Protecting The Shore From What?

by Michael Gustavson, Director, Kitsap Allience of Property Owners      

An open letter to Larry Keaton, Director of Community Development, Kitsap County

Re:  Shoreline Master Plan Update: I am submitting this letter as part of the official County record

Dear Mr. Keaton,

I object to using Washington State Department of Ecology’s (DOE) drift cells each containing a number of near-shore assessment units (NAU) technique as the basis for updating the Shoreline Master Plan for Kitsap County and request instead that scientifically justified criteria be created by Kitsap County that can be applied, parcel specific, to each request for a building permit. 

As I will show, DOE’s approach, by its very nature is neither defensible from the perspective of science, nor does it pass the test of logic.  The only changes to shoreline will be achieved as the result of individual building permit applications and these are submitted only on a single parcel basis, not for many thousands of feet of shoreline as defined in DOE’s drift cells/near-shore assessment units.  The drift cells and their NAUs are scored based on features such as the existence of bulkheads and pier.  Later, I will show DOE has offered no proof these cause harm to the marine environment and are merely used as covers for a much different agenda.  Indeed, thorough review of the scientific literature showed no harm to the measured marine environment.

A more defensible approach is to provide measurable criteria of actual harm to the marine environment from a structure being built within 200 feet of the shore. 

Monday evening, December 7, I attended the County Planning Commission and Shoreline Master Plan Task Force joint public hearing.  Many speakers gave thoughtful and constructive comments.  In retrospect, the problem to be solved needs to be defined from a different perspective than the one currently being taken by Department of Ecology and Kitsap County Department of Community Development.

We need to define the problem we’re trying to actually solve.  Will the resulting regulations solve the problem to which we will have agreed?  First off, it must be convincingly demonstrated that a solvable real problem actually exists in the first place.

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

To this point, we’ve looked at the shore through the eyes of humans, ignoring the biology of the marine environment with the assumption that our actions have somehow degraded the salt chuck.  We’ve begun with the assumption that all harm comes from man-constructed bulkheads and docks, without peer reviewed scientific justification.  Perhaps this seems reasonable to us, but not to the fish.  As I showed members of the County Planning Commission and Shoreline Master Plan Task Force during the public hearing, from Dr. Don Flora’s review of the Battelle Bainbridge Island assessment for Department of Ecology, 72% of surf smelt and 49% of sand lance spawn in front of bulkheaded (“armored”) parcels.  Eelgrass is found in front of properties with bulkheads as frequently as in front of properties without bulkheads.  As a child, I always saw the greatest concentration of fish was under the fishing docks in our neighborhood.  Alleged “stressors” seem to have no correlation to DOE’s alleged “stressed” biology.  The entire basis for DOE’s proposal appears flawed and without merit.

From the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife map I provided at the public hearing, 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.  Spawning fish ignore some apparently good quality spawning beaches for no reason apparent to humans.

We’ve made the assumption that vast reaches of beach (drift cells and their near-shore assessment units) share equivalent characteristics.  Is this true from the perspective of the marine creatures?  When we create regulations, with the underpinning of vast generalities, the temptation as we’ve now seen in other counties’ updated Shoreline Master Plans is to again create “big, dumb no-touch buffers”, typically 150 feet wide that don’t solve any proven biological problem in the salt water.

We’ve overlooked that marine creatures live in the water and the only thing that effects their world is the quality of the liquid stream that enters the water in which they live.

The resident salt chuck creatures live in a world much different from our terrestrial world.  It is filled with fish and bird created fecal matter, sperm, eggs, dead and decaying creatures, all eating one another.  They have vast multitudes of progeny with the hope that two might reach reproductive maturity.  It turns out that clear, clean salt water is in fact more of an ecological desert.

As offered by Mr. Bob Benze, with expertise in Puget Sound water quality:

“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 stormwater 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 poop and bird poop are likely suspects.  Also, there are occasional ammonia exceedances. 
Visit  and for a discussion of Ecology’s water quality programs, and to see the Washington State “impaired” waterbody locations and which standards are exceeded.  The queries of these websites 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 today by chemistry from the shore — with the exception that shellfish with high fecals cannot be consumed (one solution is to transport them to clean water so they can eliminate the fecals before they are sold for consumption by humans).

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.  US 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.”

In the natural environment, numerous animals and birds along the shore as well as all the marine creatures excrete their wastes into the water.  This is natural and a necessity for the thriving food column in which they live.  The salt chuck has been typified as being nitrogen and phosphorous starved, even in it’s natural state.

When a house is built along the shore, but the water entering the salt chuck is not contaminated by it, the fish see no degradation. 

It has been shown most harmful substances are cleaned by passing the liquids over 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.  Roof-top drains, running over a narrow grassy buffers are proven to be cleaned adequately.  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.  This has been commonly proven, even with septic drain fields.

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

“Drift cells” have been the dominant focus of Department of Ecology’s argument for updating Kitsap’s Shoreline Master Plan.  Compared with land slides entering our beaches, which are rare events, as are severe storm waves, the train of twenty waves that slaps our beaches from each passing ship in mid-Sound occur several times each day.  These wave trains have been documented destroying bulkheads and beach stairways and dramatically reshape beaches.  Drift cells that may be occasionally seen in Puget Sound are in most cases not created by natural events.  It is doubtful Department of Ecology would have us forego our marine economy by eliminating the shipping industry to mitigate this.   A good deal of silt enters Puget Sound as a result of rainfalls after clearing roadside ditches; perhaps more than from shore-side sloughing.  

Bulkheads in most cases have been constructed to protect upland parcels from beach erosion.  In most cases the bulkheads have been in place for many decades and bulkhead/beach conditions we observe today are steady state.  Any drift cell movement is caused by the impact of ship-created wave action.  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 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 that are not dependent on proximity to salt water and are commonly found throughout the entire upland County.

There is a very high 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.  Tax value lost from restrictions on expensive shoreline homes must 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 extremely 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”. Recall, above, 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, to be of any practical use, 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 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, one of our missions would then be to define acceptable limits for water quality entering the salt chuck from each parcel.  We must be mindful that the salt chuck water column could be violated by water often traveling a great distance in storm drains.  If water quality were actually an issue, all those water sources would need to be addressed in our shoreline document and applied to new building permits based on the geographic constraints of that particular parcel. 

If environmental “restoration”, is to be part of this project, we must first specifically determine what problems are to be solved.  Is there merit in the “solution”?  What is the cost of “solving” the problem?    

This approach of addressing the named potential insults to the salt chuck will do far more to improve the salt water environment than punishing the owners of an entire drift cell/NAU, who may not have created any real problem in the first place. 

With Low Impact Development construction techniques and our knowledge of natural cleaning processes, we now have the tools to appropriately address any remaining water quality problems.  We need to take the appropriate actions that will really do some good and not take the path of building another bureaucratic monster that retains the problem at ever grater cost.

The approach currently being proposed by Department of Ecology would likely result in adding another layer of restrictive land use regulation to shoreline property owners, accomplish nothing for the marine environment and further escalate our cost of housing.

I recall from Monday evening’s presentation, Dr. Don Flora commented 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.  So we as the public can’t be too strong in our 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 find ourselves at a fork in the road regarding the update of the Shoreline Master Plan.  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 publically define the problem we’re trying to solve before we lurch off to create “solutions” that may well not become solutions at all, but create further problems. 

Department of Community Development’s Patty Charnas reminded us at Monday evening’s meeting that Department of Ecology has final approval authority and if Kitsap’s shoreline regulation didn’t meet the expectations of DOE, they would draft our plan for us.  This is simple implied extortion and does not justify our proposing a plan which is scientifically unsupportable and economically unsustainable.

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

I would be pleased to offer further clarification or assistance, if requested.

               Respectfully submitted for the record,

  Michael A. Gustavson


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