Could shoreline armoring finally be declining in Puget Sound?

For more than 100 years, urban development has been a near constant along Puget Sound’s shoreline, but one controversial type of beach structure may now be on the decline. State agencies say that is good news for Puget Sound’s shoreline habitat.

By Christopher Dunagan

For the first time in Puget Sound history, the removal of shoreline armoring — such as rock and concrete bulkheads — has surpassed new construction of such erosion-control structures.

New, replaced, and removed Puget Sound armoring (2005-2009)

New, replaced, and removed Puget Sound armoring (2005-2009). Source: WDFW

This major milestone could be a turning point following decades of degradation, officials say. Natural shorelines have been altered in nearly every corner of Puget Sound — often at a rate of more than a mile a year.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, celebrated the fact that more bulkheads were removed than built in 2014, but she added a note of caution.

“This is a good thing,” Sahandy said. “It shows that we have turned a corner and are going in the right direction. But this is just one point in time, and there is a lot of work to be done.”

In the past few years, shoreline armoring has slowed in the face of growing evidence regarding the ecological damage caused by bulkheads.  Harms include narrowing the natural beach, stripping the shoreline of sand and gravel, eliminating spawning habitat for small forage fish and subjecting juvenile salmon to predatory fish at high tide.

Meanwhile, bulkhead removal is becoming a serious consideration in shoreline restoration. New state and federal grant programs are helping waterfront property owners remove their bulkheads entirely or else replace them with more natural “soft-shore” projects, including strategically placed boulders and driftwood logs to absorb wave energy and reduce erosion.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. 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.

Officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife realized that this important shoreline milestone had been surpassed during a recent review of all permits issued by the agency in Puget Sound.

In 2014, 1,530 feet of armoring was constructed in the 12 Puget Sound counties, compared to 3,710 feet of armoring removed and not replaced with anything else, according to the latest report on armoring.

“I feel really encouraged,” said David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. “I don’t get too excited, because we have a long way to go, and this is one data point, but it is really good sign.”

One sobering fact is the amount of shoreline armoring already in place. In King County, an estimated 73 percent of the shoreline has been hardened with bulkheads and other structures, followed by Pierce County at 51 percent. Other counties have less armoring, with the lowest in San Juan County with 4 percent and Jefferson County with 11 percent.

The total amount of new shoreline armoring installed each year has declined from a recent high of 8,493 linear feet in 2007 to 3,924 feet in 2013, then to 1,530 feet in 2014. According to the report, no new armoring was added last year to shorelines in Jefferson, Thurston or Whatcom counties.

New Puget Sound armoring by county by year (2005-2014).

New Puget Sound armoring by county by year (2005-2014). Source: WDFW

New state guidelines issued under the Shoreline Management Act call on all counties to prohibit new bulkheads — unless a house is at imminent risk of wave or water damage. Most Puget Sound counties and cities have adopted new Shoreline Master Programs that include this provision, though several plans are still under review.

While new bulkheads are in decline, the total length of bulkheads removed has jumped from 314 feet in 2007 to 1,647 feet in 2013 to 3,710 feet in 2014.

The largest bulkhead-removal project last year was the demolition of a 1,150-foot seawall on Discovery Bay in Jefferson County. That removal, part of a major habitat-restoration project, has already resulted in significant spawning by forage fish where none had been seen before, according to Sarah Doyle of North Olympic Salmon Coalition, the project sponsor.

Price said a “change in culture” could be underway among shoreline property owners. A once-common practice of building bulkheads to protect shoreline property from erosion has been giving way to a new ethic of keeping beaches as natural as possible.

“People love a beach,” Price said. “If given a choice, would you want a concrete wall or a natural beach?”

Studies have shown that much of the shoreline in Puget Sound is subject to low-energy waves that erode the shoreline very slowly. Engineers who study shorelines have found that many existing bulkheads were built in places where erosion would not be a threat to any structure for the foreseeable future. Where erosion is a concern, soft-shore stabilization may be adequate and create less disruption to nearshore functions.

Sahandy of the Puget Sound Partnership said she is optimistic about ecological benefits related to this trend of declining bulkhead construction and increasing removal of old bulkheads.

“We now know that most people living on Puget Sound shorelines don’t have the high wave energy that requires armoring — and it is physically unattractive,” she said. “If we end up with hard armoring only in those places where it is necessary, that is fine.”

In 2011, the Puget Sound Partnership established a set of “vital signs indicators” to track the progress of Puget Sound restoration. One of the goals, or “targets,” was for the total length of all bulkheads removed to exceed the total length of all bulkheads constructed by the year 2020.

The clock started immediately in 2011, and the trend continued in the wrong direction, as it had been doing for many years. The indicator seemed out of reach, and few people predicted that the trend would reverse to favor removal over construction. But it happened last year, according to Fish and Wildlife data.

If funding for bulkhead removal can be maintained or increased, it now appears possible to reach the 2020 target. As of the end of last year, the total of all the new bulkheads constructed since 2011 was 15,786 feet, or nearly 3 miles. The total of all the bulkheads removed was 9,166 feet. That leaves a deficit of about 6,600 feet to be made up by removal over the next five years, or about 1,300 feet per year. In 2014, the amount of bulkhead removal exceeded new construction by 2,180 feet — so the goal is within reach.

Some complicating factors have emerged from recent EPA-funded studies, which involved surveying shorelines from a boat to look for new shoreline construction. It is now evident that some bulkheads have been built without state permits, although the actual length of unpermitted bulkheads is unknown. These unpermitted structures should be counted as new construction, but they do not show up in the tally by Fish and Wildlife.

King County code-enforcement officers are attempting to bring newly discovered bulkheads into legal compliance by forcing the property owners to either get permits or remove the structures. Compliance efforts vary in other jurisdictions, where local officials often cite a shortage of staff to explain their inability to address monitoring and enforcement.

While unpermitted bulkheads don’t get counted in the Fish and Wildlife analysis for the damage they do, soft-shore projects don’t get credit for offsetting damage. For example, soft-shore stabilization counts as new construction — the same as a concrete bulkhead, even though experts agree that the damage is less. And if one replaces a concrete bulkhead with a soft-shore project, that counts the same as replacing a bulkhead with the same material.

Sahandy said she would like everyone to recognize that soft-shore stabilization is an improvement over hard bulkheads. How to account for these kinds of improvements in reports from the Puget Sound Partnership will be debated over the coming months, she said.

Meanwhile, the Partnership’s latest “State of the Sound” report, scheduled to be released later this year, will be able to report the beginning of an encouraging trend when it comes to protecting and restoring shorelines.


Chris Dunagan is a Senior Writer at the Puget Sound Institute. Watch for more articles by Chris about shoreline armoring this fall on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Funding for this article was provided in part by the EPA’s National Estuary Program. 

Related links:

Washington Department of Ecology: Frequently asked questions about shoreline armoring

Marine shoreline design guidelines: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has published a comprehensive set of guidelines for managing shoreline development such as bulkheads and seawalls.

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