Shoreline habitat improves after owners remove old bulkheads

Puget Sound’s shoreline habitat is slowly being restored to a more natural state, thanks to the ongoing removal of old bulkheads from private property, one after another.

The latest “State of the Sound” report from the Puget Sound Partnership reports that the amount of bulkhead removed from important “feeder bluffs” has nearly reached the 2020 goal established by the partnership.

For shorelines in general, it appears that the tide has turned in a positive way, with removal of old bulkheads outpacing new bulkhead construction. At the same time, efforts to protect shorelines from erosion have become more focused on natural “soft shore” techniques, as opposed to concrete, wood or rock walls.

The overall effort at removing shoreline armoring from Puget Sound has fallen somewhat short of the Puget Sound Partnership’s nine-year goal to remove more miles of bulkheads than what gets constructed between 2011 and 2020. A major reason for the shortfall is the amount of bulkhead constructed during the early years of the effort — 2011 to 2013 — as shown on a graph in the State of the Sound report.

Things might be a bit better than the graph indicates, because the data do not adequately reflect improvements in shoreline habitat from replacing old-fashioned bulkheads with natural structures — such as carefully placed logs. Man-made installations, even when natural, are still counted as armoring.

The trouble with hard bulkheads below the high-tide line is that they reduce spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt. Bulkheads also increase the risk that juvenile salmon will be eaten by predators as they migrate through deeper water. And shoreline armor also can block the movement of sand needed to maintain healthy beaches, as described by coastal geologist Hugh Shipman in the video on this page.

In Kitsap and Clallam counties, nearly two miles of shoreline armor have been removed starting in 2011, according to the report. That accounts for 43 percent of the total armor removed in Puget Sound during that time.

Thanks to grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, most Puget Sound counties have joined the state’s Shore Friendly program, which provides incentives for private property owners to remove their bulkheads. Each of Puget Sound’s 12 counties have developed individual programs to suit the needs of their residents. One can locate specific county programs on the Shore Friendly page managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

One of the latest ideas for encouraging shoreline restoration is to create a program that can offer low-interest loans to shoreline property owners who wish to remove bulkheads, install soft-shore stabilization or move their houses back from shore as the sea level rises. The feasibility of the program is being studied by research scientist Aimee Kinney of Puget Sound Institute.

As proposed, the program would establish a revolving loan fund, which would be replenished as shoreline property owners pay back the loans, as Jeff Rice of PSI describes in a blog post. The program might operate like Washington’s low-interest loan program for septic system repairs and replacements.

Meanwhile, many of the 12 Puget Sound counties still provide assistance through the Shore Friendly program as funding becomes available. Shore Friendly Kitsap, for example, offers free site assessments to determine the risk of erosion, along with $5,000 to help with design, permitting and construction of a shoreline project.

Over the past three years, Shore Friendly Kitsap has helped with 15 shoreline projects. Bulkhead removals range from 15 feet of armoring in Liberty Bay to 222 feet in Dyes Inlet. In all, 1,177 feet of armor have been removed, according to statistics provided by Christina Kereki, environmental planner for the Kitsap County Department of Community Development.

Before and after photos are available for many of the projects.

A recent shoreline success story (1.6 mb) — including trials and tribulations along the way — is told in writing by property owners Sheri and Michael Flynn, who live on 200 feet of waterfront on Miller Bay in North Kitsap. As they say, their project was “a lesson in patience, persistence and perseverance,” but the outcome will be favorable both to them and the environment.

Mason County shoreline owners also have restoration stories, and I was pleased to help them tell their stories in a project for the Mason Conservation District. See Living Along the Waterfront.

As part of my work for Puget Sound Institute, I’ve written extensively about shoreline armoring and nearshore habitat. Please check out some of our in-depth stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a piece called “Shoreline restoration turns to private property owners” along with “Sources of sand.”

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