The strange case of the missing “Eureka!”

Environmental Insight With a Touch of Real Science
by Don Flora (a real scientist)

This mystery is about shoreline buffers.

Kitsap and some other Puget Sound Counties have relied on buffers for decades, around wetlands and along the tidewater. The number of buffers has grown steadily. Yet nobody has come rushing up from the shore shouting “Eureka! Buffers work!”

This is strange indeed. Of scientists we seem to have scads. Years have passed in which measurements might have occurred. There are many places where “with buffer” could reasonably be compared with “no buffer”, or “wide buffer” with “narrow buffer.” Yet at no time, from no place has come “Eureka!”

Why not?

Maybe it’s because some benefits are invisible. One has to be barefooted to sense high temperatures of beach sediments that may be harmful to surf smelt eggs or organisms below the surface. Wetland salamanders can be hard to spot, as are nocturnal creatures. Yet means are available to observe and measure such things.

Maybe it’s because the benefits are indirect. This is an issue in habitat surveys: counting trees isn’t the same as counting creature comforts, nor creatures themselves.

Or maybe its’ because there is no benefit to find. I made a list of 25 nice things that wider buffers will not do. Here are a few.

Adding water to aquifers would be nice. But a charming tree-laden, woodsy buffer is devilish hard on groundwater during the growing season. A maturing tree can use 100-150 gallons per day. That’s per tree. And there is no way to turn off the valves on those great conduits to the sky.

Well, trees drawing up excess storm water would be nice. That’s in winter, of course, when vegetation, even evergreens go dormant. Grass, shrubs, trees all mean nothing to passing surface and ground water as storms rage.

It’s nice, though, that tree roots knit tightly the soil above banks and bluffs, forestalling slope failure. But do they? Even the Department of Ecology, which likes sediment on beaches, warns against trees at the edge. In soggy, windy weather they’re apt to go over (trees, not the Department), roots and all. Wider buffers won’t change that risk.

It’s nice that wider buffers will stop more sediment that flows along with storm water, carrying phosphorous and some actually bad chemicals. But have you lost some sediment lately? Perhaps you have a critical feedlot or rows of berries descending the backland close to shore. No? So much for sediment.

But, if yes, don’t draw a sylvan buffer around your place. Research has shown that grass works better at stopping sediment and other stuff. And grass is nice.

As a place to play, woods can be nice too. But buffers are no-touch. Try getting permission to install a tree house or even a flagpole (for pirate flag of course).

Want twenty more reasons to beware planners bearing wider buffers? Call me at 206-842-0709. The code word is “Eureka”.

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