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Protecting the Shoreline from What?

The following was condensed from a letter submitted by Micheal Gustavson, Director, Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners, to Larry Keeton, Director of Community Development (DCD), Kitsap County Re: Shoreline Master Plan Update. The contents of his letter are also relevant to discussions of shoreline protection in San Juan County.

Dear Mr. Keeton,

I object to using Washington State Department of Ecology’s (DOE) “Drift Cells” technique as the basis for updating the Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) for Kitsap County.  Instead, I request that scientifically justified criteria be created by Kitsap County that can be applied, parcel specific, to each request for a building permit.

DOE’s approach, of assigning certain defined cells near-shore assessment units (NAU), by its very nature is neither scientifically defensible, nor does it pass the test of logic. A logical approach would be to provide measurable criteria of actual harm to the marine environment from a structure being built within 200 feet of the shore. Changes to the shoreline should be achieved as the result of individual building permit applications submitted only on a single parcel basis.

What is the problem?  Is our problem to improve the marine environment for the creatures living in the salt chuck, or to improve the esoteric appearance of man-made structures?  If these two objectives are at all related, how is that relationship scientifically demonstrated?  Are we to protect the beach or 200 feet landward, and for what purpose?


To this point, we’ve ignored the biology of the marine environment, assuming that human actions have somehow degraded the salt chuck, and that all harm comes from man-constructed bulkheads and docks, without peer reviewed scientific justification.

Dr. Don Flora's review of the Battelle Bainbridge Island assessment for DOE, showed that 72% of surf smelt and 49% of sand lance spawn in front of bulk-headed (“armored”) parcels.  Dr. Flora stated that eelgrass is found in front of properties with bulkheads as frequently as in front of properties without bulkheads. Alleged “stressors” seem to have no correlation to DOE’s “stressed” biology theses, and their proposal appears flawed and without merit.

Referring to a Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife map, spawning of forage fish occurs on north-facing (perhaps shaded) beaches as frequently as on south facing beaches which are never shaded. Some of them spawn in quiet bays while others of the same species spawn next to relatively swifter water. Interestingly, spawning fish ignore some good quality spawning beaches for no apparent reason.

DOE assumes that vast reaches of beach (drift cells and their near-shore assessment units) share equivalent characteristics. Consequently, regulations are imposed, based upon vast generalities (as seen in other counties’ updated SMPs), creating “big, dumb no-touch buffers”, typically 150 feet wide, that don’t solve any proven biological problem in the salt water.

In the natural environment, numerous animals, amphibians and birds along the shore excrete their wastes into the water.  This is natural and necessary to support the thriving food column in which they live.  Concurrently, the resident salt chuck creatures live in a world filled with fish and bird created fecal matter, sperm, eggs, dead and decaying creatures, all eating one another. They depend upon this “ecosystem” to reproduce and survive.  In fact clean salt water could be described as an ecological desert.

Bob Benze, an expert in Puget Sound water quality stated:

“Ecology already knows about water quality — as they are charged with maintaining it under their delegation from EPA of Clean Water Act enforcement.  The EPA establishes water quality criteria for the chemicals of concern using a standardized laboratory testing procedure found in their Guidelines for Deriving Numerical National Water Quality Criteria for the Protection of Aquatic Organisms and Their Uses.

This is designed to limit concentrations of toxic chemicals to values that will protect the most sensitive aquatic species.  Point source discharges have met these limits under NPDES permits for decades.  The current concern is that some storm water outfalls and other non-point sources occasionally exceed these limits.  However, dilution in the Sound brings these concentrations well below the limits within a short distance from the outfalls — thus the water quality in almost all of Puget Sound exceeds, by wide margins, EPA water quality criteria.

There are exceptions.  In a few poorly flushed areas such as the Lynch Cove area of Hood Canal, and some of the South Sound Inlets, dissolved oxygen becomes a problem at certain times of the year.  Also, along some shorelines, the health department finds some fecal coliform exceedances.  Sometimes this is traced to failed septics and sometimes to farm animal waste entering streams.  Other times the source is not certain — and as Don Flora notes, dog and bird poop are likely suspects along with occasional ammonia exceedances.

Visit DOE’s website for a discussion of Ecology’s water quality programs, and observe the Washington State “impaired” water body locations and which standards are exceeded. Queries for the Puget Sound do not reveal any significant cause for concern regarding chemistry in the runoff.

Indeed, in the literature, there is virtually no cause-effect evidence that aquatic species in the Puget Sound region are jeopardized by chemistry from the shore, with the exception of shellfish containing high fecals.

Mercury, PAHs, PCBs (sometimes with associated dioxins and furans) and some other toxins are found in fish and aquatic mammal tissue. About a quarter of the mercury is from natural sources and the rest is largely from air deposition — a product of coal burning.

Since U.S. plants have to meet EPA air quality criteria, much of the airborne mercury comes from abroad.  PCBs have been banned from commerce since the early 1970′s.  The residuals are ubiquitous and no amount of regulation will change their presence.

PAHs, heavy metals and other toxins are found in some historic hot spots in sediments but are decreasing, largely due to natural processes.  Usha Varanosi from NOAA has an ongoing study of the effects of PAHs on English Sole — one of the only scientifically-defensible studies with historical significance in the Puget Sound.”

Most harmful substances are cleaned by passing the liquids over as little as six feet of grass.  Water passing through brush, however, actually flows over shaded dirt and is not cleaned.  ”No touch” brush buffers do nothing to mitigate oils and chemicals transiting the terrestrial environment.  A house built along the shore does not of itself contaminate the water entering the Sound.   Furthermore, water from rooftop drains, running over narrow grassy buffers has proven to be adequately cleaned.  Moreover, low-impact development techniques allow percolating water to be cleaned of contaminants by the biological activity found in common dirt, typically within two feet of travel, and commonly proven, even with septic drain fields.

Please note:  There has been no scientific proof of harm contrary to the above offered by DOE.

Bulkheads in most cases have been constructed to protect upland parcels from beach erosion. Note that a good deal of silt enters Puget Sound as a result of rainfalls after clearing roadside ditches; perhaps more than from shore-side sloughing. In most cases the bulkheads have been in place for many decades and bulkhead/beach conditions we observe today are steady state.  No proof by DOE to the contrary has been offered.

Regarding shore-side habitat protection, there are very few terrestrial creatures who depend on the first 200 feet of shoreline.  Sea Otters have a vast range of perhaps 20 miles and only occasionally re-visit a specific location. Once the neighborhood is fished or clammed-out, they move on. Habitats friendly to the few shoreline-dependent endangered or threatened bird species are fairly specific and well documented. Much of the shoreline is inhabited by creatures, not dependent upon proximity to salt water, and are found commonly throughout the entire County uplands.

The opportunity cost associated with protecting the first 200 feet of the entire 250 miles of shoreline for creatures of interest who don’t live on most of it is very high. Tax value lost from restrictions (and consequently devaluation) on expensive shoreline homes will of necessity, be shifted to the upland owners.

Department of Ecology’s approach of characterizing drift cells as long as 4.66 miles (Hansville), some containing as many as 13 near-shore assessment units (NAU), as having fairly uniform characteristics is flawed.  Adjacent or nearby shoreline parcels vary dramatically, parcel to parcel, from step bluffs to salt water marshes, even within the same NAU, which are often each a half mile in length.  Some parcels in an NAU have bulkheads and some do not, yet all are colored “red”.  DOE has provided no measured data to support the contention that bulkheads harm the salt-water environment.  Regulations written because of some perceived degradation issue on one parcel of property in an NAU should not be used as a construction penalty for a neighbor, who doesn’t have the same issue.  NAUs, must be defined at the individual parcel level.

Building permits are applied for, one parcel at a time. The impact on the water column must be evaluated based upon criteria that can be applied to that single parcel. Unless we apply these criteria to each and every building permit and road project in the entire county, little will be accomplished in protecting the marine environment. A number of court cases support this per-parcel concept.

If water quality were actually an issue, acceptable limits for water quality entering the salt chuck from each parcel should be defined.  Keep in mind that the salt chuck water column could be violated by water often traveling a great distance in storm drains, and all those water sources would need to be addressed in our shoreline document and applied to new building permits based upon the geographic constraints of that particular parcel.

With Low Impact Development (LID) construction techniques and our knowledge of natural cleaning processes, we now have the tools to appropriately address any remaining water quality problems without building another bureaucratic monster that retains the problem at ever increasing cost.

DOE’s proposed approach would likely result in another layer of restrictive land use regulation upon shoreline property owners, accomplish nothing for the marine environment and further escalate our cost of housing.

Dr. Don Floracommented that his analysis of the Bainbridge Island near-shore data indicated that approximately 97% of the influence on habitat was from natural causes and that only 3% could be attributed to human-caused activities.  The public can’t be too strong in its contention that the county’s (non?)-scientific approach is not just biased, it is just plain wrong. Courts have consistently ruled against the “precautionary approach” of over-regulating land uses to provide for science which may someday appear.

We are at a fork in the road regarding the update of the SMP. Are we intent on improving the “looks” of the shoreline or are we to take expensive actions that will not improve the salt water for marine organisms?  We need to define the problem publicly before we lurch off to create “solutions” that may not become solutions at all, but create further problems.

Kitsap County DCD’s Patty Charnas reminded us that DOE has final approval authority of the SMP, and if Kitsap’s shoreline regulation didn’t meet the expectations of DOE, they would draft our plan for us.  This is simply implied extortion and does not justify DCD’s proposing a plan, which is scientifically unsupportable and economically unsustainable.

From our SMP update we need a set of practical, scientifically based guidelines that can be used by our DCD when approving shoreline building permits that in fact prevents harm to the marine environment in Puget Sound.

Respectfully submitted for the record,

Michael A. Gustavson

Published January 2, 2011 Bainbridge SMP Update, Commentary, Kitsap County, Real ScienceLeave a Comment (Edited and condensed for republication by David Cable, Common Sense Alliance, with permission of the Author)