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The question of unpermitted shoreline armoring in Puget Sound

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Adapted from original photos by: Kristin Williamson, SPSSEG.
Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Adapted from original photos by: Kristin Williamson, SPSSEG.

Last year, we reported on an exciting trend related to shoreline armoring in Puget Sound. For the first time, state agencies actually noted a decrease in new armoring in which removal of these controversial beach structures outpaced new permits for development.

That was good news for state and federal agencies trying to reverse more than 100 years of near constant development along Puget Sound's shoreline. Armoring such as seawalls, bulkheads, revetements and the like is meant to protect beaches and property from erosion, but increasingly, the science shows that such structures harm the ecology and in many cases are simply unnecessary.

That's why the Puget Sound Partnership has set removal of armoring as a key recovery target, and its 2014-2015 Action Agenda seeks a net loss of these structures by 2020. From that perspective, the figures showing a decline in permits in 2014 seemed to be heading in the right direction. There was little debate on the numbers. In 2014, permits showed that 1,530 feet of armoring was constructed in the 12 Puget Sound counties. Meanwhile 3,710 feet of armoring was removed. That's a significant decline—more than 2 to 1—that had not been seen in the region in modern times. But the story gets more complicated.

While the decline in permits may be accurate, it doesn't take into account the number of unpermitted structures. New studies funded by the EPA's National Estuary Program show that unauthorized construction may be more of an issue than previously thought. Research conducted in two Puget Sound counties identified unpermitted armoring in up to half of the study sites, while many of the permitted structures were found to be out of compliance. The study's authors say they are cautious and that more work needs to be done—2 out of 12 Puget Sound counties is far from an exhaustive survey, they say—but the results do raise some questions. Among them: Just how much shoreline armoring is not being counted across Puget Sound, and how significant are the permit violations? 

The new figures are just some of the results presented in a December 2015 report from the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute. The report from lead authors Aimee Kinney and Tessa Francis (I was also involved) summarizes and reviews a series of EPA-funded projects focusing on Puget Sound's marine and nearshore environments. The projects reviewed were conducted between 2011-2015 with support from the EPA's National Estuary Program.

Without more research, it may be impossible to truly characterize the extent of the problem of unpermitted construction along Puget Sound's shoreline. But agencies are realizing the need for more outreach to shoreline property owners—and for improved enforcement. Our analysis report identified several constraints on regulators of shoreline development that have made enforcement difficult. Although laws and design guidelines are in place, studies show that agencies have lacked the resources to inspect shoreline properties. If unpermitted structures are in fact a major problem across the region, greater enforcement of existing regulations could make a significant difference in improvement of shoreline ecology. 

At the same time, the story of shoreline armoring is complex and nuanced. New information is emerging that sheds light on factors like biological impacts and alternative approaches to shoreline protection. Public education will play an important role along with enforcement especially as dual factors like population growth and sea level rise put further pressure on the nearshore environment. About 57% of Puget Sound’s 2500 miles of shoreline is privately owned, creating a clear need to reach out to property owners and developers.

Studies show that, as a whole, these property owners are not well informed about shoreline armoring. "Landowners typically do not understand how armor impacts the health of Puget Sound and many see it as a desirable, or even crucial, element in protecting shoreline properties," reads the PSI report. "Erosion is the top concern of waterfront property owners region-wide, but many...are not aware of just how slowly erosion is actually occurring, or how hard armoring can degrade the quality and accessibility of their beach. Some believe that soft shore protection is expensive and might not work." Whether armoring is permitted or unpermitted, overcoming these misperceptions and providing new information about alternatives to armoring appear to be an important next step in the process.

You can read the full analysis report for more information about these and other issues related to recent marine and nearshore projects and research.