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Loss of natural shoreline confirms concerns about Puget Sound health

By NATALIE MARTIN

Despite shoreline restoration efforts, Vashon has seen an overall loss of natural shoreline in the last decade, a recent study found, leading some to call for better education for homeowners, stricter permitting enforcement and even the banning of bulkheads.

“It’s a bit disheartening when you work on so many different projects and we’re still treading water and not forging ahead,” said Greg Rabourn, Vashon’s basin steward for King County.

In recent years on Vashon, Rabourn said, the county has removed almost 600 feet of bulkheads, shoreline armoring that harms the environment by stopping natural beach processes and destroying important habitat.

However, the installation of bulkheads on private property — as well as retaining walls, docks and stairs — outpaced those conservation efforts, according to the recent study, and Vashon has still seen a net loss of natural shoreline since 2005.

The recently released study, which was conducted using aerial photos and boat-based surveys, also found that much of the shoreline work on Vashon was not permitted. Later this month, King County will send letters to landowners it believes have done unpermitted work, asking them to work with the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER) to get any required permits. Those who don’t comply could eventually face penalties.

“Initially we’re giving the property owners an opportunity to come into compliance,” said Randy Sandin, a resource product line manager with DPER. “If they ignore the letters, at some point there will be follow-up.”

A King County study of the shoreline of Water Resources Inventory Area 9 (WRIA 9) — an area that stretches from Federal Way to Seattle and includes the Green-Duwamish Watershed and Vashon and Maury islands — found that since 2005, the area has had 1,500 feet of shoreline armoring removed. However, the 92 miles of shoreline in WRIA 9 — about half of which is on Vashon — had more shoreline than that armored and saw a net loss of 70 feet of natural shoreline.

Kollin Higgins, an ecologist with the county Department of Natural Resources and Parks and the author of the study, said he hadn’t parsed out the data for Vashon, but he believes the island has seen approximately 500 feet of shoreline armored in recent years, and like WRIA 9, it lost natural shoreline overall. Some of the recently removed armoring at Dockton Park may not have been included in the study.

The study, done on behalf of WRIA 9’s salmon recovery group, also found that the majority of new bulkheads installed in WRIA 9 were on Vashon, as was most of the work on docks and the majority of shoreline clearing.

Clearing trees and other vegetation on the shoreline or on bluffs above the shore can also be harmful, Higgins explained, as vegetation holds slopes in place and contributes to a healthy beach habitat.

Doug Osterman, the coordinator for WRIA 9, a multi-agency group working toward salmon recovery, called the results of the survey disappointing, especially considering the bulkhead removal work that has occurred throughout WRIA 9. He noted an effort some years ago that removed over 1,000 feet of bulkhead at Seahurst Park in Burien.

“That’s all going on, but we’re never going to catch up to it if there’s more and more bulkheading,” he said. “You’re losing ground essentially, and I think that’s really important to take into consideration what we do from here on out.”

Officials with WRIA 9 are now in the process of reaching out to permitting agencies in the study area, including King County DPER, to discuss the study results and what could be done in the future to assure shoreline work is permitted and that permits take shoreline health into account.

Osterman was especially disappointed, he said, to learn about how much unpermitted work was done in WRIA 9 and on Vashon. Over half of the unpermitted work in WRIA 9 was on Vashon, where of the 93 shoreline changes observed on the island since 2005, only eight of them were permitted by King County. And of the changes that were permitted, many were not carried out exactly to permit requirements.

Higgins, the study’s author, noted that not all of the unpermitted work would affect shoreline health, and it’s possible that some of the changes wouldn’t have required permits. Unpermitted work included major or minor bulkhead repairs, shoreline clearing and the installation of new docks, stairs, retaining walls and boat ramps. The survey found one entirely unpermitted house and two houses that at one point didn’t have proper permits but that DPER had code enforcement cases against.

DPER has typically gone after property owners only when complaints are submitted from the public and the agency investigates. Sandin, with DPER, said that in this case the study findings will be treated similarly to complaints and the agency will work to bring all identified work into compliance. Most of the changes could likely be permitted as is, though some, he said, could require homeowners to make modifications or do mitigation to protect the shoreline.

“We get complaints on things simply from people driving by something, and it’s not like these things are hidden from view,” Sandin said. “They are very visible along the shoreline.”

Osterman, with WRIA 9, said he believes King County should takes its permitting effort one step further, rethinking its policies to be more proactive in its enforcement.

“We have to figure out a way, if there’s the political will to do it, to actually bolster the enforcement mechanisms that we have,” he added. “It does take more than a complaint-driven system.”

Rabourn, who has led bulkhead removal projects at Piner Point and most recently at Dockton Park, said he hopes the county will bolster its outreach to shoreline residents, some of whom may not know what work requires permits. He said they may also not understand the harm that shoreline structures, particularly bulkheads, can do.

In the last decade, scientists have found that when a slope or bluff is bulkheaded, it stops the natural erosion that continually replenishes the beach. Beach sand eventually washes away, changing the natural face of the beach and destroying important habitat for salmon and forage fish, smaller fish that are a vital part of Puget Sound’s food web.

About half of Vashon’s 50 miles of shoreline is currently armored with bulkheads. However, bulkheads are not always needed, Rabourn said, and sometimes more natural methods involving wood and strategic planting can stabilize the shore. Similarly, trees can be thinned in a way that opens up a view but doesn’t compromise the shoreline, he said.

“Our marine shoreline is so precious, and it’s so hard to undo these things,” he said.

To that end, the King Conservation District is planning a shoreline homeowners workshop on Vashon next month, hoping to teach homeowners about viable alternatives to work that harms the marine habitat.

On some properties, bulkheads can even be removed, though so far few on Vashon have opted to do so.

Rabourn said he hopes the class, similar to one offered a few years ago, will be the first of many.

“I know shoreline landowners are really connected to the water. … I believe they care deeply about it,” Rabourn said. “But when they clear their shoreline vegetation or they put in shoreline armoring, they’re causing a significant impact to what they love. I think we need more education for folks about what that means.”

Other environmentalists, however, are calling for both education and significant policy changes.

Tom Dean, director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said he worries that the only way to reverse the trend of losing natural shoreline is to stop new bulkheads from being built. He noted that in other states on the West Coast and on the Washington coast, new bulkheads are no longer allowed.

“If we’re losing ground here, what other counties are losing ground?” Dean said. “Eventually if that trend continues, you end up basically with a bathtub with hard edges, and that’s not going to support the food web.”

Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action, agreed. She said that the watchdog group, formerly Preserve Our Islands, is shocked by how rarely government agencies deny permits for shoreline development. The practice doesn’t seem informed by current science, she said, but would take political action to change.

“Regulations should be that you cannot build a bulkhead unless there’s a specific set of circumstances,” she said. “Bulkheads should be the exception rather than the rule.”

At the same time, Carey said, the WRIA 9 study is a good starting point to understand the current conditions in King County and the problems facing Puget Sound.

“It’s just critical,” she said. “If we’re going to protect Puget Sound, we have to know what is where and what is going on on the ground.”

Osterman said it is too soon to know if King County will decide make policy changes, as officials have yet to formally discuss the study results. He noted that the study suggests that an additional study of why shoreline residents fail to seek permits for their work could be valuable.

“We can find out a little bit more about the social aspects, why there’s such a strong lack of really being responsible to the information to restore Puget Sound,” he said.

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