Tag Archives: Shoreline armoring

Waterfront property owners face options in response to sea-level rise

Rising sea levels and isolated floods will be an increasing challenge for waterfront property owners, according to experts I interviewed for a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The Vechey home and bulkhead before the big move. // Photo: John Vechey

Changing conditions call for property owners to consider their options with regard to their shoreline — not just for today but for the long run. What I learned while researching this story is that every waterfront site will respond differently as the highest tides go higher and higher.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought the obvious answer would be for people to build taller and stronger bulkheads — despite well-known environmental damage. And that may be the only answer for some. But for others, that approach could be a waste of money, as bigger walls degrade the owners’ enjoyment of the beach as well disrupting natural systems. Alternatives include moving or raising a house or even replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” protections.

After the home was moved back from shore and the bulkhead removed. // Photo: John Vechey

Sea levels in Puget Sound are rising slowly at this time, with the actual rate dependent on location. We live in a tectonically active area, with major movements along continental plates. As a result, the ground is sinking in most areas around Puget Sound, adding to the relative rise in sea level.

In Seattle, the sea level has risen about 9 inches since 1900 and is expected to rise an additional 4 to 56 inches (4.75 feet) by 2100. The uncertainty reflected in that range relates to whether greenhouse gases continue to increase, thus accelerating the rate of melting of land-based ice in the polar regions.

Some changes can be expected regardless of the human response over the next 80 years. For example, one analysis looking at Whidbey Island suggests that there is a 99 percent chance that by 2040 — just 13 23 years from now — sea level will be at least 2.4 inches higher than today with a 50 percent chance that it will be 7.2 inches higher. After 2040, the tides will keep rising even faster. Take a look at the related story “Average high tides are creeping higher in Puget Sound.”

John Vechey of Orcas Island, who I featured in my story, took sea level into account when deciding whether to remove his bulkhead while seeking to improve the beach for family activities and for the environment. His solution was to move his house and give the beach more room to function naturally.

Moving a house will not be the answer for everyone, but I can safely say that everyone should consider their long-term picture before making any investments that will last a lifetime — and that includes changes to the shoreline.

I believe it is generally possible, certainly with professional help, to calculate elevations for the house and any low spots on the property, add one to four feet above the current high-tide mark, and then consider tidal surge, which is the wave height caused by weather conditions. In some counties, professional help is available if you are considering whether to remove a bulkhead. Check out the “Shore Friendly” website and “Resources in Your Area.”

At this time, future sea levels do not enter into regulatory considerations about where a person can build a house. One problem is the uncertainty surrounding the amount that sea levels will actually rise. But some environmental advocates say it is time to require additional setbacks, not only to protect the environment as tides push back the natural beach but also to protect homeowners from future losses.

For some people, sea-level rise is a distant worry, but for others the threat is just around the corner. I was reading this morning about how high tides are already affecting Naval Station Norfolk. Check out “Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It” by Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.

A new Government Accountability Office report, released yesterday, cites estimates of future property damage totaling between $4 billion and $6 billion per year in the U.S. as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms. The report outlines the need for a coordinated federal response.

Sen. Maria Cantwell discusses the new GAO report and calls for better planning in the video below.

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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Shoreline owners are on the front lines of ecosystem 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.

Driftwood helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Driftwood piles up and helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

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 relationship.

“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 areas.”

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 enforcement.

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 us.

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.

Pulse of Puget Sound: starting at the bottom

I just completed the second part of a yearlong series I’m writing about the Puget Sound ecosystem and the 21 “vital signs” indicators chosen by the Puget Sound Partnership to measure the health of the sound.

This second part, published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, consists of stories about the food web, including plankton and eelgrass; forage fish, including herring; and bulkheads, which are generally considered a threat to the nearshore ecosystem.

I was trying to cover the lower half of the food web, to build a foundation for the other parts to come.

Phyto

I talked to a lot of experts on these issues and ended up writing one of the largest story packages I’ve ever written. Still, I barely touched the surface of these topics. I guess I’ll have to return later to dig a little deeper.

Scientists often say, the more they know, the more they realize what little they know, or something like that. I’ve always tried to help people understand the complexities of environmental science, but there are no simple answers.

That’s why the Puget Sound Partnership is an important bridge between policymakers and scientists. We have enough tools to know what should be done to save Puget Sound, but how do we know what projects should come before others? What can we afford to do? And how do we measure success or failure? Those are the questions challenging the partnership at the moment.

Zoo

I would like to thank all the researchers willing to give their time to this project as well as Kitsap Sun staffers who helped crunch the numbers and produce the graphics for the story package, as well as the editors who offered ideas along the way.

The overall series is called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”
The second part is pulled together on a webpage called “Food web’s base”
Stories in the second part are:
Environment’s health starts at the bottom
The foundation of all life in Puget Sound
Herring, other forage fish, at risk
Eelgrass is both food and shelter
Shoreline armoring threatens base of the food web

Sinclair Inlet last August was awash in colorful plankton. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound
Sinclair Inlet last August was awash in colorful plankton. This photo was taken over Port Orchard, looking toward Gorst.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound