State of the Beach/State Reports/WA/Shoreline Structures

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Standards discussed in the Shoreline Master Program Guidelines must be followed when master programs are drafted. These guidelines define the broad policies listed in the Shoreline Management Act (RCW 90.58.020). Washington State Shoreline Master Program Guidelines discuss the adverse impacts of shoreline structures. However, new shoreline structures are allowed to protect existing structures and new non-water-dependent development, including single-family residences. Shoreline structures can be replaced with similar structures if there is a demonstrated need to protect the existing structure from erosion. The guidelines do have limitations and standards for shoreline structure development.

The amended Shoreline Master Program Guidelines noted previously include new restrictions on the placement and repair of shoreline armoring. Much of the emphasis in these rules is placed on Puget Sound shorelines. This reflects a general tendency towards focusing on the management of Puget Sound as opposed to Pacific Ocean shorelines. This is largely due to the fact that the Puget Sound region is much more densely populated than the Pacific Ocean shoreline. The high density of single-family residences places more pressure to armor these shorelines than those along the outer coast. Ecology's recent work with the Ocean Policy Workgroup reflects a commitment to responsible management of Pacific Ocean beaches.[1]

Regulations guiding shoreline armoring consist primarily of the Hydraulics Code (RCW 77.55.100 —360) implemented by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Shoreline Management Act (RCW 90.58) implemented by local governments under the oversight of WDOE Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program. The Hydraulics Code applies waterward of "ordinary high water" and the Shoreline Management Act applies waterward of ordinary high water and at least 200 feet landward of ordinary high water. Permits are required by the Department of Fish and Wildlife for any activity that will use, divert, obstruct or change the bed or flow of state waters, including the construction of bulkheads and seawalls. There are provisions in the regulations for emergency projects. Removal of hardened shoreline structures has been required, but only by the authority of a local government under the state's Shoreline Management Act.[2]

The Shoreline Master Program Guidelines (Chapter 173-26 WAC, p. 74) 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.

New structural stabilization measures shall be permitted to protect existing primary structures that is in danger from shoreline erosion cause by tidal action, currents, or waves.

The 2006 Assessment states that, for the most part, current laws and regulations prohibit or discourage erosion control structures on the Pacific Ocean beaches. It suggests, however, that the recent shift from accretion to erosion along segments of Washington's southwest coast may lead to a review of these policies.

The WCZMP has chaired and played a leading role in the Shoreline Armoring Workgroup, a collaboration of biologists and geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Washington, Puget Sound Nearshore Restoration Project, and other state and federal agencies. The workgroup has focused on a variety of activities including developing a monitoring protocol for beach restoration projects and advising University of Washington scientists on a research project looking at the effects of a proposed large-scale seawall removal at Seahurst Park in the City of Burien. In addition, the workgroup organized a four-day workshop in May of 2009 that convened regional and national experts to examine the state of the science relevant to shoreline armoring in environments similar to Puget Sound. Presentations addressed current understanding of Puget Sound, emerging scientific research on beaches and armoring, and relevant experience from other regions.

Technical information on the environmental effects of shoreline armoring, shoreline over-water structures, and the use of treated wood in aquatic systems is available in publications of Washington's Aquatic Habitat Guidelines project, a joint program of the departments of Ecology, Fish & Wildlife, and Transportation.


Inventories covering various locations, levels of detail, and scales are developed by state agencies and local governments. The most comprehensive is the Washington State ShoreZone Inventory conducted by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Links at the project Website provide access to low tide videography, data dictionary, inventory users manual, and GIS data.[3]

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ Washington ShoreZone Inventory provides GIS information on the locations and extent of shoreline structures along the Washington shoreline. The sm1_type coverage classifies the shoreline type, including concrete bulkheads, sheet piles, rip rap and wooden bulkheads. The sm_tot_pct coverage gives the total percentage of shoreline with anthropogenic modification. The Washington ShoreZone Inventory Summary states that approximately 30% of the Puget Sound shoreline has some kind of shoreline modification. The shoreline modification is not evenly distributed throughout the state. The outer coast has relatively little modification while Puget Sound is highly modified. 79% of the eastern side of Central Basin has been modified.

The Washington Coastal Atlas has a "Modifications" data layer that contains a "Piers and Docks" data layer and a "Shore Modification" data layer.

Some local governments are now developing updated shoreline inventories prior to updating their shoreline master programs pursuant to the state's Shoreline Management Act. Most of these inventories include information and/or mapping of shoreline armoring modifications in general. Two such local governments on marine shorelines are rural Wahkiakum County on the Columbia River estuary, and the small city of Port Townsend on Admiralty Inlet of Puget Sound. Typically these local governments publish a shoreline inventory atlas, which is distributed locally, and GIS data is shared or traded on request.[4]

Existing shoreline modifications are also represented on the Washington Coastal Atlas and extent of shoreline armoring is captured in the public access GIS layer (currently available for download on the Ecology GIS website).

The 2006 Assessment indicates that erosion on the Puget Sound has traditionally been addressed with the construction of bulkheads, seawalls, and riprap revetments. They report that over 30% of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored; this includes a segment between Everett and Tacoma that is more than 95% armored. Although there has been stricter scrutiny of armoring by permitting agencies, the rate of armoring remains high. The WDOE recognizes that shoreline armoring results in wide range of environmental impacts, including degradation of shoreline habitat, beach loss, fragmentation of vegetation, and modified erosion patterns. They are working to avoid the siting of new development in areas that will require armoring and are requiring greater consideration of alternatives to armoring, such as vegetative bank stabilization and beach fill.

A King County study of the shoreline of Water Resources Inventory Area 9 (WRIA 9) — an area that stretches from Federal Way to Seattle and includes the Green-Duwamish Watershed and Vashon and Maury islands — found that since 2005, the area has had 1,500 feet of shoreline armoring removed. However, the 92 miles of shoreline in WRIA 9 — about half of which is on Vashon — had more shoreline than that armored and saw a net loss of 70 feet of natural shoreline. Most of the new armoring consisted of installation of bulkheads on private property — as well as retaining walls, docks and stairs, much of it unpermitted. More on this.

The Puget Sound Action Team (PSAT) (now Puget Sound Partnership) has compiled information on shoreline modification (largely shoreline armoring data) from the Washington Department of Natural Resources' ShoreZone Inventory and determined that 30% of Washington's marine shorelines are modified. This document is Puget Sound Update 2002. A Map of Shoreline Modification (Puget Sound) and an associated table can be found on page 27.

PSAT has published more documents since 2002 - these can be found here and at their website.

Removal or Modification of Shoreline Armoring

Several projects have been completed in Washington to remove shoreline armoring and help restore the ecological function of shoreline areas.

An encouraging development regarding shoreline armoring occurred in 2007 when rip rap was removed from the shore at Belfair State Park in the Lower Hood Canal area. This was part of a $2 million estuary restoration project designed to improve both the habitat and the public's ability to enjoy the park. The project included removal of a tidal swimming pool and creation of a sandy beach in its place. A rocky wall was removed to create a walking beach, Little Mission Creek bridge was relocated and a small culvert was replaced to enhance fish passage. Now, kayakers and wind surfers can launch from the beach, which was impossible when rip rap lined the shore. These types of modifications have also occurred on private property.

Additional encouraging news came when the long-planned removal of the Elwha Dam occurred in 2011-2012. Removal of the Glines Canyon Dam was scheduled for 2013. The effort is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in the United States. The project is designed to proceed slowly to accommodate the 24 million cubic yards of sediment that have accumulated behind the dam. Gradually the sediment will wash downstream, and the salmon now barricaded at Elwha Dam will be able to swim up and repopulate more than 70 miles of the river and its tributaries, nearly all of the territory pristine because it lies within Olympic National Park. It is hoped that removal of these dams will not only help restore the Elwha River and its ecosystems, but also help nourish eroded beaches near the mouth of the river. Dam removal has been completed and the beaches are growing. This restoration effort was enhanced in 2016 when nearly 3,000 cubic yards of riprap and concrete slab were removed from the shore as part of a $2 million, multi-agency effort to restore the beach and coastal wetlands for fish and wildlife habitat. The Beach Lake Acquisition and Restoration project immediately resulted in parts of the sediment-starved, coarse-cobble shoreline covered by 6 feet to 10 feet of sand.

Meanwhile, habitat restoration was planned on a 1,200-foot stretch of Ediz Hook near Port Angeles in summer 2012. The Lower Elwha ­Klallam tribe and state Department of Natural Resources will restore the “A-frame” site on the spit, a former log dump area that was used until the 1970s. It will be cleared of fill and existing structures. The goal is to improve the shoreline for forage fish spawning, including smelt and sand lance. It will also benefit people because it will be much more accessible for recreation.

A bulkhead removal project on Brown Island along three adjacent residential waterfront properties began in September 2015. The armor removal project, coordinated by Friends of the San Juans, will unbury the upper beach, providing more usable space for property owners as well as the wildlife such as forage fish and juvenile salmon that depend on intact shoreline habitats. Read more.

A similar, forward-thinking project has been implemented on Orcas Island. Friends of the San Juans’ video called “Planning for the Future: Benefits of Restoration” documents the approach one family took when undertaking a major redevelopment of their property. “When we were looking at our options for redeveloping our property, one of the things we took into account was sea level rise. We wanted to get rid of the big seawall and make sure both the house and beach would be around in 100 years. By moving the house back, we were able to restore the beach for now and the future,” said John and Maia Vechey, who are spotlighted in the new video.

A shoreline enhancement project to regain beach habitat and improve natural shoreline function at Fort Townsend State Park, along Port Townsend Bay's western shore, was completed in August 2016. Much of the hard armoring and shoreline landing area that buried natural beach in the 1800s was removed to restore natural feeder bluff processes and beach habitat for shorebirds, forage fish and other marine animals. More than 1,700 cubic yards of large rocks and soil were moved out by barge, and the remaining small landing was reshaped, including an easier beach access for park visitors. The Northwest Straits Foundation managed the project for Washington State Parks, and the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee assisted with community outreach and interpretive signs. The restoration project was funded by the Puget Sound Marine and Nearshore Grant program, which is a partnership program of the Washington departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources, and the state’s Estuary Salmon Restoration Program (ESRP). Those organizations administer funds awarded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to implement priorities of the action agenda for Puget Sound to protect and restore habitat and ecosystem functions.

A long-running seawall and pollution issue is present in Port Angeles, where a deteriorating seawall is holding back a portion of the contents of the city's closed landfill at the west end of 18th Street from falling down a bluff into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The seawall is a "short-term fix" that was installed after Surfrider Foundation's Olympic Peninsula Chapter (OPC) and others submitted comments to the City of Port Angeles asking them to restore the site by removing decades of garbage. The wall, as predicted by the OPC, has increased shoreline erosion to the east. Now, a further proposed short term "fix" is to fortify the ends of the seawall and remove roughly half of the accumulated waste in the section of city landfill most threatened by the failing 135-foot bluff. In the longer term, it is hoped that enough waste can be removed and other measures taken to stabilize the bluff such that the seawall can be removed.

A somewhat similar situation exists in the vicinity of an old city dump at the edge of Bellingham Bay. There, a $9.1 million cleanup project will need to cover up about 100 feet of shoreline where erosion has exposed city rubbish dumped and buried there in the 1950s and 1960s. It also will need to cover and contain the accumulation of trash farther inland, sealing it off to prevent rainwater from seeping in and carrying pollutants to the surface or into the water. The plan consists of:

  • A layer of clay will cover the garbage, providing one barrier to water infiltration. Some of the clay is already in place in the form of dredged material from Squalicum Harbor, and additional clay will be added.
  • layer of thick plastic will top the clay to provide a second line of defense against seeping water.
  • A layer of sand will cover the plastic, to provide a pathway for rainwater to move horizontally into the bay before it touches any buried contaminants.
  • Atop the sand will be a layer of topsoil for grass and trees.

Cleanup on an adjacent property may bring the total cleanup cost to $16 million to create a future waterfront park.

In the early 1900s, an estimated 68 percent of Seattle’s shoreline habitat was destroyed by the construction of the Elliott Bay Seawall. It was intended to prevent shore erosion and enable waterfront development, but the seawall also decimated salmon populations, reducing them by 90 percent. Now, a major urban reconstruction project, including the replacement of the seawall, offers hope for the salmon by creating a more hospitable migratory corridor. Plans to create riparian zones include planting trees and shrubs along the banks and planters along the walkway. New sidewalks with implanted glass blocks will help plants grow underwater and will allow light to penetrate from the sidewalk into the water and create a safe, well-lit path for the salmon. Read more. November 2013 Update. February 2015 update. In September 2015 this article in Seattle Weekly detailed problems with major project delays and cost overruns.

Additional Shoreline Armoring

An issue involving both a potential increase in coastal armoring as well as periodic beach fill is the Westport Jetty/Grays Harbor Project. The Seattle District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepared a PowerPoint presentation (January 2009) that discusses alternatives for dealing with coastal erosion and storm damage at this location. More info.

In May 2012 an article Westport’s solution may be Ocean Shores’ problem discussed an aspect of the proposed armoring project, which is removal of old jetty rock from the Damon Point area for salmon enhancement as part of the federal project to shore up Westport's South Jetty. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' overall plan is to build a 500-foot jetty extension into Half Moon Bay in Westport to address the ongoing erosion problem which has been steadily worsening since the early 1990s.

For additional Army Corps of Engineers documents regarding the Westport and Grays Harbor jetties, go here and search for 'Grays Harbor' or 'Westport'.

In January 2010 the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a $400 to $470 million, 18-year construction project to rehabilitate eroding jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River. The north and south jetties, originally constructed between 1885 and 1917, enable a multibillion-dollar shipping industry by taming the river’s notoriously rough bar. The project will shore up the north and south jetties, as well as Jetty A just inside the river’s mouth near Cape Disappointment. Construction would begin in 2012 and continue each year through 2030. The proposed project calls for the placement of 364,000 tons of rock on the north jetty and nearly 750,000 tons on the south jetty. The project will include massive armor stones capping the tip of each jetty. Further, contractors will build 11 spur groins to stabilize the jetties’ sandy foundations. Engineers believe this feature is essential in light of beach erosion occurring north and south of the Columbia’s mouth.

When the jetties were originally constructed a century ago, they created a firehose effect by squeezing the river’s current. Between 1885 and 1925, according to a report by the corps in 2003, the firehose blasted 500 million to 800 million cubic yards of sand out of the estuary and into the ocean, where waves piled it along the jetties’ back edges. The movement of sand from the estuary to the beach shored up each jetty’s foundation, cleared dangerous sandbars from the shipping channel, and created popular public beaches. In recent years, however, those beaches have eroded severely. Sand that would have otherwise replenished the beaches north and south of the river has dwindled with the construction of upriver dams beginning in the 1930s. The dams capture two-thirds of the sediment that would have otherwise flowed to the estuary, according to a recent study of coastal erosion.

Washington has little experience with geotubes, sandbag revetments, or other "soft armoring". There has only been one permitted geotube installation and no known sandbag revetments.

The Fiscal Year 2017 Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides $4.62 billion in gross discretionary funding for the Civil Works program. This budget lists proposed projects and the associated budget justification by state.

Additional information is provided in the Erosion and Beach Fill sections of this report.


Puget Sound
Hugh Shipman
Washington State Dept. of Ecology
Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program
Phone: (425) 649-7095

Southwest Washington Coast
George Kaminsky
Phone: (360) 407-6797

Perception of Effectiveness

The 2006 Assessment gives erosion management a high priority. It notes that considerable progress has been made,

"Still, work remains to be done, especially in the area of beach fill and erosion management."

As noted above, the WDOE recognizes that shoreline armoring results in wide range of environmental impacts, including degradation of shoreline habitat, beach loss, fragmentation of vegetation, and modified erosion patterns.

A "Shoreline Armoring on Puget Sound Workshop" was held May 12-14th, 2009. Abstracts and presentations from the workshop can be viewed here. Also see here.

Chris Townsend of the Puget Sound Partnership has stated that the loss of sandy, pebbly beaches to rock and concrete walls is one of the key problems in the local marine ecosystem. In an effort to mitigate for these effects, the Seattle Department of Transportation, King Conservation District, and Washington Sea Grant have jointly spent $310,000 to install 18 concrete panels along Seattle's urban waterfront. Each panel measures about 5 by 7 feet, with faux rocks or ledges at various angles. The scientists also stuck nine troughs to the walls and filled them with small rocks and gravel, creating mini tide pools. The goal is to create nooks and crannies where algae, tiny sea insects, small fish and crabs can hide out. University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences will head up a $240,000 two-year monitoring program to measure the density and diversity of marine species. The project anticipates the replacement of the aging Alaskan Way sea wall. If the panels prove attractive to marine life, they could be incorporated into the design of the new wall.

Public Education Program

Alternative Bank Protection Methods for Puget Sound Shorelines describes fifteen projects from around Puget Sound where creativity has been applied in reducing shoreline erosion. Applications include beach nourishment, bioengineering and other vegetation techniques, structural use of drift logs and woody debris, and intertidal benches.

Also see Soft Shore Protection as an Alternative to Bulkheads — Projects and Monitoring by Jim W. Johannessen (2001) and Soft Shoreline Stabilization: Shoreline Master Program Planning and Implementation Guidance (Washington Department of Ecology, March 2014)

On the southwest Washington coast, WDOE's Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study (SWCES) team has used a combination of technical conferences for decision makers, public outreach workshops, brochures, exhibits at local community centers and nature centers, and its website to educate the public about coastal erosion issues and erosion response.

A 1998 video At Ocean's Edge: Coastal Change in Southwest Washington visually illustrates erosion problem areas along Southwest Washington's dynamic coast. Footage shows the forces of nature in action and a variety of scientific methods that are being used to sort out the causes of long-term coastal changes. Interviews with scientists, local government officials, and coastal residents reveal the broad range and complexity of the issues confronting coastal communities and the efforts being made to resolve these issues.

WDOE's Washington Coast website has a discussion on jetties and shoreline change.

General information on Washington's ocean coast can be found here.

For Puget Sound landsliding education, WDOE publishes a suite of three homeowner booklets on vegetation, surface water, and groundwater management which are posted to the WDOE website in abbreviated versions at:

General information on Puget Sound landslides can be found here.

General information on Puget Sound shorelines can be found here.

Aerial oblique photographs of Washington's marine shorelines dating from the 1970s, the 1990s, and the early 2000s are posted on WDOE's Coastal Atlas.

The Green Shores project promotes sustainable use of coastal ecosystems through planning and design that recognizes the ecological features and functions of coastal systems. The guiding principles for Green Shores are:

1. Preserve the integrity or connectivity of coastal processes.
2. Maintain or enhance habitat diversity and function (on a local or regional scale).
3. Minimize or reduce pollutants to the marine environment.
4. Reduce cumulative impacts to the coastal environment.

For general information on beach erosion and the importance of maintaining natural beach processes, check out the website of Friends of Gray's Harbor. This website also calls attention to a planned development in wetlands, very close to the beach at Westport. Links to several other information sources on beach erosion in Washington are provided.


  1. Brian Voigt, Washington Department of Natural Resources, personal communication. November 2001.
  2. Doug Canning, WDOE. Surfrider 2003 State of the Beach survey response.
  3. Doug Canning, WDOE. Surfrider 2003 State of the Beach survey response.
  4. Doug Canning, WDOE. Surfrider 2003 State of the Beach survey response.

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