Shoreline armoring puts flood insurance at risk

Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Communities across Puget Sound must consider salmon-safe alternatives to shoreline armoring or risk losing their flood insurance, according to requirements established by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.

The requirements stem from a Biological Opinion issued by NOAA in 2008 finding that shoreline armoring and other development in the floodplain (so-called “Special Flood Hazard Areas”) can damage critical salmon habitat. The opinion protects threatened Chinook salmon, Hood Canal summer chum and endangered Southern Resident killer whales which rely on Chinook for much of their food. Newly-permitted shoreline structures are expected to demonstrate “no adverse effect” on species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Exceptions are allowed in some cases where property is at risk or additional permits are issued, according to NOAA.

Compliance with the FEMA requirement is voluntary, but without the endorsement of FEMA, flood insurance can be more expensive or difficult to obtain.

Shoreline armoring includes a variety of shoreline structures such as bulkheads and seawalls that are typically created to stave off beach erosion. New science shows that these structures interfere with natural processes critical to beach function and diminish food and habitat for a variety of fish species.

“If you’re a fish, it’s like living in a neighborhood where there is no grocery store,” says Janet Curran, a biologist at NOAA Fisheries. [You can read more about shoreline armoring in our series “Rethinking shoreline armoring” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.] “You could starve trying to find food.”

Charting changes in Puget Sound shoreline armoring length (2005-2015)

Charting changes in Puget Sound shoreline armoring length (2005-2015)

Curran says that the Biological Opinion sets a higher standard for shoreline use and development by adding an additional layer of regulatory protection. “I would not say that it’s going to stop all shoreline armoring,” she said, “but it strengthens the toolkit for salmon protection.” Currently, the Puget Sound region adds the equivalent of a mile of new armoring per year, although that number is offset by the removal of old armoring. About 25% of Puget Sound is classified by the state as armored.

According to FEMA, 122 Puget Sound municipalities such as counties, cities and tribal governments are potentially affected. FEMA doesn’t enforce shoreline armoring regulations or permits, but asks local communities to certify that they are in compliance. A “community” in this case is defined by FEMA as any local government or collective responsible for issuing a permit.

FEMA says that all 122 such groups are currently in compliance with the National Flood Insurance Program, but that the agency is working closely with some groups that need special help meeting the “no adverse effect” requirement for shoreline structures. The FEMA standards are more stringent than “no net loss” requirements for state permits, which allow for some impacts as long as they are mitigated.

There are several options for meeting the FEMA standards. Known as “doors”, these pathways include review of structures on a case by case basis, or satisfaction of a checklist of requirements that meet the equivalent of the Biological Opinion. If communities don’t meet the requirements, they can be placed on probation, which includes an additional charge of $50 per year for insurance premiums and a year to satisfy the requirements. If a community is out of compliance for more than a year, it risks suspension, which means it would be ineligible to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Although local governments are responsible for their own enforcement, FEMA works to correct minor violations through what it calls “community assistance visits,” says John Graves, floodplains management and insurance branch chief at FEMA, Region 10. “It’s like a tune-up on your car — preventative maintenance,” Graves says.

Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines report cover

Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines report cover

The goal, Graves says, is to correct potential violations and satisfy the Biological Opinion, not to put people on probation or deny endorsement for flood insurance.

“We provide technical assistance,” says Graves, “and teach that there are alternatives to hard armoring.” Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the local communities to decide how they want to respond.  “You can’t do it solely on the back of the FEMA Flood Insurance Program,” he says. “We need to have people understand that hard armoring isn’t always the solution.”

FEMA and NOAA often refer communities and developers to the state’s Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines for information about salmon-safe shoreline development. Removal of shoreline armoring is designated as a key “vital sign” of Puget Sound health by the state’s Puget Sound Partnership. It is part of a new series of Implementation Strategies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at Puget Sound recovery.

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PSI is visiting D.C. for Puget Sound Day on the Hill

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

An endangered Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. Credit: NOAA

PSI will be visiting Washington, D.C. next week as part of Puget Sound Day on the Hill. The event is planned for May 2nd, and it is a chance to talk with D.C. policymakers about the importance of protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem.

On one hand, that’s not such a hard sell. Few people would come out and say that they don’t like Puget Sound. Who doesn’t like orcas — or salmon, or sunrises over the Cascades? But opposing Puget Sound? Why, that would be like opposing oxygen or the air we breathe. We’re all fans. We get it.

On the other hand, we tend to assume that there will be enough oxygen for us to breathe tomorrow and the next day. We support the concept, but we don’t necessarily worry about it.

It’s time to start worrying. In some ways, the oxygen is running out. Despite its postcard-ready scenery, the ecosystem is in real danger. Climate change, habitat loss and water pollution threaten to squeeze the life out of Puget Sound and its species. We report on this almost every day in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, and as strong as the ecosystem is, you need only to count the region’s 70-plus endangered Southern Resident orcas to understand that its capacity to withstand this squeeze is not boundless.

Puget Sound is vital to our health and wellbeing, to the economy, and to the species that live in it. It’s not enough to be in favor of it. We have to provide the resources to protect it.

We will be joining with organizations like the Puget Sound Partnership and the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, and you can read more about some of the events on the Puget Sound Partnership website.

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Special report for Puget Sound policymakers

2016-17 Special Report for Puget Sound Policymakers

Download the 44-page 2016-17 Special Report for Puget Sound Policymakers (PDF)

It used to seem easier to spot the polluters. There were the usual suspects: Industrial pipes pumped toxic chemicals into the water; dams blocked the way for salmon; natural resources were over-harvested. Those problems still persist, but ecosystem management in Puget Sound has become increasingly complicated since the 1970s and 1980s.

Scientists now recognize that what happens on the land is intricately tied to the health of the water. We face climate change and unprecedented population growth, and scientists have identified thousands of different human-caused pressures on the ecosystem. The headlines include new threats like stormwater, emerging contaminants and widespread declines in species and habitats. Given limited resources, how can managers and policymakers make informed decisions about where to focus their recovery efforts?

To help with this, we have created a new collection of stories from Salish Sea Currents. This is our second booklet of this type, and it includes reporting on new and emerging science that we believe everyone should read. The stories are wide-ranging, but, like an ecosystem, are connected in important ways.

We start with a look at the impacts of seals and sea lions on the region’s threatened Chinook populations. As many as one in five juvenile Chinook are eaten before they can migrate to open waters. That means many fewer are maturing to adulthood and returning to spawn. It also means significantly less food for the region’s endangered killer whales, which depend on Chinook for about 81% of their diet.

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

It is a classic illustration of the food web. Seals and sea lions have been increasing due to federal protections, but they have always had a healthy appetite for salmon. Are they the villains here, or is something else at play? Scientists suspect a variety of threats make the Chinook more vulnerable to what should otherwise be a normal pressure. Contaminants in the water as well as habitat loss from shoreline armoring are just two examples of threats that could be weakening Chinook, and we have several stories in this collection that intersect.

Not everything is bad news. We close out the collection with a story about the return of the harbor porpoise. Known as “the puffing pig,” the harbor porpoise had all but disappeared from Puget Sound in the 1970s due to factors like gillnetting and industrial pollutants. The species is still considered to be at risk in the Salish Sea, but its population is on the rise and it is hoped that Puget Sound cleanup efforts can ensure healthy numbers in the future. It is just one reminder that we can make a difference if we understand the ecosystem’s problems and their causes. Good science reporting can help to build that understanding, and we hope this collection of stories continues that tradition.

You can download the 44-page report as a PDF, or contact us if you would like a print version. We’ll also have many new stories in the coming months on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Funding for the report was provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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PSI-sponsored session at CERF

CERF 2017 banner

CERF 2017 banner

The Puget Sound Institute is sponsoring a session at the November 2017 meeting of the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) in Providence, Rhode Island. The session will focus on technical support for ecosystem management and is now accepting abstracts for presentations.

Session title:

From objectives to actions: technical support for ecosystem management planning

Lead Convener: Tessa B Francis
Co-Convener: Aimee Kinney

Visit the CERF website for more information. 

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PSI hosts modeling workshop

A big thanks to everyone in the house and on the webinar for the february 15th workshop: Modeling in Support of Ecosystem Recovery. Photo by Kris Symer.

A big thanks to everyone who attended our February 15th workshop, ‘Modeling in Support of Ecosystem Recovery.’ Photo by Kris Symer.

The Puget Sound Institute is hosting a workshop on “Modeling in Support of Ecosystem Recovery,” on February 15, 2017, from 10am – 4pm, at the South Seattle Community College Georgetown Campus, 6737 Corson Avenue South, Seattle, 98108.

This workshop brings together modelers, Strategic Initiative Leads, Implementation Strategy (IS) team members, PSP Science Panel members, PSP Leadership Council members, EPA, tribes, and key stakeholders to discuss how to support Puget Sound recovery planning and implementation with modeling. We will take a multi-scale perspective, and use the Estuaries Implementation Strategy (IS) as a case study of how models can be used within ISs, and as a way of helping advance the Estuaries IS. We will also discuss modeling at the system scale, including needs and capacity.

Space is limited, so PLEASE RSVP. Remote attendance will be possible (via WebEx), but all attendees should RSVP to ensure they receive information as it becomes available.

View the workshop agenda. 

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White House announces blueprint for agency cooperation in Puget Sound

White House CEQ managing Director Christy Goldfuss speaking at a press conference in Seattle today.

White House CEQ managing director Christy Goldfuss speaking at a press conference in Seattle today. Photo by Jeff Rice.

The Obama administration today approved the establishment of a new federal task force to prioritize agency actions for Puget Sound recovery.

The announcement came from Christy Goldfuss, the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“We understand we have a critical role to play here in Puget Sound,” said Goldfuss, speaking at a press conference in Seattle. The new task force will serve as a blueprint for increased federal cooperation and is part of a memorandum of understanding signed today by the White House and nine federal agencies.

Goldfuss was joined at the conference by Washington governor Jay Inslee, congressmen Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman, Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon and several state and federal administrators.

Also announced was a recommendation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to commit $452 million dollars to the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project. The money will support three estuary recovery projects, including the Duckabush River Estuary project, the Nooksack River Delta restoration and the North Fork Skagit River Delta project.

Final funding for the estuary projects must still be approved by congress, but Governor Inslee was optimistic that the funds would be forthcoming. “Once you have laid the keel of the ship, the ship tends to get built,” he said.

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Puget Sound Day on the Hill 2016

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U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer introduced new stormwater legislation today.

Local agencies and stakeholders—including PSI— were in D.C. today to advocate for Puget Sound. Follow some of the action on social media, including Twitter posts at #saveoursound and #saveamericassound. Among the day’s highlights was a new stormwater bill introduced by Representative Derek Kilmer, who announced the legislation on Facebook.

Read the full text of H.R.4648 – Green Stormwater Infrastructure Investment Act.

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In the news: UWT talk aims to root methanol debate in science

TacomaNewsTribuneLogoThe News Tribune reported on an upcoming discussion series on a proposed methanol plant in Tacoma. The series is sponsored in part by our parent group the Center for Urban Waters at the University of Washington.

Columnist Matt Driscoll writes:
  • A four-part series on Tacoma’s proposed methanol plant starts Thursday at UWT
  • Joel Baker, the science director at the Center for Urban Waters, hopes to focus on the facts
  • Whether Tacomans will be receptive remains to be seen

Read more about the discussion series.

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In the news: Radiolab event will feature PSI’s water detectives

TacomaNewsTribuneLogoThere is a nice story in The News Tribune today on the upcoming Radiolab event in Tacoma. The January 22nd show at the Pantages Theater will focus on Northwest water issues and features a panel of environmental leaders, including PSI Director Joel Baker. The paper calls Joel and his lab “the ‘CSI’ of water science” and highlights some of their research into the high prevalence of household chemicals in local waterways.

“What we find in the water is by and large what you find in your house, from refrigerators to medicine cabinets,” Baker told the paper. The article describes how Baker and his group at the Center for Urban Waters are finding everything from artificial sweeteners to long-banned substances like DDT in nearby Puget Sound. Known as emerging contaminants, these substances often escape filtration systems and can be found in levels that, although tiny—sometimes in the parts per billion or even trillion—can still be potentially harmful.

Baker will be one of several panelists interviewed onstage by Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich. Other panelists include Ryan Mello of the Pierce Conservation District, Puget Sound Partnership’s Sheida Sahandy, and Jennifer Chang of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative. The event will focus on local water issues and will also go behind the scenes of the popular Radiolab podcast and radio series.
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‘Inside Radiolab’ will interview PSI Director and other Puget Sound area panelists

1280px-WNYC_Radiolab_logo.svgOur Director Joel Baker is part of a panel of four environmental leaders in Puget Sound who will be interviewed onstage at the Inside Radiolab show next week in Tacoma. Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich will host the January 22nd event at the Pantages Theater where he will interview panelists about Northwest water issues.

In addition to Baker, other panelists include Jennifer Chang of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative, Ryan Mello, Executive Director of Pierce Conservation District and Sheida Sahandy, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Radiolab’s quirky take on science has made it one of the Internet’s most popular podcasts, with more than 4 million downloads. It is also broadcast on over 450 public radio stations around the country. The live theater presentation will go behind the scenes of the show, with Krulwich talking about how he and his co-host Jad Abumrad create some of radio’s most compelling science journalism. The show begins at 7:30.

Read more about the event.

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Ocean Modeling Forum to hold Pacific Herring Summit June 8-10

An albatross catches a herring.Langara Fishing Adventures

An albatross catches a herring.Langara Fishing Adventures

Puget Sound Institute lead ecologist Tessa Francis is co-chair of an upcoming summit to examine the human dimensions of Pacific herring fisheries in the Salish Sea. The forum brings together “social and natural scientists, tribes and First Nations, and federal and state managers” to identify new approaches to ecosystem-based management, including the use of traditional ecologic knowledge and social networks.

The summit will be held from June 8-10 in British Columbia.  Read more at the Ocean Modeling Forum website. 

Related article (UW Today): Ocean Modeling Forum to bring human element to herring fishery, others

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