Bulkheads: protecting property at what cost to the environment? - Salish Current
January 5, 2023
Bulkheads: protecting property at what cost to the environment?
Kai Uyehara

“You, me and the sea” has nuanced meanings for shoreside living, which now is increasingly challenged by flooding from rising sea levels. (All photos Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2022)

January 5, 2023
Bulkheads: protecting property at what cost to the environment?
Kai Uyehara


Seasonal high tides brought flooding to low-lying shoreline areas in late December and put local counties under a coastal flooding advisory, with Salish Sea waters rising over roadways and flowing into homes Whatcom County’s Sandy Point on Dec. 27. 

Erosion of high and low feeder bluffs on the shoreline of Semiahmoo Bay deposit sediment onto Semiahmoo Spit.

Storm surges, “king” tides, rising sea levels and erosion threaten coastal shoreline properties in Puget Sound. In response, residents have sought over the years to protect their properties with armoring such as bulkheads, seawalls and riprap. 

While shoreline armor may prevent erosion, these structures can impede the benefits of natural erosion which replenishes the shoreline’s fish spawning and rearing habitats.

There are about 700 miles of man-made barriers along Puget Sound alone. In San Juan, Whatcom and Skagit counties, the total amount of unpermitted armoring could be even more than recorded, due in at least in part to a shortage of staff and permit-tracking resources.

It’s a complicated picture in all three counties.

Feeding the beach

At sites such as the shoreline of Semiahmoo Bay, erosion from feeder bluffs gradually feeds the beach. The absence of hard shoreline armor such as bulkheads, seawalls and riprap allows the land to contribute sediment and adapt to sea-level rise and climate changes in a dynamic system, said Lisa Kaufman, director of programs at the Northwest Straits Foundation

Below the feeder bluffs that deposit sediment from north and south edges of Spencer Spit State Park is a forage fish spawning site. If this area were to be armored, vegetation and debris would be buried or cleared from the shore for construction, explained Tina Whitman, science director of Friends of the San Juans, and habitat where fish spawn and feed on insects and other invertebrates would be lost. 

The Friends of the San Juans evaluated permit compliance and enforcement of armoring in the county between 2009 and 2019 and surveyed over 400 miles of county shorelines in issuing a report last November.

Wooden armor protects a Sandy Point property on Neptune Beach from the forces of high tides, erosion and storm surges.

Heavy armor

Several residential properties along the shorelines of Lopez Village Beach are armored with large rocks and wood structures to withstand erosion. Friends of the San Juans found that 74% of the 108 armor sites installed between 2009 and 2019 was unpermitted and less than 10% of new armor had all required local and state authorizations before construction.

“Our current permit system is complicated, complex, expensive and time-intensive,” Whitman said. “There’s not a lot of incentive to do it the right way because your chances of actually getting caught are very low. If we’re going to have a complicated system, that is great if we are making sure that we’re reducing impacts, but part of the regulatory system is compliance and enforcement.”

Particularly after properties are damaged from storms or tidal surges, residents may opt to replace armor with “bigger and better,” often unpermitted and outside of regulator review, said Jon-Paul Shannahan, Whatcom County Natural Resource division manager. Some property owners feel it’s unjust that regulations do not allow them to protect their properties with bulkier structures.

When armoring doesn’t  go through a permitting process, Whitman said, the impacts on sediment, coastal vegetation and forage fish habitat are in the hands of residents who may not prioritize protecting the coastal environment when trying to protect their property. 

Whatcom County doesn’t track increases in armor sites, said Shannahan, nor does it have the resources to track compliance with permits issued along the 130 miles of its shoreline. The natural resources department learns of noncompliance only through filed complaints. 

On the west shore of Similk Bay, a project organized by the Northwest Straits Foundation removed 200 feet of shoreline armor and a marine riparian zone was created to benefit forage fish and juvenile salmonids. 

Funding for change

“We really need to put more funding into doing change analyses,” Kaufman said, “But also have more funding available for regulatory agencies to go out in the field and look for those changes and do compliance checks.”

At Shoal Bay on Lopez Island, a bulkhead, large cement tidal gate and loads of man-made materials were removed from the beach to preserve spawning grounds, promote vegetation and neutralize tidal obstruction for the near-shore habitat of eelgrass, shellfish beds and sand spit. San Juan County public works, Friends of the San Juans and other organizations have removed about 10 to 15 armor sites, Whitman said. 

Friends of the San Juans, Northwest Straits Foundation and other organizations work as Shore Friendly providers, a Puget Sound-wide program. These organizations help shoreline landowners through the restoration process with free technical assistance, site visits from experts and engineers, assessments, armor removal, vegetation planting, cost-share opportunities and incentives to pursue more natural, healthy shorelines.

Removing armor is expensive and discourages landowners from converting to natural shorelines. Whitman believes that the government should lead if it expects landowners to stop putting in new hard armor. Removing armoring from roads is a good example, according to Whitman. 

Friends of the San Juans reported that two miles of new armor was added to the 25 miles of existing armor in the islands between 2009 and 2019, while only a third of a mile was removed. “If we’re still allowing all this new armor to come in, our restoration’s not getting us this positive net gain that we’re all hoping for because protection’s not holding the line,” Whitman said.

San Juan County plans to relocate a portion of Mackaye Harbor Road at Agate Beach on Lopez Island, removing armoring and restoring a forage-fish spawning site.

Armor was installed at over 100 locations in the San Juan Islands between 2009 and 2019, notes the Friends of the San Juans report. The organization found that 22% of feeder bluffs and 27% of forage fish spawning beaches in San Juan County were armored in 2019. The organization wants to see more government agencies doing similar tracking to get a better sense of shoreline armor and its impacts, Whitman said, and has met with state and county regulators to provide them information and discuss weaknesses in enforcement and current policy.

Prevention is priority 

Preventing more armoring through enforcement and education is a higher priority now than removing existing armoring, according to Whitman.

Friends of the San Juans wants to make the complicated permitting process friendlier, and wants to provide landowners with the technical assistance to protect their property as well as healthy beaches and bluffs. 

Shannahan said Whatcom Natural Resources is supporting state agencies and federal partners in providing homeowners access to funding for armor removal and permitting to overcome cost barriers. 

Shannahan said people should be mindful and do their homework before deciding to live shore-side. “I would just ask people to think about the environment that they’re moving to,” he said. “As beautiful as it might be, there’s also stormy days and there’s surge days, and climate change is real. Take a look at where you want to settle down and ask, are you going to be able to maintain that place?”

Rocky armor stands between residences and the waters off Orcas Island’s north shore.

Modification damages shorelines, said Kaufman, so setting structures far enough back from the water or erosional bluffs and ensuring that upland drainage isn’t eroding the property’s edges might be a good first step. 

“We also encourage people to maintain a healthy net of native vegetation to soak up drainage,” Kaufman said. “One of the easiest things that landowners can do that’s inexpensive is to put more trees in the ground. They can help reduce their risks from shoreline erosion and from sea-level rise, and benefit habitat in a really important way.”

Whether it’s increasing vegetation, removing armor, rerouting drainage or even moving structures, “the one thing we’re really trying to help landowners to focus on is that armor isn’t going to be your solution with sea-level rise,” Kaufman said. “Armor doesn’t stop water from the sea or the shoreline side. We really are encouraging people to consider alternatives.”

[Note: No armored sites pictured in this article are shown as examples of unpermitted sites.

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

Read more: “Rising seas, surging storms put many low-lying areas at risk,” Salish Current, Oct. 13, 2022

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