Category Archives: Waterfront residents

Map of sea level predictions can assist waterfront owners

A sophisticated analysis of sea-level rise in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast offers shoreline residents and land-use planners a new map-based tool to assess potential flood hazards for the coming years.

Click on map to access online interactive map
Map: Washington Coastal Hazards Resilience Network

Sea-level rise depends on two factors: how fast the oceans rise and the rate of vertical land shifts. Uplift, such as what occurs along the Washington Coast, slows the rate of sea-level rise relative to waterfront property. Subsidence, which occurs in Central Puget Sound, results in elevated tides sooner than in stable or uplifting areas. One map on this page shows the measured uplift and subsidence and another shows the uncertainty in that measurement.

Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist at Washington Sea Grant, has worked on studies that describe sea-level rise in Island County and on the Olympic Peninsula. The new report, titled “Projected Sea Level Rise for Washington State” (PDF 10.4 mb) goes well beyond what he and his colleagues have done before. It takes a more detailed look at where the land is uplifting and subsiding, according to Miller, the lead author on the new report that involves work by scientists at Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

The result is a prediction of sea-level rise at 171 locations, covering every shoreline in Washington state — as opposed to more general predictions made in previous studies, including regional and national studies by others.

The goal this time, Ian told me, was to develop an analysis that could be used for predicting future high tides at any shoreline segment in the state. Actual sea-level rise will depend on how much humans can reduce greenhouse gases in the coming years and other factors. Results in the report are given for both high and low scenarios based on climate models, and the findings are presented as probabilities of occurrence.

In Bremerton, for example, the analysis predicts that there is a 90 percent chance that the sea level will rise by 6 inches or more by 2070. At the same time, the probability is 50 percent that the rise will be at least 1 foot by 2070 and 10 percent that it will reach 1.7 feet by that year. That’s under the low greenhouse gas scenario.

Under the high scenario, there is a 90 percent chance that the sea level in Bremerton will reach 7 inches by 2070, a 50 percent chance that it will reach 1.2 feet and a 10 percent change that it will reach 1.9 feet.

In some cases, a rise in the high tide level by just 6 inches can result in serious property damage, especially if winds and waves increase as a result of more intense storms. For Bremerton, there is a 16 percent chance that this level will be reached by 2030, a 50 percent chance it will be reached by 2040 and a 75 percent chance it will be reached by 2050, according to the report.

The new report can help landowners think more clearly when deciding where to locate new buildings on their property, whether to move existing buildings and what to do about failing bulkheads. I covered the issue of planning for sea-level rise for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Check out:

And in Watching Our Water Ways:

Clicking on the map at the top of this page will take you to the online interactive map. Looking at the online map, click on any shoreline location to download the data tables, which may look a little intimidating at first. But don’t worry. Just use the tabs at the bottom to pick a high (RCP 8.5) or low (RCP 4.5) greenhouse gas scenario. You will see two tables for each scenario. In the top table, pick a year (vertical list) and a probability (horizontal list) to get the projected sea level rise (in feet). In the bottom table, pick a year along with sea level rise to get the probability of that level being reached.

Sea-level rise is accelerating as time goes on, as predicted by climate models and supported by recent studies. (See the report on satellite readings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) One hundred years from now, there is a 90 percent chance that sea level will be at least one foot higher in Central Puget Sound and a 50 percent chance that it will be at least two feet higher.

Unlike any previous report in Washington, predictions for changes in vertical land movement in the new report are based on three different sources of information: variations in tide gauges, “leveling surveys” used by highway engineers and data from continuous global positioning satellites. For the satellite data, the analysis of sea-level rise took into account separate assessments of land movement calculated by five different organizations.

By analyzing the sources of data for vertical changes across the landscape, the researchers were able to provide a range of uncertainty for each of their 171 shoreline locations. Knowing the level of confidence for water reaching a given level in a specified amount of time can help people decide whether they are willing to accept the risk or begin planning for the future.

I’ve gone through the map, looking at a variety of waterfront locations in Washington state. In the lists below, I’ve grouped the cities to show how much the sea level is expected to rise by 2050, using a 50 percent probability and a high greenhouse gas scenario.

0.1 foot
Neah Bay

0.3 foot
Sekiu

0.4 foot
Ocean Shores, Ozette

0.5 foot
Aberdeen, Point Roberts, Port Angeles

0.6 foot
Bellingham, La Push, Queets, San Juan Island

0.7 foot
Anacortes, Hoodsport, La Conner, Sequim

0.8 foot
Bremerton-Port Orchard-Silverdale, Everett, Gig Harbor, Hansville, Port Townsend, Poulsbo-Suquamish-Bainbridge, Seattle, Shelton, Tacoma, Vashon Island (most), Whidbey Island

0.9 foot
Ballard, Edmonds, East Vashon-Des Moines, Federal Way, Port Ludlow, Shelton

1.0 foot
Kingston, Olympia

Additional information on this project:

Become a witness for ‘king tides’ in Puget Sound now and later

Witnessing Puget Sound’s “king tides” could return as a more popular outdoor activity this year, as Washington Sea Grant takes the lead in promoting the event.

Locations where people have posted king tide photos on the Witness King Tides website

“King tides,” which are recognized in coastal areas across the country, is the name given to the highest tides of the year. These are times when people can observe what average tides might look like in the future, as sea levels continue to rise.

The highest tide of 2018 is forecast for this Friday around 8 a.m., although the exact time depends on the location in Puget Sound.

Activities include taking pictures of shoreline structures during these high-tide events and then sharing the photos with others. One can try to imagine what the landscape would look like in a given location if the water was a foot or more higher. King tide activities can be fun while adding a dose of reality to the uncertainty of climate change.

King tides by themselves have nothing to do with climate change, but these extremes will be seen more often in the future as new extremes are reached. As things are going now, experts say there is a 50 percent chance that sea levels in Puget Sound will rise by at least 7 inches in the next 22 years and keep going from there. They say there is a 99 percent chance that sea levels will be at least 2.4 inches higher by then. Check out the story I wrote in October for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Washington Department of Ecology, which had been promoting king tides each year, has backed away from the event in recent years. In the beginning, I thought the idea of king tides seemed kind of silly, because high tides are affected by weather conditions on a given day. But I came to embrace the idea that watching these high-tide events will help shoreline residents and others understand the challenges we are facing in the Puget Sound region.

Addressing sea level rise may not be easy, but some waterfront property owners are beginning to face the problem, as I described in another story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

During a king tide event in December 2012, the Kitsap Sun and other newspapers covered the resulting flooding by running photographs of high water in many places throughout Puget Sound. A low-pressure weather system that year made extreme high tides even more extreme. In fact, officials reported that the high tide came within 0.01 feet of breaking the all-time tidal record set for Seattle on Jan. 27, 1983. See Water Ways, Dec. 18, 2012.

Washington Sea Grant, associated with the University of Washington, has now taken over promotion of king tides, and we should soon see an improved website, according to Bridget Trosin, coastal policy specialist for Sea Grant. Bridget told me that she hopes to promote more local events, such as getting people together to share information during extreme high tides.

Sea Grant is sponsoring a King Tide Viewing Party this Friday at Washington Park boat launch in Anacortes, where Bridget will spell out what high tides may look like in the future. Warming refreshments will be provided, according to a news release about the event.

Wherever you live around Puget Sound, you can go down to the water to document the high tide, perhaps starting a new photo gallery to show how high tides change at one location during king tides in the future, as some folks are doing in Port Townsend.

For tips on preparing and posting photos, visit the “Witness King Tides — Washington State” website, then check out the page “Share Your Photos.” To see the locations where photographs have been taken, go to the map page. One can click on locations on the map to see the photographs taken from that spot.

King tides occur when the moon and sun are on the same side of the Earth at a time when the moon comes closest to the Earth. Their combined pull of gravity raises the sea level. The presence of a low-pressure system can raise the tides even higher than predictions published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Friday’s high tide is predicted to be 13.2 feet in Seattle at 7:55 a.m. We won’t have a tide that high again until January of 2019, according to NOAA. Still, Feb. 2 will see a 13.1-foot tide in Seattle, and tides exceeding 12 feet are predicted for June 16, Nov. 27, Dec. 1, Dec. 10, and daily high tides from Dec. 26 through the end of this year.

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.

With caution, one can avoid the risk of illness when gathering shellfish

If you are planning to gather some shellfish to eat over Labor Day weekend — or anytime for that matter — state health officials urge you to follow the “three Cs” of shellfish — check, chill and cook.

The state’s Shellfish Safety Map shows areas open and closed to harvesting.
Map: Washington State Dept. of Health

At least 10 cases of an intestinal illness called vibriosis have been reported this year to the Washington State Department of Health, all resulting from people picking oysters themselves and eating them raw or undercooked. The disease is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, an organism that occurs naturally and thrives in warm temperatures.

“The shellfish industry follows special control measures during the summer months to keep people who choose to eat raw oysters from getting sick,” said Rick Porso, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, in a news release. “For those who enjoy collecting and consuming their own shellfish, it’s important that they follow a few simple measures to stay healthy.”

The combination of warm weather, lack of rain and low tides all contribute to the growth of bacteria in oysters growing on the beach.

The state Department of Health uses the “three Cs” as a reminder for recreational shellfish harvesters as well as people who gather shellfish from their own beaches:

  • CHECK: Before heading to the beach, make sure that shellfish in the area are safe to eat. The Shellfish Safety Map, updated daily, will tell you where it is safe to gather shellfish. At the moment, many areas are closed because of paralytic shellfish poison produced by a type of plankton. Unlike Vibrio, PSP cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • CHILL: Gather shellfish as the tide goes out, so they are not allowed to sit for long in the sun. Put them on ice immediately or get them into a refrigerator.
  • COOK: Cooking at 145 degrees F. for at least 15 seconds should destroy Vibrio bacteria, health officials say. It is not enough to cook them until their shells open.

Symptoms of vibriosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. The illness usually runs its course in two to three days. For information see “Vibriosis” on the Department of Health’s website.

Symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning usually begin with tingling of the lips and tongue, progressing to numbness in fingers and toes followed by loss of control over arms and legs and difficulty breathing. Nausea and vomiting may occur. PSP can be a life-threatening condition, so victims should seek medical help immediately. For information, see “Paralytic shellfish poison” on the Department of Health’s website.

Besides health advisories, the Shellfish Safety Map mentioned above also includes the water-quality classification, a link to shellfish seasons to determine whether a beach is legally open along with other information,

Hood Canal property will compensate for Navy construction at Bangor

Hood Canal Coordinating Council has finally found some shoreline property to compensate for environmental damage from the Navy’s $448-million Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor.

The shoreline of a 6.7-acre property to be used for mitigation of the Navy’s Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor. // Photo: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

The 6.7 acres of waterfront property — located near Kitsap County’s Anderson Landing Preserve on Hood Canal — becomes the first saltwater mitigation site in Washington state under an in-lieu-fee mitigation program. The $275,000 purchase was approved Wednesday by the coordinating council, which manages the in-lieu-fee program.

The Navy itself is not a party to the transaction, having paid the coordinating council $6.9 million to handle all the freshwater and saltwater mitigation required for the wharf project — including managing the mitigation properties in perpetuity.

The coordinating council’s in-lieu-fee program, which is overseen by state and federal agencies, allows developers to pay a flat fee for their environmental damage instead of undertaking mitigation work themselves.

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Hood Canal awards honor local efforts to improve ecosystem

Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, and Thom Johnson, a leading expert in the recovery of Hood Canal summer chum salmon, have been named recipients of this year’s Hood Canal Environmental Awards.

Other recipients of the awards, which are sponsored by Hood Canal Coordinating Council, are Shore Friendly Mason and Shore Friendly Kitsap, two programs that actively enlist waterfront property owners in the protection and restoration of their shorelines.

Hood Canal // Photo: Dale Ireland
Hood Canal // Photo: Dale Ireland

I learned this afternoon that the awards ceremony on Nov. 4 will be dedicated to Rich Geiger, the longtime district engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 22, held the “technical vision” for the restoration of the Skokomish River watershed, according to Mike Anderson. (See Water Ways, Oct. 8.)

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Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

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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 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