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Houses line the Camano Island shore. Photo by John Ryan. See KUOW's slideshow of shorelines, both armored and naked.

Houses line the Camano Island shore. Photo by John Ryan. See KUOW's slideshow of shorelines, both armored and naked.


Puget Sound's Altered Shores

John Ryan

Close to 40 percent of Puget Sound's shorelines have been covered in concrete or otherwise walled off from the tides. State officials say restoring the health of Puget Sound will require removing some of those walls. But it's local governments that control the shore, and property owners want to build more seawalls as coastal developments expand.


If you want to take a walk along the shores of Puget Sound, you've got about 2500 miles of shoreline to choose from. I'm walking along the beach beneath Magnolia Bluff, just south of Seattle's Discovery Park.

Erosion from the bluff feeds the beaches and tideflats of the park. Just ahead of me, a row of beachfront houses is lined with bulkheads. They're big walls of concrete or piles of giant rock. They protect the homeowners' investments from falling into the sea. Or at least they deflect the wave action and erosion down the beach a bit, onto somebody else's property.

With nearly a thousand miles walled off like this, shoreline armoring adds up to a big problem for Puget Sound and for the creatures that depend on habitats that aren't wrapped in concrete.

Herrera: "Good morning, everybody, and welcome to our March ECB meeting."

The fate of shorelines is decided in much less scenic locations, like this windowless conference room in a state office building in Olympia. A group of advisors to the Puget Sound Partnership is meeting here, with shorelines on the agenda.

Local governments around Puget Sound have started tightening their rules on how waterfront properties can be developed. The local rules have to meet standards set by the state.

Gordon White is with the state Department of Ecology. He says cities used to allow construction less than 10 yards from the shore. Now they're requiring buffers of up to 80 yards.

White: "Which really makes a lot of sense for helping protect fish life. But also, it makes better sense for maintaining vegetative buffers because it means maybe your bank won't slide into Puget Sound."

State standards also include tougher restrictions on bulkhead construction, and an overarching requirement for "no net loss of ecological functions" on the state's shorelines.

White: "No net loss of ecological functions, it's is a very ambitious standard. But what does it mean?"

Officials don't have an answer to that question yet. But the ecological functions include things like keeping beaches full of sand. Or supporting the 10 federally threatened species that live along the shores of Puget Sound. White says the new shoreline rules should make a difference.

White: "We have confidence that local governments, given the right technical support, can help slow the growth of bulkheading in Puget Sound."

There's one problem with that: In Puget Sound, the state's mandate isn't just to keep a battered ecosystem from getting any worse. The mandate is to restore the health of the sound by the year 2020. It's like the difference between stabilizing a patient in critical condition versus getting them well enough to leave the hospital. Naki Stevens works for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Stevens: "We've already got almost half of Puget Sound shoreline that's completely trashed. Achieving no net loss ain't gonna get us there, and I think everybody understands that."

Outside of government corridors, the prospect of increased shoreline regulation has set off some alarm bells. Property–rights groups have organized. And some property owners have responded in more permanent ways.

David Troutt is in charge of natural resources for the Nisqually Indian tribe.

Troutt: "There's been a real rush towards getting grandfathered in under the current system before things change. So we're seeing lots of docks and piers in particular going in in Pierce County."

Kitsap County is just beginning its shoreline update. Bob Benze is with the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners.

Benze: "We tend to think over the last few years, the state has gone a little far in the direction of protecting the environment at the expense of property rights."

Benze says some shoreline areas are less deserving of protection than others.

Benze: "For a government to declare all the shorelines critical areas and requiring a lot of restrictive uses, we don't think is appropriate."

The new shoreline rules only affect new construction. But whenever erosion or a big storm takes out an old seawall, regulators hope to entice owners to try greener methods of protecting their property. Instead of a cement wall, put in something such as a gravel beach or logs anchored to the ground.

Construction officials say their industry knows how to do these so–called soft protections. But they cost more. Sam Anderson heads the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. He says subsidizing greener approaches could take money that governments don't have.

Anderson: "We'd have to write big checks, and that's not going to happen."

And Anderson says forcing greener development on the waterfront could be a political hornets' nest.

Anderson: "It's not just money. Let's be candid: people who have bulkheads and live on water generally have political clout and resources, so you're not dealing with a non–politically astute section of the community, usually."

Tribal officials say whatever the political difficulties, restoring Puget Sound shorelines and the fish that depend on them isn't a choice. It's an obligation under treaties signed before Washington was a state. David Troutt with the Nisqually Tribe directed his remarks to government officials at the recent Puget Sound Partnership meeting.

Troutt: "Part of the deal is we wouldn't shoot all of you, and we'd be able to fish. We haven't shot a lot of you in a long time, and we're not fishing, so our end of the deal isn't being held up here. We need to have that deal recognized, that this really is something that you guaranteed us, and we need to see that guarantee fulfilled."

The deadline for updating shoreline protections statewide is 2014. King County and Snohomish County expect to finish revamping their shoreline rules by this summer.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

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