would like to
accomplish over the next two years. The two parts are called the
“Comprehensive Plan” and the “Implementation Plan.”
As determined several years ago, upcoming efforts known as
“near-term actions” are focused on three strategic initiatives:
Stormwater: Prevent pollution from urban
stormwater runoff, which causes serious problems for marine life
Habitat: Protect and restore habitat needed
for species to survive and thrive.
Shellfish: Protect and recover shellfish beds,
including areas harvested by commercial growers and recreational
Actions are focused on 29 specific strategies and 109
substrategies that support these ideas. Projects, which may be
viewed in a list at the front of the “Implementation Plan,” are
aligned with the substrategies.
“This leaner, scientifically grounded strategic recovery plan is
a call to action,” the letter from the Leadership Council states.
“We know that our restoration efforts are failing to compensate for
the thousands of cuts we continue to inflict on the landscape as
our population grows and habitat gives way to more humans.
“We know that salmon, steelhead and orcas — the magnificent
beings that in many ways define this corner of the world — are
struggling to persist as we alter the land and waters to which
they’re adapted,” the letter concludes. “And we know that warming
temperatures and acidifying seawater are moving us toward a future
that we don’t fully understand and are not entirely prepared for.
Hard decisions are ahead, and we’re past the point where additional
delay is acceptable.”
I’m certainly no highway engineer, but I’ve been thinking about
the difference between building roads in Kansas, where I was born,
and building roads in the Puget Sound region.
Kansas has its streams and wetlands to be sure, but nothing like
the density of natural features that we find in the Puget Sound
watershed, where land elevations change constantly and roadways
must cross streams and wetlands at every turn.
For many years, road construction in the Puget Sound region
involved filling wetlands and burying pipes just big enough to pass
the water. It was assumed that salmon would make it through. But
based on our current knowledge of salmon migration, we realize that
these shortcuts took a major toll on the populations of salmon and
This week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a
lower court ruling requiring state agencies to correct decades of
road-building mistakes that impaired salmon passage on state
highways and on state forest roads. Check out
Monday’s story in the Kitsap Sun.
The lawsuit, filed by 21 Indian tribes, was based on the idea
that undersized and poorly functioning culverts severely affected
the total salmon runs in violation of treaties signed in the 1850s,
which promised Native Americans the right to fish forever in
The lawsuit did not address culverts owned by the federal
government, local governments or private property owners, but the
same principles apply. Steps are now being taken to improve salmon
passage based on standards developed by the Washington Department
of Fish and Wildlife.
Meanwhile, a state advisory committee, known as the Fish Barrier Removal
Board, has been working to establish priorities with top-ranked
projects providing the greatest improvement in salmon habitat.
Kitsap County Engineer Jon Brand, who serves on the board,
described a two-pronged approach to set the priorities. One is to
focus on priority watersheds, with the idea of making major
improvements in a variety of streams in a given area. (See map
above and board
materials (PDF 50.4 mb), Oct. 20, 2015.) The second approach is
to coordinate planning for top-priority streams, with the idea of
working on entire stream systems at once. Obviously, it does not
make sense to replace a culvert upstream if a downstream culvert
continues to block salmon passage. Check out the list of
top-30 ranked projects (PDF 57 kb).
The Fish Barrier Removal Board is putting together a funding
package to be submitted to the Legislature. As Jon pointed out,
some of the most effective projects for salmon passage are not in
the Puget Sound region nor subject to the federal court ruling. The
list also goes beyond state roadways and includes a mix of
ownerships based on the watershed and stream priorities mentioned
State lawmakers face some difficult funding decisions. With the
court order hanging over their heads, along with a 2030 deadline,
they may choose to do only culvert-removal projects in the Puget
Sound region, even though projects in other areas could get a
greater bang for the buck. And will there be money left over to
support local governments trying to improve salmon passage in their
I asked Jon about the expediency of early road-builders who must
have given little consideration to salmon when they filled
wetlands, carved out drainage ditches and installed pipes to carry
the flow of water. It was not always that way, Jon told me.
That method of road-building arrived with the invention of large
earth-moving equipment, he said. In the 1800s and early 1900s,
filling a stream and inserting a culvert was more difficult than
building a bridge of logs, given the vast quantities of timber on
the Kitsap Peninsula.
Those early log bridges no doubt caused fewer problems for
salmon, but they did not last. Eventually, nearly every bridge was
replaced, often by dumping fill across the stream and allowing a
small culvert to carry the water.
As for my misguided notion that Kansas can ignore stream
crossings because the state has no serious environmental problems,
I found this language in “Kansas
Fish Passage Guide” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document written for
“In Kansas, fish passage issues caused by culverts were not
recognized by road officials until about 2010, when … research
indicated that culverts and low-water crossings were a significant
cause of habitat fragmentation in the Kansas Flint Hills.
“Many of the threatened and endangered fish in Kansas are a type
of minnow or minnow-size fish. Small fish typically are not strong
swimmers, so waterfalls, water velocity and turbulence can be a
barrier to passage upstream. Culverts are dark and have an atypical
channel bottom that may also discourage fish passage. Lack of water
depth through the culvert can restrict passage during low-flow
“Stream barriers reduce habitat range and can adversely affect
fish populations upstream and downstream of the stream crossing. A
severe event like a drought or oil spill in a stream segment can
wipe out a species, and the species cannot repopulate the stream
because of the barrier.”
Kansas has begun to prohibit blocking culverts and to address
existing fish-passage issues. As the above-referenced publication
states, “On the Great Plains, it’s usually easy to design and
construct a stream crossing for a two-lane road to provide fish
Our native Olympia oyster may seem small and meek, but its
slow-growing nature may serve it well under future conditions of
ocean acidification, according to a new study.
In fact, the tiny Olympia oysters appear to reproduce
successfully in waters that can kill the offspring of Pacific
oysters — a species that grows much larger and provides the bulk of
the commercial oyster trade in Washington state.
Unlike Pacific oysters, Olympias don’t begin forming their
shells until two or three days after fertilization, and the
formation progresses slowly, helping to counteract the effects of
corrosive water, according to the author of the new study, George
Waldbusser of Oregon State University.
Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund said people who
work with Olympia oysters have long suspected that they may have
some advantages over Pacific oysters. Olympia oysters keep their
fertilized eggs in a brood chamber inside the shell until the
larvae are released into the water about two weeks later.
In contrast, the eggs of Pacific oysters are fertilized in the
open water and the resulting larvae must fend for themselves right
While the brood chamber may protect the larvae from predators,
the new study showed that the brood chamber does not protect
against ocean acidification. Corrosive water still circulates
through the mother’s shell, exposing the larvae.
To test how Olympia oysters would do in open waters, the
researchers grew baby oysters outside the brood chamber where they
were exposed to acidified water, noted Matthew Gray, a former
doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He
is now conducting research at the University of Maine.
“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to
developing young, but we found it does not provide any
physiological advantage to the larvae,” Gray said in an
OSU news release. “They did just as well outside the brood
chamber as inside.”
It appears that a major difference in the development of Pacific
and Olympia oysters lies in their reproductive strategies,
including differences in managing their energetics.
“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those
eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters, even though
they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said.
“Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring.
Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom
and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with
The research team found that energy stores in young Pacific
oysters declined by 38.6 percent per hour, compared to 0.9 percent
in Olympia oysters. Pacific oysters put their energy into building
their shells seven times faster than Olympia oysters. The exposure
to acidified water affects shell development. While the larval
oysters may get through the shell-building stage, they often don’t
have enough energy left to survive, Waldbusser said.
Restoration Fund has been working for nearly 20 years to
restore Olympia oysters at 19 priority locations throughout Puget
Sound. The new study lends credence to the effort and support for a
recommendation by the 2012 Blue
Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel called for
restoring the native oyster to Puget Sound to build resilience into
the ecosystem, according to Betsy Peabody.
“It was a recommendation that came out before we had the
critical science to support it,” Betsy told me. “He (Waldbusser)
has just given us the underlying research that supports that
recommendation. Our grandchildren may be cultivating Olympia
oysters rather than Pacific oysters.”
The panel, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, called for
maintaining the genetic diversity of native shellfish to provide
the species a fighting chance against ecological changes brought on
by climate change.
Benefits of the Olympia oyster, including so-called ecosystem
services, are described in an article by Eric Wagner in the
of Puget Sound. Healthy oyster reefs offer benefits such as
cleaning up the water, protecting shorelines from erosion and
increasing habitat complexity, which can expand the diversity of
So far, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has restored 50 acres of
shellfish to Puget Sound, working toward a goal of restoring 100
acres by 2020.
Oyster hatcheries in Washington state underwent a temporary
crisis a few years ago when Pacific oyster larvae were dying from
acidified seawater pumped into the hatcheries. The water still
becomes hazardous at times, but careful monitoring of pH levels has
allowed hatchery operators to overcome the problem. When the water
in an oyster hatchery moves beyond an acceptable pH level,
operators add calcium carbonate to alter the pH and support the
oyster larvae with shell-building material.
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms said older oysters might be
affected in the future as ocean acidification progresses. “We know
things are going to get worse,” he told me.
Because of their small size and high cost of production, Olympia
oysters will never overtake the Pacific oyster in terms of market
share, Bill said, but they are in high demand among people who
appreciate the history of our only native oyster and its unique
The new research by Waldbusser raises the question of whether
the highly commercial Pacific oysters could be bred so that their
larvae grow slower and perhaps overcome the effects of ocean
Joth Davis, senior scientist for Puget Sound Restoration Fund
and senior researcher for Taylor Shellfish, said the market is
strong for a smaller Pacific oyster, so most growers would not
object to one that grows more slowly with greater survival.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to maintain the genetic
diversity of Olympia oysters and other native species, as growers
begin to think about cultivating more natives. Transplanting
species from one area to another and boosting their populations
with hatcheries creates a potential to override local populations
and weaken overall genetic diversity, Joth said.
Geoduck clams, which can be started in hatcheries and grown on a
large scale, don’t appear to be genetically distinct from one place
to another in Puget Sound, Joth said.
Researchers have found some evidence that Olympia oysters may be
genetically distinct when comparing one area of Puget Sound to
another. But finding genetic differences does not always mean the
population is uniquely adapted to that area, Joth said. Variations
might relate to a random population that settles in a specific
location. Sometimes it takes careful study to make sense of the
Rich Childers, Puget Sound shellfish manager for the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state currently has no
firm rules for transferring native species from one place to
another. With growing interest in cultivating Olympia oysters, sea
cucumbers and other native species, the agency is opening
discussions about what kind of controls might be needed.
“We’ve learned lessons from salmon that you can’t spread
everything from hell and gone,” Rich said. “Should we be looking at
some management or hatchery guidelines that would help maintain
genetic diversity? Should we have laws or policies? These are the
questions that are just starting to surface.”
At a community meeting in March, many residents of Harper in
South Kitsap expressed profound disappointment that the latest plan
to restore Harper Estuary would remove a low-key boat launch used
by many people in the area. See
Kitsap Sun story, March 31.
The makeshift boat launch, built on fill, provides the only
access to the beach in that area, community members noted. Many
expressed their belief that county and state officials had failed
in their commitment to maintain beach access.
After the meeting, five representatives of the community met
onsite with officials involved in the project. Several ideas were
discussed, and it appears that a new access to the estuary is
gaining approval, though it won’t allow vehicles with trailers to
reach the water. The new access would be an earthen ramp on the
opposite side of Olympiad Drive.
“Retaining the boat landing in its current location will:
“Block the ability to replace the undersized culvert with a
large bridge in order to restore estuary function and tidal
“Reduce sediment contaminant removal associated with the
“Retain compacted gravel substrate that does not support
aquatic plants or benthic organisms at the existing boat launch,
“Impede restoration of filled estuarine habitat and functional
The proposal now under consideration is to grade the slope
alongside Olympiad Drive at a gentle 5:1 angle. Cars and trucks
could pull off the side of the road long enough to unload their
boats, which would be carried down the slope. For people who just
want to walk down to the water, the ramp would provide the needed
access and perhaps the beginning of a proposed trail system around
A plan to build stairs down to the water from Southworth Drive
raised objections during the March meeting, because it would be
difficult and unsafe to carry boats across the busy roadway and
down concrete steps, which could become slippery. If the stairs are
built, which remains undecided, they could be designed to contain
gravel, making them less slippery.
Jim Heytvelt, a community leader in Harper, said the new access
to the beach would meet the needs of most, but not all, people in
the community. Most people in support of the restoration never
wanted a major boat launch like the one at Manchester, he said.
People are beginning to come around to the reality of the
situation, given conditions needed to restore the estuary, he
During surveys of the property, officials discovered another
problem that could have thrown a monkey wrench into the boat launch
at its current location. The county learned that it does not own
the property where the boat launch was built, as had been widely
assumed. The property is owned by the state Department of Natural
Resources — and nobody has ever been given approval to use the
Even if the restoration could be done without removing the
launch site, nobody knows if the DNR would grant a lease for the
use to continue. Someone might need to assume liability at the
site. The proposed ramp to the estuary seems to eliminate that
problem, as the property is almost entirely owned by the
Delays in preparing the plans, getting permits and putting the
project out to bid has caused the schedule to slip from early
summer into late summer and fall, said Doris Small of the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That assumes the
project can be advertised for bids by the end of this month —
something that is still not certain.
Any further delays could put the funding in jeopardy and might
require new approvals from the Washington Department of Ecology and
possibly the Legislature. The restoration money comes from a fund
set up to mitigate for damages from the ASARCO smelter in Tacoma,
which emitted toxic pollution for decades, some of which reached
The first phase of the project involves excavation to remove
most of the fill dumped into the estuary, allowing the shorelines
to return to a natural condition. To complete the restoration,
additional funding is being sought to build a bridge, which will
replace the culvert under Olympiad Drive. If funding is approved,
the bridge could be built as early as next summer.
Another community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30
p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church, 2881 Harvey St. SE.
Officials will provide an update on the restoration efforts. County
Commission Charlotte Garrido said she would like to continue
discussions about what the community would like to see in the
future, hoping to build a stronger relationship between the county
and the community.
Andy Nelson, who took over as Kitsap County’s public works
director two years ago, quickly proved his worth to the local
environment when he proposed federal funding for three major
One project begins with a proposed $350,000 study of South
Kitsap’s Burley Creek watershed — an important stream that probably
has never received the attention it deserves. The other projects
are in Silverdale and Hansville.
I stumbled on Kitsap County’s proposal for Burley Creek buried
within a U.S. Senate bill to authorize water-related projects
across the country — the same bill that would authorize the
$20-million Skokomish River ecosystem restoration in Mason County.
Water Ways, April 28.)
How did a relatively small Kitsap project find its way into a
massive public works bill? You could say it was because Andy was
aware of a congressional effort to seek out local partnerships with
the Army Corps of Engineers. That effort, which began in 2014, came
about in part as response to the elimination of old-fashioned
earmarks, by which members of Congress could promote their favorite
Andy came to Kitsap County after retiring from the Army Corps of
Engineers, where he held the rank of colonel and was deputy
commander for the South Pacific Division. That’s the Corps’
regional office for California and the other Southwest states. (See
County news release.)
“Kitsap County is a great place, and we chose to come here
because of Puget Sound and the nearby mountains,” Andy told me.
“With the amount of saltwater shorelines, I anticipated there would
be ongoing Army Corps work taking place in Kitsap County.”
In fact, there were no projects in Kitsap County proposed in
partnership with the Army Corps. The Corps had previously done
studies on Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and on Carpenter Creek in
North Kitsap, but funding was never available for the actual
Andy put his head together with staffers in Kitsap County Public
Works (his department) and the Department of Community Development.
They came up with three projects to be submitted to the Corps for
consideration. In the end — and to Andy’s great surprise — these
three Kitsap projects were the only ones submitted from Washington
state during the first year of the solicitation.
The Burley Creek project is one that Tim Beachy, an engineer for
Kitsap County Public Works, had been considering in a more limited
“We were looking at the replacement of a barrier culvert on
Bethel-Burley Road,” Tim told me. “It looked like a bridge upstream
on Fenton Road could be impacted by the culvert replacement, and
there was a private bridge upstream of that.”
A barrier culvert is one identified as blocking or impeding the
passage of salmon. Replacing a culvert can alter the grade of the
stream channel, affecting bridges and culverts upstream and/or
downstream and potentially leading to unanticipated consequences
for salmon migration.
It turns out that Burley Creek contains spawning beds used by
Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead, both listed as
threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It also contains
important spawning and rearing habitat for other salmon
At Andy’s direction, a study was proposed to look at salmon
passage at four bridges in close proximity on Burley Creek, to
consider the effects of flooding and storm damage on the roads and
bridges, and to propose further actions that might reduce pollution
affecting shellfish downstream in Burley Lagoon.
County officials met with the Corps to discuss the idea. The
Corps accepted it as a worthwhile project and proposed it for
funding. Congress will have the final word on the study, which
would be done by the Corps. If the project moves to construction,
local and state funding — probably a 35 percent match — would be
The Burley Creek study requires congressional authorization
because it is somewhat unique and does not fit under the
“continuing authority” that allows the Corps to investigate issues
such as shoreline restoration, shoreline stabilization, ecosystem
restoration or navigation, Andy told me. The Corps does not have
authority to address water-quality projects per se.
The other two projects are still being evaluated, but they will
not need congressional approval since they fall under existing
authority of the Corps.
One would be a close look at Silverdale’s waterfront at the head
of Dyes Inlet, including Clear Creek and the pocket estuary near
Hop Jack’s and Silverdale Beach Hotel. The study would look at ways
to restore ecological processes and biological diversity, including
shorelines used by forage fish, salmon, resident and migratory
waterfowl, and diverse species found in both freshwater and tidal
marshes. The project would address stormwater alternatives and
consider ways to improve passive recreation.
The last project — which was actually the first in a letter to
the Corps — would involve the restoration of freshwater and
saltwater marsh habitats in and around Point No Point County Park.
The study would look at the longterm effects of sea-level rise,
including flood control and potential damage to houses, roads, park
facilities and the historic Point No Point Lighthouse. The project
could create a more natural setting and enhance intertidal
“Nothing prevents two or even all three of these projects from
competing for funds and getting funded,” Andy said. “We may
determine that the work is not for the Army Corps of Engineers, but
we could still use the science and engineering that comes out of
these studies. To get a Kitsap County creek in the (Water Resources
Development Act) is a big deal.”
The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two
parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore
As we researched the series, I was able to interact with a lot
of interesting people — from coastal geologists to property owners.
Today’s experts in shoreline ecology credit the late Wolf Bauer
with many of the ideas that have become commonplace in shoreline
restoration. I was pleased when Washington Sea Grant produced a
video tribute to Wolf, who died in January at 103 years old.
One story I wrote, which was published today, involved a boat
ride along the eastern shoreline of North Kitsap, which was the
perfect setting for describing the geology and natural forces that
shape the shoreline. I must thank Hugh Shipman of the Washington
Department of Ecology and Paul Dorn of the Suquamish Tribe for
their expertise. Check out “Sources of
On an earlier boat ride, I joined up with a group of shoreline
property owners who were learning about nearshore ecology and the
benefits of bulkhead removal. The boat trip, sponsored by the Shore
Friendly Kitsap program, is part of a pilot project to introduce
the idea of removing bulkheads.
The tour departed from Brownsville and went up through Liberty
Bay near Poulsbo, where we observed a mixed assortment of houses
and associated shoreline structures. Some of these waterfront homes
were protected with massive rock bulkheads; some featured stubby
wooden walls; and some were surrounded by vegetation with no
bulkhead at all.
“Taking this boat ride lets you see what the natural shoreline
should look like,” said Lee Derror, a Tracyton resident who has
been contemplating whether to remove her bulkhead, built of
Cost of removal is a major obstacle for many property owners —
unless their bulkhead is already failing. The other major concern
is whether alternative “soft shore” protection will be enough to
protect their shoreline from excessive erosion.
Leaving Liberty Bay, the boat headed to Port Madison on
Bainbridge Island to examine the Powel family property, where a
bulkhead was removed in 2013. The 1,500-foot bulkhead removal is
believed to be the largest private removal so far in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore
Jim Brennan, a consulting marine biologist, told the passengers
that accommodations were made to protect a historic boathouse on
the Powel property by placing large rocks around the foundation.
Also, the beach was sloped back to absorb incoming waves. Other
than that, the shoreline is expected to eventually look much the
way it did in the 1800s, with a reconnected salt marsh providing
food and protection for migrating salmon.
Lee Derror told me that property owners should take a look at
their shoreline from the water side, especially if they plan to
remove their bulkhead. The Kitsap tour was especially helpful, she
said, “because you get to rub elbows with the experts.”
Kitsap’s Shore Friendly pilot project — one of five projects in
the Puget Sound region — will help property owners determine if
bulkhead removal is right for them. It includes with a visit from a
volunteer, followed up by an assessment from an independent
geotechnical engineer. The last time I checked, county officials
were hoping to offer additional boat rides in the future.
Below are the seven shoreline stories written by science writer
Eric Scigliano and myself for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and
the online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” These are published by
the Puget Sound Institute, which is associated with the University
of Washington. Funding came from the Environmental Protection
Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I
mean that in a good way.
When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front
lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see
more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege
in both the cost of property and taxes.
As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of
stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of
shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest
science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to
better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing
bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many
bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.
The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, are:
Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are
environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have
damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access
without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing
regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say,
“It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”
One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a
discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went
on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the
Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff
when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of
the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the
Puget Sound Partnership.
Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners
occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to
protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance
of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline
Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for
water bodies and adjacent lands.
The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the
waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,”
the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are
consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to
the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of
the state’s shoreline.”
As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay
learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private
“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with
upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property)
rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline
State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and
enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for
all time, regardless of ownership.
Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound
Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of
shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.
A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved
bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been
changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master
programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a
house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.
So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region
are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90
percent of the 101 cities.
Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never
been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for
which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and
cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use
For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the
work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting
work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline
regulations make much sense.
But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance
to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain
the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even
save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science,
and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling
It goes without saying that wood, rock or concrete bulkheads
built along the shoreline are not natural. They certainly don’t
look like any structure formed by nature. And when the water is
pushing up against them, waves bounce around and splash back
instead of rolling up on shore.
I have never had any trouble understanding some of the problems
caused by bulkheads. I imagine little juvenile salmon swimming
along the shoreline, working their way toward the ocean. In shallow
water, these little fish can stay away from the bigger fish that
want to eat them. But bulkheads create a stretch of deeper water,
where predatory fish can swim in close and devour the little
I’ve been told that bulkheads cause other problems as well, such
as blocking shoreline erosion. But isn’t that what they are
designed to do? What’s the problem? As I’ve learned — especially
over the past few months — natural erosion provides the sands and
gravels needed for healthy beaches. Natural beaches also collect
driftwood, which provides additional habitat for a variety of
As many readers know, I now work half-time for the Puget Sound
Institute, a University of Washington affiliate that publishes the
Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We’ve been working on a series of
articles about bulkheads — formally known as shoreline armoring —
and I’m more convinced than ever that bulkheads really do cause
The first story in the series, released this week, describes the
effects of bulkheads on spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand
lance, two kinds of small fish that are an important food source
for salmon, birds and marine mammals. Check out my story, “Spawning
habitat for forage fish being lost to rising tides.”
As sea levels continue to rise, the high-tide and low-tide lines
move to higher elevations on the beach — until the high-tide line
reaches the bulkhead. For many bulkheads, the high-tide line is
already there. At that point, the rising sea level continues to
push the low-tide line to higher and higher elevations, reducing
the spawning habitat for fish that lay their eggs in the intertidal
This shrinking habitat is known as “coastal squeeze” or “beach
squeeze.” Recent studies suggest that where bulkheads are located,
Puget Sound could lose 80 percent of this spawning habitat by the
turn of the century, based on average predictions of sea-level
On beaches without bulkheads, the high-tide line would move
steadily inland, helping to maintain the critical habitat for
forage fish, according to Timothy Quinn, chief scientist for the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Everywhere in Puget Sound, there will be beach squeeze when you
don’t allow things to equilibrate on the land side,” he told me.
“What used to be exposed beach (during the tidal cycle) will no
longer be exposed.”
It turns out that many bulkheads constructed through the years
were never needed to prevent erosion, because they were built to
protect homes in areas where erosion is minimal. Future stories in
our series will cover this issue, including the prospect of
removing existing bulkheads to improve shoreline habitats.
Unfortunately, sea level rise adds a new twist to the discussion.
Still, the best advice when building a new house is to keep the
structure back from the water’s edge.
Meanwhile, this initial installment of the Shoreline Armoring
Series includes a nice piece by science writer Eric Scigliano
armoring’s effect on the food web.” In this story, Eric looks
at a broad spectrum of effects caused by bulkheads. He reports on
an involved study that focused on a series of paired beaches — one
with a bulkhead and one without — located in various parts of Puget
Most of the studies that we will report on during this series
were funded by the Environmental Protection Agency through grants
coordinated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The
plan is to release about two additional stories each week over the
next two weeks.
More than 50 people came together at the beginning of this month
in Washington, D.C., to share their stories and concerns about
Puget Sound. The annual event is becoming known as Puget Sound
The group included leaders from local government, tribes,
non-profit groups, businesses and state agencies, noted U.S. Rep.
Derek Kilmer, who organized the get-together and discussion about
federal legislation and funding.
Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who is involved in
these issues, asked me to share my thoughts about Puget Sound on
the public access television program “Commissioner’s Corner.” If
you haven’t seen the show, you can view it on BKAT the next
two Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., or click on the
I have to say that speaking off the cuff in front of a
television camera is a lot different from writing a story or blog
post, but I was pleased to be invited. The broadcast includes Kathy
Peters of the county’s Natural Resources Division.
Three years ago, a newly elected Rep. Kilmer picked up on Puget
Sound issues where former Rep. Norm Dicks left off. Through the
years, Norm was able to secure funding for many Puget Sound
projects — ranging from the removal of Forest Service roads that
were smothering salmon streams with sediment to extensive studies
of Hood Canal’s low-oxygen problems.
Derek is now promoting a bill known as
Puget SOS Act, which calls for greater federal coordination
with state, local and tribal partners, as well as formal
recognition of Puget Sound as a “great water body’ under the Clean
Water Act. Check out the story in the
Kitsap Sun by reporter Tristan Baurick.
This month, Kilmer and Heck introduced a new bill, the
Green Stormwater Infrastructure Investment Act, to help
communities reduce the flow of toxic stormwater into streams and
ultimately Puget Sound. The basic idea is to use natural
infiltration to reduce stormwater at the source, before it can pick
up toxic pollution. This approach has been given the name “green
stormwater infrastructure” or GSI.
“If our legislation passes,” Derek said in a
news letter to constituents, “local communities would be able
to access dedicated funding within the Environmental Protection
Agency for water quality projects that utilize GSI. Our hope is
that this can increase the number of breakthroughs that are
happening in places like Tacoma to help protect these vital
“Stormwater runoff is the top contributor to pollution in Puget
Sound, but our nation’s largest estuary isn’t the only place
impacted by stormwater. Across the country, in every community,
rain mixes with chemicals, oils and other harmful pollutants to
flood into our waterways. A stronger federal investment in the
prevention of runoff allows for the implementation of cutting-edge
solutions and puts our communities on a course towards healthy
waters for everyone.”