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Composite view, before and after, of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park. Such projects improve beach habitat and should be encouraged, experts say.
Image: Kris Symer, PSI, from photos by Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Low-interest loans could help shoreline property owners finance improvements

As ongoing research confirms the importance of shoreline habitat throughout Puget Sound, experts are looking for new ways to help shoreline property owners pay for bulkhead removals.

One emerging idea, which could be established as a formal initiative within a year, consists of a special shoreline loan program that could provide low-interest loans to residential property owners. The owners could then make payments over decades with less strain on their family budgets.

A soon-to-be-released report examines the possibilities of a state-sponsored revolving-fund loan program. This type of program would begin with seed money provided through a legislative appropriation or one of the existing grant programs that provide funding for Puget Sound restoration. As the loans are repaid, the incoming money goes back out to finance new loans, so the fund becomes “revolving.” New money could be added to increase the number of loans available each year.

The money comes back around. Click on image to enlarge // Graphic: John Linse, UW Creative Communications

Over time, a relatively small initial investment could result in a large number of projects being completed, according to lead author Aimee Kinney of the Puget Sound Institute, who conducted the feasibility study in consultation with experts from Northern Economics and Coastal Geologic Services. The report is scheduled to be published in a few weeks in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Aimee will discuss the project in a March 31st  webinar mentioned at the bottom of this page. The project is supported by the Habitat Strategic Initiative, which receives funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Financial modeling indicates that $4.5 million in seed money could fund $9.7 million in projects over the first 15 years of the loan program. Further incentives could be offered to property owners through existing programs, such as the successful Shore Friendly effort, which works through local entities to provide technical expertise and/or grants for shoreline improvements.

Property owners throughout the Puget Sound region have taken advantage of Shore Friendly assistance, particularly as aging bulkheads near the end of their useful life. Since 2014, more than 1,400 homeowners have consulted with Shore Friendly experts. At last count in 2018, 284 have received erosion assessments; 23 have received assistance with engineering design and permitting; and 49 have been awarded small grants for construction.

Options for shoreline owners include replacing a hard bulkhead with more natural “soft shore” protection, such as anchoring logs in the beach to attenuate wave energy. Sometimes a qualified shoreline assessment reveals that existing structures are not at risk from waves or rising waters, so the shoreline can be returned to its natural condition with minimal effort.

Shore Friendly areas showing major projects funded by the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program. Click on image (PDF 3 mb) for details and map key.
Graphic: ESRP

Given rising sea level due to climate change, some owners are opting for longer-term solutions, such as raising a house on its foundation or moving the structure farther back from the water. Those kinds of solutions could be eligible for funding through the revolving-fund loan program under review, Aimee said.

Removing a bulkhead has direct benefits for residential property owners, such as improved access to the beach, increased recreational values and a more natural esthetic. Meanwhile, the benefits to the ecosystem can be enormous, depending on the location, by alleviating the damage caused by bulkheads:

  • A narrowing of the tidelands area, thus reducing habitat for organisms that live in the substrate and for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, that spawn directly on the beach.
  • Alteration of the natural movement of gravels, sands and fine sediment that can result in a hardened, barren beach no longer suitable for the normal array of species, including forage fish, an important food for salmon.
  • Increased water depth along the shoreline, which allows for larger fish to prey on migrating juvenile salmon,
  • Loss of driftwood and natural debris in the upper tidal region where a multitude of small species play a key role in the food web, and
  • Elimination of the transition zone at the upper edge of the beach where shorebirds forage and nest among the vegetation.

(For the latest scientific information about shoreline issues, check out this week’s conference listed at the bottom of this page.)

Based on state permits for shoreline armoring, more bulkheads are being removed than constructed in terms of overall length, but about a quarter of all shorelines in Puget Sound remain in a hardened, unnatural condition.

The new feasibility report cites a 2014 survey of Puget Sound residents who own homes with shoreline armoring. A significant number expressed a willingness to remove their shoreline-stabilization structure but indicated that cost was a major barrier:

  • 18 percent said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to remove all or a portion of armor and replace it with soft-shore protection,
  • 14 percent said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to remove a portion of hard armor and let the beach naturalize, and
  • 8 percent said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to remove all hard armor and let the beach naturalize.

A related technical analysis, which considers the funding needs for various types of projects, concluded that there is a demand for six to eight loans each year. That demand is expected to increase in future years as high-tide surges overtop more bulkheads as a result of sea-level rise and the growing severity of storms.

The study goes on to consider the potential structure and administration of a revolving loan program, with an examination of six existing loan programs — including a Washington state enterprise that helps homeowners replace their failing septic systems.

If details can be worked out with the support of one or more state agencies, a proposed loan program could be introduced to the Legislature or funded through a separate grant as early as next year, Aimee said.

Meanwhile, in the current legislative session, the Senate has approved a measure (Senate Bill 5273) that would require the least-impacting, technically feasible bank protection when someone goes to replace a bulkhead or other shoreline-stabilization structure. The bill would require a site assessment to determine the least-impacting project — unless exempted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday before the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources.

The federal government is now playing an enhanced role in the repair and replacement of shoreline armoring, following a court determination that the Army Corps of Engineers has authority over construction up to the high-water mark. Furthermore, the National Marine Fisheries Service has begun to require “offsets” for damage caused by shoreline construction — even when an owner is simply replacing a structure with no significant change. For details see:

These evolving regulations at both the state and federal levels provide a new impetus for bulkhead removal or soft-shore replacement, Aimee said, and the result could be a growing demand for low-interest loans to make the work more affordable for shoreline property owners.

This week’s conference and March 31 webinar

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