San Juan County Best Available Science Synthesis

A summary of data on ecosystems designated as Critical Areas (formerly Environmentally Sensitive Areas) in San Juan County, including recommendations for management.

Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Pacific Tides Party.
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Pacific Tides Party.

From the report:


In 1990 the Washington State Legislature adopted the Growth Management Act (GMA). This statute mandates that local jurisdictions adopt policies and regulations that protect the ecological functions and values of Critical Areas (formerly referred to as Environmentally Sensitive Areas). Critical Areas include Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas (CARAs), Frequently Flooded Areas, Geologically Hazardous Areas, Wetlands, and Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas. In 1991, San Juan County adopted its first Critical Areas Ordinance.

In 1995, the legislature amended the GMA to require that cities and counties consider the Best Available Science (BAS) in designating and protecting Critical Areas (RCW § 36.70A.172(1)). In meeting this requirement, cities and counties are not required to conduct new research or characterize the extent of local problems. In 2000, procedural criteria were adopted to implement these changes and provide guidance for identifying BAS. According to this guidance, BAS means current scientific information derived from research, monitoring, inventory, survey, modeling, assessment, synthesis, and expert opinion, that is:

  • Logical and reasonable
  • Based on quantitative analysis
  • Peer reviewed
  • Used in the appropriate context
  • Based on accepted methods
  • Well referenced

Generally, science is undertaken by the establishment of an assumption, or hypothesis, which is then supported or negated by conducting experiments or otherwise gathering evidence. The evidence is then published in scientific journals or books in order for the larger scientific community to examine the methods of data collection and interpretation of results. Scientists who criticize aspects of a previous study may present alternative hypotheses and conduct additional experiments to build the body of knowledge about the topic of interest or inquiry. Consensus often forms over time as additional scientists review the published studies and conduct more investigations that support, refute, or alter the hypothesis. Although a minority of dissenting opinions may persist, scientific consensus is arrived at when many different scientists are able to replicate results over time and through different approaches.

In searching for evidence of causal relationships, definitive proof of cause and effect is not always attainable. This is particularly true of ecological systems, in which the interplay of many variables is highly complex. Interconnected factors such as habitat conditions, the stability of food webs, and biological changes within species can have some obvious causal relationships, but these factors can also have unknown relationships or even some incidences where direct impacts become magnified. Scientific study is always evolving and the application of science must sometimes rely upon the preponderance of evidence rather than irrefutable proof. In cases where the existing scientific information is inadequate to support a proposed action, or where there is uncertainty about whether a proposed action will protect Critical Area functions and values, the WAC encourages a precautionary approach with an adaptive management program to ensure no net loss of Critical Area functions and values (WAC 365-195-920).

Adaptive management involves strategic monitoring and the testing of hypotheses to see how well plans, ordinances, and programs are protecting Critical Areas. As conditions change or more is learned, the regulations and programs are to be modified. Some Critical Areas that must be protected in order to meet the requirements of the Growth Management Act are located within 200 feet of the shoreline. This is within the jurisdiction of the State Shoreline Management Act. The two laws have historically not been well coordinated, and there has been considerable legislation and litigation focused on trying to discern how they relate to one another. In 2010 the State Legislature once again tried to clarify their intent through the adoption of Engrossed House Bill 1653. This bill, which applied retroactively to July 27, 2003, affirmed that Critical Area regulations adopted under Growth Management Act procedures apply within shorelines until the Department of Ecology approves their incorporation into a jurisdiction’s Shoreline Master Program in accordance with Shoreline Management Act procedures. As part of this bill, the Legislature also adopted a provision stating that, during the interim period (i.e., prior to Ecology approval of separate shoreline Critical Area regulations), “a use or structure legally located within shorelines of the state that was established or vested on or before the effective date of the local government’s development regulations to protect critical areas may continue as a conforming use and may be redeveloped or modified if a) the redevelopment or modification is consistent with the local government’s master program; and b) the local government determines that the proposed redevelopment or modification will result in no net loss of shoreline ecological functions. The local government may waive this requirement if the redevelopment or modification is consistent with the master program and the local government’s development regulations to protect critical areas.”

Finally, Engrossed House Bill 1653 requires that local shoreline regulations provide a level of protection to critical areas that assures “no net loss” of the shoreline ecological functions necessary to sustain shoreline natural resources. This document includes summaries of the science related to Critical Areas in San Juan County and management options the County might employ to better protect these areas. This information was compiled by a team of scientists and natural resource planners. Chapters 1, 5, 6 (Introduction, Frequently Flooded and Geologically Hazardous Areas) and the maps included in Chapter 8 were primarily compiled by County planners. Chapters 2 and 4 (Wetlands and Upland Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas) were primarily drafted by Dr. Paul Adamus. Chapters 3 and 7 (Marine Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas and Stormwater Alternatives) were primarily authored by the Watershed Company/ Herrera team of scientists, along with Dr. Richard Strathmann (primary author of the discussion on discharge from desalination systems), and County planners who worked with the consulting scientists. The document went through both internal and external peer review processes. Herrera used an established internal system of quality assurance and quality control reviews to ensure the accuracy of its authored chapters (chapters 3 and 7) and the validity of the sources used. Chapter 3 was reviewed by senior experts in marine ecology, coastal geomorphology, water quality, and stormwater management. Chapter 7 was reviewed by senior experts in water quality and stormwater management.

Prior to release to the public, the members of the team also reviewed one another’s sections, provided comment to the author(s), and, where necessary, participated in discussion to resolve any issues. The draft document was then released for review by the public, and local, State and Federal agencies. Individuals submitting expert comment were asked to provide information on their education and work experience in order to identify their area of expertise. Agency staff who commented within the scope of their position were also considered to be experts. Comments submitted by experts and the authors’ responses to the comments are included in Chapter 9. This document includes many citations for scientific papers and sources of information which were considered. In cases where no citation is given, it should be assumed that the statement is the professional opinion of the author(s).

When completed, this BAS Synthesis document will be adopted by the San Juan County Council. The Synthesis and, if necessary, the references it cites will then be used in reviewing existing regulations and selecting actions that are suitable for San Juan County.

Read the full report.