Hitting a wall: Can we fix Puget Sound’s beaches?
New numbers show progress in the state’s efforts to remove shoreline armoring, but they don’t tell the whole story.
For the second year in a row, more shoreline armoring — such as rock and concrete bulkheads — has been removed than constructed in Puget Sound, according to permit statistics compiled by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In 2015, 3,097 feet of old armoring were removed from Puget Sound, compared to 2,231 feet of new construction.
Shoreline experts have cautiously embraced the news, which comes amid new studies describing the ecological damage caused by bulkheads. Meanwhile, state and federal agencies have increased programs to assist property owners in removing unneeded structures or else replacing them with more natural erosion controls.
“We have put forth a whole lot of effort, and we have seen the needle move in the right direction,” said Dave Price, restoration division manager for WDFW. “There is hope for the future, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Price and his team have translated the challenge into a statistic as concrete as the bulkheads that line Puget Sound. Price’s optimism is tempered, he says, because more than 700 miles of shoreline armoring still remain.
That number is greater than the length of the ocean beaches in Washington and Oregon combined, and it covers more than 25% of Puget Sound’s winding shoreline, a collective “great wall” built by property owners to hold back erosion.
Even though the state now measures progress for armor removal in mere feet, the recent figures still mark a turning point. From 2005 to 2010, the addition of new bulkheads averaged more than a mile a year across Puget Sound, and removal was hardly a consideration. In earlier years, new walls were being built along the shoreline at an even faster pace.
Last year, new bulkhead construction totaled 0.42 mile, actually up from the all-time low of 0.29 mile the year before. But a larger amount of removal — 0.58 miles in 2015 compared to 0.45 mile in 2014 — made up the difference, continuing the net decline for two years straight.
It is well understood that the benefits of removing an old bulkhead may or may not counterbalance the damage caused by building a new bulkhead of the same size. It is all a matter of location.
Restoration programs are placing the highest priority for removal on spawning areas used by forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance. Also high on the priority list are shorelines that supply sands and gravels for healthy beaches. These shorelines are sometimes called “feeder bluffs.” Landowners may qualify for grants to remove or replace their bulkheads, especially where the environmental benefits are clear.
Megan Dethier, a research biologist at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, led an extensive study of armored and natural shorelines in Puget Sound. The study found that beaches containing bulkheads were generally narrower and contained less shoreline vegetation and driftwood, leading to lower species diversity and less food for juvenile salmon, marine birds and larger animals.
Dethier’s study, published in April, is the first to describe the cumulative effects of bulkheads along stretches of shoreline in Puget Sound. Heavily armored areas tended to have less sand and more accumulation of coarse sediment and rocks, especially where bulkheads blocked natural erosion.
“Some shorelines are armored right in front of bluffs that have no houses or the houses are set way back,” Price said. “I see that all over the place. A little sediment coming off these hillsides can be a very good thing for fish, and I don’t think they are a problem for landowners.”
A major effort is now underway to help shoreline property owners understand these effects, Price said. Many people acquired outmoded bulkheads when they bought their property and are not aware of the long-term effects.
“I was on the water a couple days ago,” he said during an interview in August. “It is pretty remarkable how many bulkheads were built from the 1950s to the ‘90s just to accommodate picnic areas that seem totally unnecessary.”
At the same time, more and more people are using “soft-shore” techniques to reduce erosion where waves and currents threaten to damage their homes. Ideas include sloping a beach and anchoring logs or large rocks on the beach to absorb the wave energy. Such projects are considered less damaging to the ecosystem than hard bulkheads.
Understanding the natural process
Cities and counties that have updated their shoreline regulations the past few years no longer allow hard bulkheads unless a significant structure, such as a house or a road, is at risk of damage within three years. These standards are derived from the Washington Department of Ecology, which plays an equal role in developing local shoreline plans.
Property owners often can save themselves the cost of building and maintaining a shoreline structure if they understand the annual erosion rate of their property, said Hugh Shipman, a coastal geologist with Ecology.
“[Erosion] rates are very slow on Puget Sound, and many properties would do just fine without bulkheads,” he said. “Sometimes this requires recalibrating our personal desire to control small rates of erosion or our fear of scenarios that aren’t realistic.
“Having said that, there are places where erosion needs to be considered very carefully — most commonly on some high bluffs, on landslides, and where the at-risk structure is really close to the edge.”
Why not just remove the bulkheads?
If building a new bulkhead has undesirable effects on the Puget Sound ecosystem, then removing old bulkheads should help with the recovery effort, experts say. As part of a four-year focus on shoreline issues, the Environmental Protection Agency funded seven major beach-restoration projects involving the removal of bulkheads.
But it’s not easy. And it’s not cheap. In all, those projects cost about $8 million dollars between 2012 and 2016 to remove just under a mile of shoreline armoring. Such restoration projects go beyond just armor removal and are critical to Puget Sound recovery, agencies say, but they won’t solve the problem on their own.
Of those seven projects, the type and amount of habitat improved with the bulkhead removal varied from project to project. By measuring habitat conditions before and after the work was done, researchers hope to describe the benefits of each project.
A more in-depth study of habitat conditions and the process of recovery will examine how quickly various species and habitat conditions return to an area after bulkhead removal and without any additional restoration efforts. The study, led by the UW’s Dethier, is under way at Edgewater Beach on Eld Inlet near Olympia, where a bulkhead-removal project had been previously planned.
What the numbers mean
The annual statistics on shoreline armoring — which are derived from state permits issued to allow construction or repair of shoreline structures, called hydraulic project approvals — do not distinguish soft-shore projects from hard bulkheads, despite their impacts on the shoreline ecosystem. Soft-shore approaches count as new armoring, just like hard bulkheads. Likewise, when a concrete bulkhead is replaced with nothing more than logs lying on the beach, the project is counted as a “replacement” — the same as if the replacement structure were made of concrete.
In 2015, 1.8 miles of replacement structures were installed. The data do not describe how much of this work involved soft-shore techniques.
Price acknowledged that the overall restoration effort is not fully reflected in the report that shows the amount of armor added versus removed. He hopes to change the permit application so that future reports can show what appears to be a rather surprising shift from hard to soft armoring the past few years. Some projects are a combination of both types of armoring. Besides changing the application form to include more information, a clear definition of “soft armoring” is needed, he said.
The new-versus-remove statistics for shoreline armoring make up one of the “vital signs indicators” used by the Puget Sound Partnership to measure progress in restoring Puget Sound. To meet the Partnership’s goal, the total amount of armoring removed must exceed the total amount of armoring constructed during the period from 2011 to 2020. That’s a considerable challenge, considering that things were going in the wrong direction for the first three years, but it remains possible to make up lost ground.
Another challenge for Fish and Wildlife and the Puget Sound Partnership is to account for new armoring built without permits. Limited studies involving shoreline surveys in King, Kitsap and San Juan counties revealed numerous armoring projects completed without approval. Such projects never show up in the statistics. Even worse, many of the unpermitted projects fail to meet state or local construction standards. And even when permits are obtained, contractors may build structures longer than allowed by the permit.
Further studies have revealed that cities and counties generally place a low priority on tracking down shoreline violations and checking on compliance. Many rely on complaints from neighbors. A lack of enforcement was found to encourage further violations.
Many officials agree that a better enforcement program is needed to ensure that all waterfront property owners are treated fairly and must live with the same standards. And, despite ongoing outreach, many shoreline owners still need information about the latest scientific findings.
At the most basic level, people may simply not understand the importance of shorelines to the entire Puget Sound ecosystem, said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership.
“We’re talking about food and nurseries for baby fish,” she said. “The food chain is all messed up, from the bottom all the way up to orcas. With the privilege of living on the shore comes the stewardship of that treasure.”
In some ways, Sahandy said, the issue has been framed wrong. It’s not about what government makes a person do. It’s about whether people desire a natural beach that works for fish and wildlife as well as humans. People have the power to decide if they want more natural conditions, she said.
“We should frame this so that people see the possibility of having a nice beach, a place where you can walk down and put your feet in,” she said, adding that people who have installed soft-shore protections often rave about their easier access to the shore.
Of course, many older homes were built so close to the shore that nothing but a solid bulkhead will work, she said, and everyone recognizes that. But in many cases improvements can be made to help the environment.
Jay Manning, a member of the Partnership’s governing Leadership Council and a former director of Ecology, said healthy shorelines are one of many factors in restoring salmon runs, and they may be a critical factor.
“Whatever we are doing on salmon recovery is not working right now,” he said. “We need to refocus and see what levers we can turn to get recovery going in the right direction.
“We can’t do much about ocean conditions (where the salmon spend much of their lives),” he said. “But where we can do better by investing money or coming up with better policies, we should do that. Many things are in our control, and we need to work with tribes and local governments.”
Manning noted that shorelines are just one part of salmon habitat in Puget Sound — along with streams and water quality — and there are other important issues, such as harvest, hatcheries and dams. But the importance of shorelines to salmon growth, survival and migration must not be overlooked, he said.
“We are really determined to turn the salmon numbers to a better trajectory,” Manning said, “and nearshore marine habitat is one of the most important areas to focus on.”
Shoreline planning calls for a separate goal of "no net loss"
Removing more bulkheads than get constructed in Puget Sound may be a laudable goal, but the approach by the state’s Shoreline Management Program is to build no unnecessary bulkheads at all, according to Tim Gates, who heads up shoreline planning for the Department of Ecology.
Furthermore, when shoreline stabilization is truly needed, he said, it must be as protective of the environment as possible.
Ecology’s shoreline policies call for “no net loss” of ecological function, he noted. Potential losses from shoreline construction should be offset through mitigation, such as planting native vegetation or restoring another part of the property.
Shoreline requirements, including the “no net loss” provision, will become more uniform around Puget Sound once all the counties have updated their shoreline master programs under state guidelines, he said.
“We need to work on known problems rather than chasing after a magical number,” Gates said. “The issue is way too complex to reduce it to the number of bulkheads being built versus removed.”
Although it is understood that shorelines can vary greatly from one beach to the next in the type and function of habitat, the Puget Sound Partnership needed a way to measure progress toward shoreline restoration. The organization settled on permits approved under the state’s Hydraulic Code, known as hydraulic project approvals, or HPAs.
In the latest HPA statistics, the three counties with the most new armoring — Pierce, Mason and Skagit — are among those that have not yet completed updates to their shoreline master programs. Out of the 12 Puget Sound counties, only six have been fully approved: King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Whatcom, Island and Jefferson.
Pierce County, including its cities, is listed in the 2015 statistics with 880 feet of new armoring in nine new construction projects. That’s more that twice the amount of armoring in the next highest county, Mason County.
Three bulkhead projects built in Pierce County last year total 563 feet — more than the total armoring of any other county around Puget Sound. Two of the three were large residential bulkheads — a 225-foot structure on Fox Island and a 175-foot structure on Key Peninsula fronting on Henderson Bay. Permit applications submitted for both projects included reports from professional engineers willing to certify that the projects were needed to reduce bank erosion and prevent possible landslides.
Dave Risvold, the county’s shoreline program supervisor, said a revised Pierce County Shoreline Master Program will give the county more authority to scrutinize bulkhead plans to make sure that erosion controls are needed and that no soft-shore alternatives exist. The new “no net loss” standards call for mitigation to fully balance lost habitat, he said. Such an approach will push designers to minimize shoreline damage from the outset of the projects.
The new Pierce County shorelines plan has been adopted by the County Council and is in the final stages of state review.
The third largest new bulkhead in Pierce County was proposed by the Port of Tacoma and permitted by the city of Tacoma. The project was designed to prevent a washout of Marine View Drive along Commencement Bay, where erosion increased rapidly after several old buildings were demolished. The port intends to restore the shoreline, according to the permit, but until then large concrete blocks will help stabilize 163 feet of bank along the roadway.
While Pierce County ended up with 880 feet of new armoring, at the other end of the spectrum were Clallam, San Juan, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, where no new bulkheads were built, according to the HPA statistics from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As for removals, Jefferson County had by far the largest removal project last year, when about 1,400 feet of armor was removed along an old railroad grade at the edge of Discovery Bay near Port Townsend. The armor removal was part of a larger restoration project in the bay.
Initially, the Discovery Bay removal was reported as 1,000 feet, based on the original permit. Later, after the annual armoring report was released, WDFW discovered that 1,400 feet was actually removed during the project. This extra 400 feet is not reflected in the annual report, and agency officials acknowledge that this demonstrates another weakness of using permit data in its current form.
The second largest removal project in Puget Sound was the Bowman Bay project in Skagit County, where 540 feet of bulkhead was removed in a project partially funded by the EPA, according to the permit statistics.
The third largest removal project in Puget Sound involved about 400 feet of rock bulkhead near Lakebay on the Key Peninsula in Pierce County. The rock structure was constructed several years before without permits. The removal project, which was subject to state and county permits, was the result of a legal settlement with the county to resolve the alleged violation. In this case, the bulkhead was never counted in the statistics until it was removed and listed on the removal side of the ledger.