State of the Beach/State Reports/WA/Erosion Response

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Erosion response is a measure of how well a state's policies and procedures limit the extent of shoreline armoring, unsafe coastal development, and costly beach nourishment projects, and conduct preemptive planning for sea level rise. Evaluation of this indicator brings attention to the states that are taking proactive roles in natural beach preservation and hazard avoidance. Through the formulation (if not already in place), implementation, and strict adherence of the specific criteria within the indicator, states can overcome two fundamental obstacles to alternative erosion response practices outlined by the Oceans Studies Board (2007):

  1. A lack of knowledge and experience among decision-makers regarding alternative options for shoreline erosion response, the relative level of erosion mitigation afforded by the alternative approaches and their expected life time, and the nature of the associated impacts and benefits.
  2. The current legal and regulatory framework itself, which discriminates against innovative solutions because of the complex and lengthy permitting process that almost always considers these options on a case-by-case basis.

For example, are statewide oceanfront construction setbacks used to site new development, and are these based on the latest erosion rates? When existing development is damaged during a storm, does a state prohibit reconstruction or provide incentives for relocation? Before permitting shoreline stabilization does a state require: that there is demonstrated need via geo-technical reports with content standards; that alternatives to armoring including managed retreat/relocation are fully explored; and that potential adverse impacts and cumulative effects are taken into account? Does the state conduct sea level rise vulnerability assessments and develop adaptation plans to mitigate impacts? If a state can answer 'yes' to most of these questions, then its rank is high. If the answers are mostly 'no' then its rank is low.

Also see the "Policies" discussion of the Shoreline Structures section of this report for more information on Washington's erosion response.

Possible quantitative measures for this indicator include the number of new structures located within setback areas, number of damaged structures reconstructed in identified erosion zones, number of instances where alternatives to 'hard' shore protection were employed, the number of shoreline structures permitted under 'emergency' provisions, and the number of permits for shoreline structures reviewed, approved or denied. We have found that such information is rarely available.

Policies and Guidance

New development must be set back from the coastal bluffs. The Shoreline Master Program Guidelines state that the following standards must be followed:

New development should be located and designed to avoid the need for future shoreline stabilization to the extent feasible. New development on steep slopes or bluffs shall be set back sufficiently to ensure that shoreline stabilization is unlikely to be necessary during the life of the structure, as demonstrated by a geotechnical analysis. New development that would require shoreline stabilization which cause significant impacts to adjacent or down-current properties and shoreline areas should not be allowed.

In general, the state itself does not "respond" to beach erosion. With few exceptions, private property owners are expected to take responsibility for dealing with their choices to buy and develop coastal property, and to do so within the resource protection laws. In the few instances where joint public-private efforts were taken to address coastal erosion of private property, revetments and/or geotubes were employed.

Responses and policies regarding public property are varied. For the most part the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has a policy of retreat with respect to state park properties. Other state agencies and local governments respond on a case-by-case basis depending on numerous site factors such as local geology, rate of erosion, infrastructure investment, adjacent land use patterns, etc.

The Department of Ecology's typical response is to offer technical assistance to local governments desiring such to address coastal erosion concerns.

A Coastal Erosion Task Force was formed in 1998. The Task Force's assignment was to develop short- and long-term policy recommendations on coastal erosion management. The Task Force completed its work in 1999, delivering a report with 22 controversial policy recommendations. The local governments involved in the process submitted a minority report. The complete report is available.

No action was taken on this report. Unfortunately, on August 27, 2001, in a split decision the Shorelines Hearing Board responded to challenges to the guidelines by a coalition of business groups and local governments by rescinding the amended Shoreline Master Program Guidelines Rule. This was a major setback for shoreline protection. After the guidelines were invalidated, a series of mediation talks were conducted, aimed at reaching a legal settlement. A legal settlement was reached on December 20, 2002.

Here's a History of Washington’s Shoreline Management Act and Regulatory Guidelines (through December 2002).

After the legal settlement mentioned above, Ecology took this work as well as other technical and policy studies and adopted Shoreline Master Program Guidelines in 2003. Among other things, the amendments provided new restrictions on the placement of new structures in hazardous areas, new restrictions on the repair of existing structures in hazardous areas, and new standards for the determination of setbacks. The Shoreline Management Act and its implementing rules and guidelines require local Shoreline Master Programs to address setbacks from shorelines and bluffs. Similarly, the Growth Management Act and its implementing rules and guidelines require local government to address setbacks from geologic hazards in their Critical Areas Ordinance. The state laws do not specify a specific setback dimension.

To clear up confusion over land-use rules dealing with shoreline properties, the state Legislature passed House Bill 1653 in March 2010 saying local governments should use their “critical areas ordinances” until shoreline plans are updated. Many cities and counties adopted larger shoreline buffers as part of their critical areas ordinances, updated under the Growth Management Act. But a 2008 state Supreme Court decision said only the Shoreline Management Act can regulate shoreline property. That court decision, involving the city of Anacortes, failed to gain a majority opinion, leaving state and local officials confused about what rules should apply. Officials with the state Department of Ecology suggested that local governments use their revised critical areas rules until their shoreline plans are updated.

Grays Harbor County has adopted a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) that establishes building requirements for shorelines, wetlines, etc. The CAO also requires the construction of buffers between new development and critical areas, which can range from 60 to 300 feet.

In September 2012 the state Department of Ecology responded to a draft shoreline plan from the City of Olympia by saying that the plan was “simply going in the wrong direction” in a number of areas. One of those areas is Port of Olympia property on the north and east sides of the port peninsula. No commercial development would be allowed within 100 feet of the shoreline under the Shoreline Master Program that the Olympia Planning Commission is recommending to the City Council. Under the state-required plan, which the state must approve, the Planning Commission changed the designation of the property from an intense-urban designation to “urban conservancy,” in which restoration of natural and open space is the top priority. The Olympia City Council continued deliberations on this issue in March 2013, voting to keep its earlier recommendation of a 30-foot development setback on about the northern half of West Bay. The Department of Ecology will have the final say on the plan. Here is information about the Shoreline Master Program approved in 2015.

Recognizing the need for better coordination among the state’s coastal practitioners, Washington’s Coastal Management Program and Washington Sea Grant took initiative through a NOAA CRest Grant to develop the Coastal Hazards Resilience Network (Network). The Washington Coastal Program and Washington Sea Grant have worked in partnership since 2013, developing the Network to focus on Washington’s critical need for multi-hazard planning, preparedness, response, and recovery. The Network brings together key experts in coastal hazard management for Washington’s marine shorelines. This multidisciplinary group now includes over 50 members from state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions. Through strong collaboration, they work together to improve regional coordination and make Washington’s coastal communities more resilient to natural hazards.

Information sharing is one of the Network’s primary functions, advanced through meetings and online resources such as a website, e-mail list, and regularly updated social media platforms. Among the many benefits to members, increased communication has resulted in greater awareness and discussion about existing projects, transfer of technical knowledge, identification of statewide priorities, and partnerships on funding opportunities that leverage expertise and resources. Due to effective leadership, the Network has become an important point of contact for anyone interested in coastal resilience issues. The Network actively supports local communities by collecting and distributing technical information, helping local planners incorporate best management practices, and facilitating greater awareness of coastal hazards. The Coastal Program’s role as Network coordinator is critical in this effort to put planning into action. While communities desire to prepare for coastal hazards, they lack the specialized knowledge and financial resources. The Network bridges that gap by helping communities understand their options for shoreline management and obtain the funding to pursue projects. Ocean Shores and North Cove, which contains Washaway Beach, were two of the first communities to receive direct assistance from the Network and are actively on their way to becoming more resilient.

To support local tsunami planning efforts, the U.S. Geological Survey and Washington State’s Emergency Management Division assessed variations in exposure of 24 communities along Washington’s coast. The results are compiled in two-page fact sheets for each community that include information about the hazard, the community’s vulnerability, the most vulnerable people, and the potential economic impacts as well as sources for more information and local contacts. There are also Tsunami Inundation Maps for 10 specific coastal areas.

Climate Change Adaptation


As with California and Oregon, Washington has proven relatively responsive and proactive in not only recognizing, but also addressing, climate change and climate change impacts. In recent years, the state has enacted a number of novel legislative acts aimed directly at climate change mitigation and adaptation. As part of its Climate Action Plan, Washington has adopted specific statewide greenhouse gas emission targets, and is currently in the process of developing a comprehensive State Adaptation Plan. Climate change impacts in the coastal zone are also being addressed through the creation of a state Climate & Infrastructure Preparation and Adaptation Working Group. The state openly acknowledges climate change, and promotes increased education and public awareness concerning climate change and its impacts, both through internet resources and outreach programs.

While Washington has sought to aggressively pursue climate change action at both the state and local level, the state remains, in many respects, inadequately prepared to deal with the physical effects of future sea level rise. Although the Shoreline Management Act, for example, stipulates that development must be set back from the coast, the state lacks any definitive and/or objectively derived setback line. The state’s coastal management program, furthermore, lacks tools explicitly designed to identify and address sea level rise. And while regional erosion studies have been conducted throughout the state, Washington has not necessarily used this information to prioritize funding or erosion response projects at the local scale.

Despite these shortcomings, Washington remains well ahead of many states in preparing for climate change impacts in the coastal zone. By establishing more definitive setback standards and updating current coastal management policies to specifically address sea level rise, the state will be more effective in adapting to climate change impacts.


Climate Change has been an important issue in Washington State since the early 1990s when the Department of Ecology first released Washington Environment 2010. Since that time, the State has continued to explore and adopt a variety of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Signed in February 2007, Executive Order 07-02 represented the state’s first major piece of climate change legislation, establishing the Washington Climate Change Challenge. The Challenge was responsible for setting specific goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, and reducing fuels spending, as well as directing the state to assess climate change adaptation strategies. With regards to GHG emissions, the EO set forth specific reduction goals for the state of Washington, including:

  • By 2020 reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels
  • By 2035 reduce emissions to 25% below 1990 levels
  • By 2050 reduce emissions to 50% below 1990 levels

The EO further requires an increase in jobs in the clean energy sector from 8,400 (in 2004) to 25,000 by January 1, 2020. In order to most effectively guide the state in mitigating and adapting to climate change, the Climate Advisory Team (CAT) was formed, and was further organized into three overarching focus areas: Mitigation, Preparation/Adaptation, and Education and Engagement. Within each focus area, five Preparation and Adaptation Working Groups (PAWGs) to address specific adaptation and mitigation issues pertaining to: Agriculture, Human Health, Coastal and Infrastructure, Forestry, and Water Resources and Quality (Freshwater). The PAWGs are responsible for developing specific strategies and implementation plans, conduct first order economic analysis, and identify gaps and additional research needs. The CAT released its final report Leading the Way on Climate Change: The Challenge of Our Time in February 2008. The report outlined 24 of the “most promising” strategies for achieve emission reduction goals in early 2008. The CAT estimates that once fully implemented, the combination of these policies will help achieve approximately 45% of the emissions reductions required for 2020.

In response to the EO, Senate Bill 6001 and House Bill 1303 were subsequently enacted in 2007. Senate Bill 6001 specifically translated EO goals into statute, created a performance standard for electrical utilities, and allows for sequestration of emissions to meet standards. House Bill 1303 enacted a wide range of environmental and energy provisions and funding, and additionally funded adaptation work completed by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group (CIG).

Emerging from the CAT’s reduction recommendations, the Washington State Legislature passed E2SHB 2815 (Climate Action and Green Jobs) in 2008. In doing so, Washington became the fourth state in the country to adopt comprehensive limits on global warming pollution, and the first state to feature a statewide effort to train the workforce for the transition into clean energy. Emphasizing the importance of being a leader on climate change mitigation, the Bill transformed the previously recommended GHG emissions reductions (from EO 07-02) into state law. E2SHB 2815 further mandated the Department of Ecology develop a comprehensive plan to achieve the required reductions, and submit this plan to the legislature by December 2008. In order to guide the development of the comprehensive plan, the legislation established five major statutes and goals:

1. Establishes limits on statewide global warming pollution in the Clean Air Act
2. Establishes a comprehensive green economy jobs growth initiative with the goal of tripling the number of green jobs by 2020
3. Directs the Department of Ecology to work with other Western States to develop a market-based system to implement limits on global warming pollution
4. Requires emission reporting from large sources of global warming pollution
5. Establishes benchmarks for reducing vehicle-miles traveled (VMT), and requires the Department of Transportation to develop strategies to achieve those benchmarks

The Department of Ecology, together with the Department of Community, Trade & Economic Development, released Growing Washington's Economy in a Carbon-Constrained World: A Comprehensive Plan to Address the Challenges and Opportunities of Climate Change in 2008. Representing the state’s Climate Action Plan, the final report integrates the regional cap-and-trade program designed by the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) with the recommendations of the CAT, in order to create a central policy that addresses emissions throughout the state’s economy. Building on these previous recommendations, in addition to the climate change policies already implemented in Washington, the Plan focuses on reducing emissions through implementing changes in the transportation sector, updating buildings and land use polices, and reducing waste.

In a continued effort to address climate change, the Governor issued EO 09-05 Washington’s Leadership on Climate Change in May 2009, ordering the Departments of Ecology and Transportation to take action to continue to reduce GHG emissions and increase transportation and fuel-conservation options. State actions to reduce GHGs addressed in the EO include continued participation in the WCI, developing emissions benchmarks, developing recommendations for forestry offset protocols and financial incentives for forestry products, and assessing California’s low-carbon fuel standards. The order also address adaptation, directing the Department of Ecology to evaluate the potential impacts of sea level rise on the state’s shoreline areas, including potential increases in storm surge and coastal flooding, increased erosion, and loss of habitat and ecosystems, and further develop recommendations to address these impacts.

Washington is a Partner in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) (also see brochure), a collaborative effort between seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces focused on designing and implementing regional cap-and-trade program. Launched in 2007, the WCI initially built on existing GHG reduction efforts, both regionally and on the state level. In 2003, California, Oregon, and Washington had already created the West Coast Global Warming Initiative, and in 2006, Arizona and New Mexico followed suite with the Southwest Climate Change Initiative. Under the WCI, these five states, in addition to Utah, Montana, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, are directing their respective states to develop a regional target for reducing GHG emissions, participate in a multi-state registry to track and manage GHG emissions, and develop a market-based program to reach this target.

The City of Seattle has also been an extremely proactive participant in climate change mitigation. In February 2005, former Mayor Nickels issued the “Kyoto Challenge”, an effort to implement the Kyoto Protocol in cities across the U.S. The challenge has since been transformed into nationally recognized U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. In order to help Seattle meet the Kyoto goal, the Mayor further appointed the city’s Green Ribbon Commission on Climate Protection, charged specifically with developing local mitigation solutions and developing a Climate Action Plan. In 2006 the Commission released its final Action Plan, including both mitigation and adaptation recommendations and strategies. For a 2009 update regarding the implementation and success of these actions, see the 2009 Progress Report. In June 2013, after a three-year collaborative effort, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to adopt Seattle's Climate Action Plan, composed of specific short- and long-term actions the city needs to meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The plan calls for transportation improvements, adoption of low carbon vehicles and fuels, tracking of utility use, providing better energy performance information to building owners and users, and improving the public's ability to manage their energy consumption.

Washington’s Department of Ecology also maintains a comprehensive climate change website that details the science behind climate change, describes climate change policy both locally and regionally, discusses Washington’s clean energy economy and jobs, and provides useful educational and outreach tools designed for a variety of users. Acknowledging the enormity of climate change, the Department goes on to state that global warming’s potential impacts “dwarf those of other environmental threats”, and by including a variety of educational and interactive links, actively strives to make citizens and politicians more fully aware of climate change issues.


As part of Washington’s Climate Change Challenge, established through Executive Order 07-02 in 2007, Governor Gregoire committed the state to preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Although the state has not published an official State Adaptation Plan, numerous executive orders and legislative acts have served to guide and dictate the state’s climate change adaptation efforts. Most recently, on May 15, 2009 Governor Gregoire signed Legislation (E2SSB 5560) requiring an integrated climate change response strategy to better enable state and local governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations and individuals to better prepare, address and adapt to climate change impacts. A draft Strategy is scheduled for Spring 2011, with the final report to the Legislature by Dec 2011. Once completed, this “strategy” will act as the state’s overarching adaptation plan.

Despite the lack of an official adaptation plan, the state has dedicated an incredible amount of time and effort to understanding and acknowledging climate change and its impacts. As mentioned above, to assess climate change impacts to various sectors, five Preparation/Adaptation Working Groups (PAWGs) were formed as part of the state’s overall Climate Advisory Team (CAT), including: Forestry, Agriculture, Human Health, Coastline & Infrastructure, and Water Resources & Quality. Vulnerabilities and recommendations for adaptive actions and research pertaining to each of the five sectors were released in the February 2008 final CAT report.

The PAWGs subsequently released a set of final recommendations and strategy options in Washington’s overarching climate action plan entitled Leading the Way, Implementing Practical Solutions to the Climate Change Challenge. The Report recognizes the need for immediate and comprehensive adaptation action, and understands that climate change impacts area associated with broad economic, biological, and social implications. Although each of the PAWGs assessed climate change adaptation from various perspectives, the group set forth an initial list of guiding recommendations which could be applied across sectors. These recommendations include:

1. Enhance emergency preparedness and response
2. Incorporate climate change and its impacts into planning and decision-making processes
3. Restore and protect natural systems and natural resources
4. Develop and improve water management
5. Build institutional capacity and knowledge to address impacts associated with climate change
6. More effectively manage and share best available data
7. Educate, inform and engage landowners, public officials, citizens and others

Specifically, the Coastal & Infrastructure PAWG’s overarching goal is to enhance the ability of state and coastal communities and ecosystems to prepare and adapt to impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise. The Coastal & Infrastructure PAWG’s final recommendations begin by specifying the following three recommendations:

1. Incorporate climate change considerations into emergency planning.
2. Incorporate best available sea level rise and other climate change data and information into state and local government planning to promote resiliency of ecological systems and communities.
3. Incorporate future sea level rise concerns and other climate change impacts in prioritization for funding, design, and post-project operation and maintenance.

These three key issues were used in organizing the full suite of PAWG’s adaptation recommendations into four main strategies:

1. Land use and hazard mitigation planning
2. Vulnerability characterization and monitoring
3. Coastal near-shore habitat and restoration
4. Coastal facility construction and maintenance

The document subsequently sets forth three overarching actions to help the state and local governments achieve these strategies, each consisting of a number of sub-recommendations to help focus adaptation efforts and most effectively incorporate climate change impacts into existing policies and regulations. The recommendations consistently stress the importance of integrating climate change impacts, especially sea level rise projections, into long-term planning horizons and coastal projects. Recommendations further emphasize the identification and mapping of vulnerable coastal areas and the enhancement of education and outreach efforts pertaining to climate change issues in the coastal zone. For specific and highly detailed recommendations, refer to the “Preparing for Climate Change” document. A February 2009 Climate Change Impact Assessment report also expanded on climate change impacts to state sectors, including Energy, Hydrology & Water Resources, Forests, Coasts, Human Health, and Urban Storm Water Infrastructure. Finally, Preparing for a Changing Climate, Washington State's Integrated Climate Response Strategy was published in April 2012.

As part of Executive Order 09-05 (Washington’s Leadership on Climate Change), signed in May 2009, the Governor called for an evaluation of the potential impacts specifically from sea level rise on the state’s coastline, and development of recommendations to address those impacts. The Order directs the Department of Ecology to create guidelines, tools and recommendations to assist the state and water users in preparing for impacts to water resources as a result of climate change impacts, including potential increases in storm surge and coastal flooding, increased erosion, and loss of habitat and ecosystems.

In 2007, the Legislature passed House Bill 1303, directing CTED and Ecology to work with the Climate Impacts Group (CIG) at the University of Washington to produce a comprehensive assessment of climate change impacts in Washington. Focused on a statewide analysis of climate change impacts, the collaborative effort was augmented by the work of eight sector groups: Hydrology, Agriculture, Salmon, Forests, Coasts, Infrastructure, Energy, and Human Health. In December 2007, the Climate Impacts Group issued an interim report outlining the work done to date.

The state has also adopted the following legislative tools pertaining to climate change adaptation, all of which, either explicitly or implicitly, will force managers to consider climate change impacts in the coastal zone:

  • Under the 2008 Cleaner Energy Act, Chapter 19.285, the Climate Impacts Group with University of Washington conducted a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change on Washington State.
  • RCW 36.70A.5801 established a voluntary pilot local government global warming mitigation and adaptation program through June 30, 2010 for up to three counties and six cities.
  • Chapter 43.21M requires the Department of Ecology and other state agencies to develop a response strategy to assist the state and local governments in preparing for and adapting to impacts from climate change by December 2011
  • RCW 43.21M.040 requires “all state agencies [to] strive to incorporate adaptation plans of action as priority activities when planning or designing agency policies and programs”. Agencies must also consider the integrated climate change response strategy when designing, planning, and funding infrastructure projects.

Coastal Zone Management and Policies

Although large stretches of Washington’s coastline have been subject to shoreline modification and armoring, the state has long recognized the dynamic nature of coastal zones, and in many instances, has sought alternative methods to reconciling the issues that exist between the coastal zone’s build environment and its natural processes. As early as 1998, for example, the Governor created the Task Force on Coastal Erosion to develop short- and long-term statewide policy recommendations on coastal erosion management. Since that time, Washington’s approach to coastal zone management has evolved into an exemplary and proactive program.

Given that Washington has thousands of miles of coast, effective shoreline management is a major concern for the state. Governed by the Department of Ecology, the state’s coastal zone is regulated by a number of laws, including the Shoreline Management Act (SMA), Growth Management Act (GMA), and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Of these, the SMA provides some of the most important set of tools for shoreline managers and planners (see below). Under the SMA, each city and county with “shorelines of the state” is required to adopt a shoreline master plan, a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance with a distinct environmental aspect that can be tailored to the specific needs of a community. The local shoreline master program has evolved into one of the most important aspects of Washington’s coastal zone management program.

The state’s Shoreline Management Act (RCW 90.58) serves as the leading regulatory authority along the state’s coastline. Recognizing the unique environment and dynamic nature of the state’s coastal zone, the Act advocates the use of a more holistic approach to shoreline management than the case-by-case method commonly employed. By considering project proposals and permits based on the dynamics of the entire littoral cell or regional area, instead of a piecemeal parcel by parcel approach, management strategies can be implemented that allow the shoreline to respond naturally to changing conditions. In order to reduce the need for costly erosion control structures, as well as minimize property damage, the Act further emphasizes the need to identify and regulate high risk erosion areas. The state also promotes softer shoreline alternatives through implementation of the Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) program. Nevertheless, it is also noted that restrictions and regulations within the coastal zone many times conflict with private property owners and interests.

The Shoreline Master Program Guidelines are state standards which local governments must follow in drafting their own SMPs, and essentially translate the broad policies set forth in the Shoreline Management Act into specific standards for regulation of shoreline uses. Local SMPs are essentially shoreline-specific combined comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and development permitting systems. However, while the state’s Shoreline Master Program Guidelines stipulate that new development must be set back from coastal bluffs, these setbacks are not quantitatively identified. The Guidelines, for example, instruct development and construction to be “setback sufficiently to ensure that shoreline stabilization is unlikely to be necessary during the life of the structure." While these regulations acknowledge coastal erosion issues, and thus implicitly also address sea level rise, no quantitative basis is provided to determine where these setback lines should be drawn. State laws thus do not specify a setback dimension, and the siting of coastal development is thus left to arbitrary human discretion, which may or may not be based on local geological features, physical influences, or historic, present, or future erosion rates.

Highlighted as a model case study by NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, Washington’s Shoreline Master Program has, nevertheless, helped local communities develop comprehensive shoreline regulations and more effectively manage their coastal zones. And while neither the SMA nor the SMP Guidelines explicitly address climate change or sea level rise, Shoreline Management Plans provide a direct way opportunity for communities to incorporate sea level rise into a broader planning framework (see SMP Handbook: Addressing Sea Level Rise). Furthermore, many communities’ plans already implicitly account for sea level rise, and will play an increasingly important role in the state’s future ability to proactively address climate change impacts. For examples of completed SMPs, click here.

In developing recommendations for the recently published Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Change in Washington report, the Coastal & Infrastructure PAWG extensively reviewed the laws and policies governing the state’s coastal areas. As noted above, the Coastal & Infrastructure PAWG also highlights the fact that Washington lacks any set of coastal management tools explicitly addressing sea level rise impacts. As part of their final recommendations, the Coastal & Infrastructure PAWG thus maintains the importance of identifying potential revisions to statutes and rules to specifically include sea level rise in these processes. In doing so, the state can ensure the most effective use of its long-range planning tools to prepare for sea level rise and climate change.

Coastal Erosion and Mapping

In addition to extensive policies governing the use of its coastal zone, Washington has also undertaken a number of comprehensive coastal erosion and mapping studies. One of the more recent initiatives of the Washington coastal program is development of the Washington Coastal Atlas, a Web portal that provides information about the state’s marine shorelines and land areas near Puget Sound, the outer coast, and the estuarine portion of the Columbia River. Aerial photographs allow users to view aerial photographs of marine shorelines, locate different habitat types, locate different physical features, and see changes in land cover. Mapping tools also allow users to create customized maps of specific shoreline areas. Centralized mapping and erosion tools, as provided by the Washington Coastal Atlas, will prove increasingly important to coastal managers and policy makers in the future. GIS and LiDAR elevation data has been collected for areas along Washington’s coast, especially those areas most susceptible to sea level rise. Puget Sound’s LiDAR data can be found here. Much of the coastal mapping data for the southwest portion of the coastline arose from the Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study (see below).

In 2008, University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group (CIG) focused on developing a coastal inundation and flooding hazards maps for specific geographic areas. The group is also looking at the potential of identifying areas of erosion vulnerability, particularly coastal bluff susceptibility that doesn’t appear in the standard approach to inundation and flood mapping. The group will also produce maps for a subset of the state coastline. Published by CIG and the Washington Department of Ecology, the report Sea Level Rise in the Coastal Waters of Washington State reviews and compares sea level rise projections predicted for Washington’s Northwest Olympic Peninsula, Central & Southern Coast, and Puget Sound. The report analyzes the combined effects of global sea level rise and local factors for the coastal waters of Washington to provide low, medium, and high estimates of local SLR for 2050 and 2100. Results of the study are useful for both advisory and prioritization purposes, enabling state planners to identify coastal areas most vulnerable to SLR impacts. Of the three locations, Puget Sound in particular appears most likely to be impacted by SLR rise. As early as 2050, the area is expected to experience anywhere from a 3 – 6 inch rise in sea level.

Historically, the northern Oregon and southwest Washington coasts have developed on a rapidly accreting shoreline. Throughout recent decades, however, coastal communities along Washington’s southwest coast have experience unprecedented rates of erosion. Recognizing the escalating coastal erosion problems, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the US Geological Survey Coastal and Marine Geology Program has thus embarked on a five-year regional scale coastal behavior study of the Columbia River Littoral Cell, stretching from Tillamook Head, OR to Point Grenville, WA. Completed in 2001, the Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study represented a cooperative Federal-State-Local initiative to address the coastal geology, processes, and natural hazards of the Southwest Washington coast. The project was most important in developing a regional understanding of coastal processes, sediment transport, and associated shoreline changes.

The study has been important in filling existing scientific and technical data gaps, and has further improved the understanding of littoral dynamics. Overall, the study concluded that large regional gradients of both shoreline progradation and recession exist, natural processes that are influence by jetty construction, wave conditions, sediment budget, and El Nino events. These findings, and future studies, will enable the state and local communities to make more informed management decisions. The USGS Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study Internet Map Server contains published data layers and information from the U.S. Geological Survey, Coastal and Marine Geology Program (CMGP).

In order to further facilitate the transfer of knowledge between the Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study and identified stakeholders, members created the Coastal Information Clearinghouse. The overall goal of the Clearinghouse is to integrate scientific data with land-use planning to improve hazard management within the Columbia River Littoral Cell, and requires not only coordination among state and local planners, but also an overarching educational component to increase community awareness of coastal hazards.

Local Action

In addition to the above statewide actions, a number of coastal municipalities have undertaken notable climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), for example, is currently incorporating climate change into its long-range transportation planning process. As described in Transportation 2040 (part of Vision 2040) the plan involves mapping various SLR scenarios and flood incidents to enable the transportation system to adapt more accordingly to future coastal threats.

Like many major coastal cities, the city of Seattle also recognizes the importance of climate change adaptation. As noted previously, Seattle’s Action Plan calls for an inter-departmental team to prioritize climate change related issues and make recommendations on adaptive measures and timing. Areas that the plan specifies for evaluation include: Sea-level Rise, Storm Water Management, Urban Forestry, Building Codes, and Heat Waves. For more information, visit Seattle’s climate change website.

Along the same lines as Seattle’s initiative, the City of Olympia is increasingly attempting to acknowledge and respond to climate change impacts, particularly sea level rise. The city is striving to build technical knowledge on one hand, by installing tide gauges, monitoring geologic subsidence, and simulating high tides and sea rises, and on the other hand, is working to understand the relationship between sea level rise changes and impacts on the built environment. For more information, see this City of Olympia presentation.

In October 2008 the Peninsula Daily News reported on the plans of the Hoh tribe to move its reservation to higher ground. The tribe, located on about 640 acres of flood plain at the mouth of the Hoh River south of Forks, has purchased an additional 425 acres of land over the past year to relocate its village. On Sept. 25, 2008 U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks introduced House Bill 7073 that would designate the land as part of the Hoh reservation and transfer 37 acres of Olympic National Park property to the tribe.

Grays Harbor County has adopted a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) that establishes building requirements for shorelines, wetlines, etc. The CAO also requires the construction of buffers between new development and critical areas, which can range from 60 to 300 feet.

In March 2009, the Planning for Climate Change workshop was piloted in two locations in Washington State. Developed by the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) System’s Coastal Training Program (CTP), the workshop developed from an increasing need to expand climate change awareness and education within the coastal zone. Building on the lessons learned through the pilot studies, it is hoped that in the future, these workshops will be used throughout the country.

King County

Located in the southeast region of Puget Sound, King County has engaged in a particularly aggressive adaptation strategy, and in doing so, has become a model community for climate change adaptation planning. The development of the county’s Climate Change Policy began as early as October 2005, when, in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Climate Investigation Group (CIG), the county sponsored a major conference on regional climate change impacts. In March 2006, former Executive Ron Sims launched the Acting Locally initiative, focused mainly on climate change preparedness. As corollary actions, Sims subsequently issued Executive Orders 7-5 through 7-8 on Global Warming Preparedness, mandating the development of the 2007 Climate Plan. The Executive Orders were further supplemented by Motion 12362, passed by the King County Council in October 2006, directing the King County Departments and Executive to develop and submit a Global Warming Mitigation and Preparedness Plan by February 1, 2007. In addition to the Plan, the Departments and Executive are to submit annual progress reports and updates.

In order guide the Plan’s development, the County formed an inter-departmental climate change adaptation team to help integrate scientific expertise within county departments, and further ensure that climate change factors were considered in policy and planning decisions. In 2007, The Team released the much anticipated 2007 King County Climate Plan, providing an overview of how King County seeks to both reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. As described in the Executive Summary, the Plan is a “forward-looking, ambitious and optimistic workplan” that regards climate change not only as a serious problem, but also an opportunity for leadership, public health improvements, and economic prosperity. The Plan sets forth bold emission reduction goals, including an 80% reduction of 2007 emission levels by 2050, and importantly details the initial, crucial first steps to reach these goals. The Plan also recognizes the importance of climate change adaptation, and sets forth a series of goals and actions for six adaptation “Strategic Focus Areas”: Climate Science; Public Health, Safety & Emergency Preparedness; Surface Water Management, Freshwater Quality & Water Supply; Land Use, Buildings G Transportation; Economic Impacts; Biodiversity G Ecosystems. Adaptation actions are generally very specific, and include creation of a technical advisory group, integration of climate change adaptation considerations into policies and regulations, and evaluation of the potential impacts of coastal flooding associated with sea level rise.

The Team has since released the 2008 King County Climate Report and the 2009 King County Climate Report, both of which provide document the actions taken to implement the 2007 Plan and outline progress in the areas of leadership, mitigation, adaptation, and assessment. The 2009 report also provides an overview of anticipated activities for 2010. In partnering with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, the County has further developed water quality and quantity models and monitoring programs, and co-authored the guidebook entitled Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments, an especially useful resource for state and local planners.

King County also utilizes the King County Flood Buyout and Elevation Program, which involves both voluntary sales to King County of flood-prone properties and structures, as well as assisting property owners with the costs of raising homes above the 100-year flood elevation. Buyouts are appropriate in areas of deep, fast-moving water, such as those located in the floodway, or those areas threatened by serious bank erosion, and provide a permanent solution to the risks and damages of repetitive flood events. Elevation projects are more appropriate in areas that experience slower moving floodwaters. Both of these programs will prove important aspects of King County’s response to future climate change impacts.

Additional References

1. SMP Handbook: Addressing Sea Level Rise
2. Improving Shoreline Management Report
3. Responding to the Climate Change Challenge – Washington’s Comprehensive Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
4. Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment: Evaluating Washington’s Future in a Changing Climate (June 2009) - includes a section about climate change impacts on the coast
5. Managing Washington’s Coast - NOAACZM program document that was most recently updated in 2003
6. History of Washington’s Shoreline Management Act and Regulatory Guidelines
7. Merging Coastal Research with Land-use Planning for Improved Coastal Hazard Management by Brian G. Voigt, Washington State Department of Ecology
8. Washington Coastal Zone Management Program
9. Canning, Doug and Hugh Shipman. 1995. Coastal Erosion Management Studies in Puget Sound, Washington: Executive Summary. Coastal Erosion Management Studies, Vol. 1. Washington Department of Ecology. Olympia, Washington.
10. Alternative Bank Protection Methods for Puget Sound Shorelines (2000)
11. Washington Coast Erosion

General Reference Documents

EPA's Risk-Based Adaptation website (under the heading of Climate-Ready Estuaries) provides several resources and tools to help users identify, analyze, prioritize and reduce their climate change risks.

An informative publication is Ten Principles for Coastal Development (2007) by the Urban Land Institute.

The Coastal States Organization (CSO) has published two reports relating to climate change adaptation. The first is Coastal Community Resilience: An Evaluation of Resilience as a Potential Performance Measure of the Coastal Zone Management Act (July 2008). (No link to this could be found.) Developed by CSO staff and CSO’s Coastal Resilience Steering Committee, the document demonstrates the value of resilience to coastal management and offers concrete recommendations for enhancing resilience at the state and local level. The second document is The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change (September 2008)(PDF, 732KB). The report includes detailed results of a 2008 adaptation survey designed to obtain up to date information on the status of adaptation planning, priority information needs, and the anticipated resource needs of the coastal states, commonwealths, and territories.

In April 2009, the Heinz Center and Ceres announced the release of their Resilient Coasts - A Blueprint for Action, to outline steps to reduce risks and losses in the face of growing threats. The Heinz Center and Ceres produced the blueprint with a coalition of leading insurers, public officials, risk experts, builders, and conservation groups. The blueprint is endorsed by many groups, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The blueprint includes policy changes and common sense actions that could reduce economic losses from future storms and rising sea levels by as much as half along U.S. coastlines. The blueprint outlines specific recommendations, including: enabling planning for climate impacts by providing the necessary science and decision-making tools; requiring risk-based land use planning; designing adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk; strengthening ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy; developing flexible adaptation plans; maintaining a viable private property and casualty insurance market; and integrating climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending. The coalition urges the Obama administration, Congress, local leaders and the private sector to see that blueprint actions are implemented through regulation, investment, education, and other means.

In January 2010 the National Association of Counties released Building Resilient Coastal Communities: Counties and the Digital Coast which highlights many of the Digital Coast resources that counties use to address coastal flooding, habitat conservation and land use. More resources, tools and data are available through NOAA's Digital Coast website.

More recently, NOAA Coastal Management has developed a Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer as part of its Digital Coast website. Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

StormSmart Coasts is a resource for coastal decision makers looking for the latest and best information on how to protect their communities from weather and climate hazards. StormSmart Legal is a new addition to the StormSmart Coasts Network that provides information about property rights, regulatory takings, and permissible government regulation in coastal areas.

In December 2012 NOAA's Climate Program Office released a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment. The report was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee. It provides a synthesis of the scientific literature on global sea level rise, and a set of four scenarios of future global sea level rise. The report includes input from national experts in climate science, physical coastal processes, and coastal management.

NOAA's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth website is organized into 10 chapters describing different elements essential for communities interested in implementing coastal and waterfront smart growth. By clicking on the individual chapters, you can get a description of each Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth Element, how this relates to the Coastal and Waterfront Issues, Tools and Techniques you can use in your community, and Case Studies of successes. Each chapter contains a navigation box allowing quick access to the information and the ability to download the content of each page. A 2012 report by NOAA and EPA on Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth presents ideas shared by smart growth and hazard mitigation experts related to building hazard-resilient coastal communities.

EPA has a website devoted to preparing for rising sea level and other consequences of changing climate. The premise of the Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise website is that society should take measures to make our coastal development and ecosystems less vulnerable to a rise in sea level. The papers on this site demonstrate that numerous low-cost measures, if implemented, would make the United States less vulnerable to rising sea level. A more recent EPA website is Adapting to Climate Change, but was removed by the Trump administration.

Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities (USGS-NOAA, January 2013) emphasizes the need for increased coordination and planning to ensure U.S. coastal communities are resilient against the effects of climate change. The report examines and describes climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human economies and communities, as well as the kinds of scientific data, planning tools and resources that coastal communities and resource managers need to help them adapt to these changes. Case studies are presented for Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 2012 the Lincoln Institute released Coastal States’ Climate Adaptation Initiatives: Sea Level Rise and Municipal Engagement (Working Paper). This paper explores how states and municipalities interact to address sea level rise, providing an overview of the state of practice, some reasons for different levels of action, and some of the needs of municipalities. It includes recommendations for ways states can provide adaptation support to municipalities.

Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, (pdf, 1.2 MB) published in September 2013, discusses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' capabilities to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach. Federal, state, local, non-governmental organization and private sector interests connected to our coastal communities possess a complementary set of authorities and capabilities for developing more integrated coastal systems. The effective implementation of an integrated approach to flood and coastal flood hazard mitigation relies on a collaborative, shared responsibility framework between Federal, state, and local agencies and the public.

The National Climate Assessment is an extensive report released through the U.S. Global Change Research Program and produced by a large team of experts with the guidance of the Federal Advisory Committee. The report is put out every few years, with the most recent one being the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the next report expected to be released in 2018-2019. It includes numerous studies on the impacts of climate change on different economic sectors and geographic regions in the U.S. An important and applicable portion of the report is the Response Strategies section, which lays out actionable ways that decision-makers ranging from the federal government to private-sector companies can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

State of the Beach Report: Washington
Washington Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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