Tag Archives: Seawalls

Foot by foot, shoreline bulkhead removal outpaces construction

It’s always nice when I can report a little good news for Puget Sound recovery. For the second year in row, we’ve seen more shoreline bulkheads ripped out than new ones put in.

Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute
Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute / Data: WDFW

After officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife completed their compilation of permit data for 2015, I can say that 3,097 feet of old armoring were removed, while 2,231 feet were added.

Scientific evidence is mounting that bulkheads cause considerable harm to the shoreline environment, affecting salmon and many other species integral to the Puget Sound food web.

As I pointed out in a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, we cannot say whether the armoring removed has restored more valuable habitat than what was destroyed by new structures. But we can hope that’s the case, since state and federal governments have targeted restoration funding toward high priority habitats. They include shorelines used by forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, as well as feeder bluffs, which deliver sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches.

One problem with the data, which officials hope to improve in the future, is that we don’t know whether the new bulkheads being built are the standard concrete or rock bulkheads or the less-damaging “soft-shore” projects. Unlike hard armor, soft-shore projects are designed to absorb wave energy by sloping the beach and placing large rocks and logs in strategic locations. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a reasonable compromise where armoring is truly needed.

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Puget Sound restoration depends on shorelines

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore ecosystems.

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 Sand.”

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 creosote timbers.

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. (See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore Friendly webpage.)

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.

Pilot projects operating in other counties have taken somewhat different approaches, as I described last week in the story “Shoreline Restoration Turns to Private Property Owners.” The second video is from efforts on San Juan Island.

The state’s Shore Friendly website includes web links for people to connect with outreach efforts in their own counties. Go to “Resources in Your Area.”

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 Agency.

Shoreline bulkheads impose changes on
the natural ecosystem

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.

Bulkhead

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 ones.

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 creatures.

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 problems.

Surf smelt Photo: Wikimedia commons
Surf smelt // Photo: Wikimedia commons

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 area.

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 rise.

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.

In addition to the general story about beach squeeze, I wrote a sidebar about a study that looked at the effects of this phenomenon on 15 different beaches in the San Juan Islands. See “Forage fish are losing places to lay their eggs.”

Meanwhile, this initial installment of the Shoreline Armoring Series includes a nice piece by science writer Eric Scigliano called “Shoreline 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 Sound.

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.

Surf smelt spawning zone below low tide mark Illustration: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Surf smelt spawning zone below high tide mark
Illustration: Dan Penttila, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Have we turned the corner on Puget Sound bulkhead construction?

It’s hard to describe the surprise I felt when I first glanced at a new graph plotting bulkhead construction and removal along Puget Sound’s shoreline since 2005.

On the graph was a blue line that showed how new bulkhead construction had declined dramatically the past two years. But what really caught my eye was a green line showing an increase in bulkhead removal. Amazingly, these two lines had crossed each other in 2014, meaning that the total length of bulkheads removed had exceeded the total length of bulkheads built last year.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Not only was this the first time this has ever happened, it was totally unexpected. Few people really believed that bulkhead removal could exceed construction anytime soon. I was happy to write up these new findings in the latest newsletter for the Puget Sound Institute, where I’m now employed part-time.

“It was pretty shocking — in a good way,” said Randy Carman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who coordinated the data based on state permits. “It makes me optimistic going forward.”

Randy helped develop the “vitals signs indicator” for shoreline armoring, along with a “target” approved by the Puget Sound Partnership. The target called for the total length of armoring removed to exceed the total length constructed for the 10-year period from 2011 through 2020.

Like many of the vital signs indicators, this one for shoreline armoring was far from a sure thing. In fact, like most of the indicators, the trend was going in the wrong direction. Some people believed that the Puget Sound Partnership was setting itself up for failure.

These were “aspirational” targets, Randy recalled, and meeting them would be a tremendous challenge for many individuals, government agencies and organizations.

As I described in some detail in the article for PSI, the number of new bulkheads has declined, in part because of new government rules. Meanwhile, the number of bulkheads removed has increased, in part because of government funding.

But something else may be afoot, as pointed out by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. A new “culture” may be taking hold in which people realize that bulkheads are neither good for the environment, attractive nor functional when it comes to people enjoying their own beach.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County.
Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

When talking to shoreline property owners who have removed a rock or concrete bulkhead, often the first thing they tell me is how much nicer their beach has become. No more jumping or climbing off a wall. No more rickety stairs. One can walk down a slope and plop down a lawn chair wherever the tide tells you is the right spot.

“The factors are all in place for a paradigm shift,” Sheida told me. “When people see the geotech reports for their own beach, they can see there is a different way. People can take off their shoes and put their toes in the sand.”

Getting contractors and real-estate agents to understand and support new methods of beach protection and restoration is one strategy being considered. Personally, I was impressed with the change in direction by Sealevel Bulkhead Builders. Check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

It takes a little land to create the right slope to dissipate wave energy without any man-made structure. In some cases, large rocks and logs — so-called “soft shore protection” — can help reduce erosion. In some situations where land is limited and wave energy is high, a solid wall may be the only remedy. No matter which option is used, one must consider the initial cost and long-term maintenance — including consideration of sea-level rise caused by global warming.

“The secret,” said Dave Price, “is less about the strong arm of regulation and more about helping people understanding what they are getting.”

Scientific evidence about the damage of bulkheads has been building for several years. Among the impacts:

  • Loss of beach and backshore, which reduces the area used for recreation, shellfish, bird habitat and forage-fish spawning.
  • Loss of slow, natural erosion, which helps maintain the quantity and quality of sand and gravel along the shoreline.
  • Alteration of wave action, which can impede natural movement of sand and gravel and scour the beach of fine sediment, leaving hardpan and scattered rocks.
  • Increased predation of juvenile salmon by larger fish where high tides leave deep water along the bulkhead, plus fewer insects for food caused by loss of shoreline vegetation.

See Washington Department of Ecology’s Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 640 kb)

Bulkheads can cause a coarsening of a beach over time, with harder and harder substrate becoming evident. Damage from one bulkhead may be slow and limited, experts say, but alterations to more than 25 percent of the shoreline, as we see today, has taken a serious toll in some parts of Puget Sound.

Dave told me about the time he stood next to a concrete bulkhead and watched the tide coming in. Large fish, such as sculpins, were able to swim right up to the wall.

“I stood there and watched these fish come right in next to shore,” he said. “These were big fish, and they came up right next to the bulkhead. There was nowhere for the juvenile salmonids to get out of there.”

The cartoon below was part of this week’s “Amusing Monday” feature, and it illustrates the situation that Dave described. I could say much more about changing trends in bulkheads, given new studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that can wait for future blog posts.