The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will give more scrutiny to sea walls, bulkheads or other armoring of the Puget Sound shoreline under a court-approved plan to resolve a lawsuit.
Scientists have found that such shoreline development, though it may ease erosion, can cause serious damage to areas that are vital to some marine life, such as spawning forage fish, at the base of the Puget Sound food chain. Many of these projects typically have been exempt from federal review, but the new Seattle District Army Corps plan calls for oversight on a “case by case basis,” according to a filing last week in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
The Corps’ Seattle District said in a statement the “specific timing and details” of the plan aren’t ready.
Environmentalists say that the lawsuit was not intended to stop a property owner from putting in protection if it is essential to protecting a structure. But they hope the new process, which is expected to involve consultations with National Marine Fisheries Service, will lead to more ecologically sensitive armoring projects and take into greater account the cumulative effects of armoring the shoreline.
“This is a good thing if you care about Puget Sound and the recovery of salmon and orcas,” said Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing Sound Action, Friends of San Juans and Washington Environmental Council, three environmental groups that filed a lawsuit alleging the Army Corps had violated the federal Clean Water Act by illegally sidestepping many of these reviews.
The big point of controversy has been the Army Corps’ definition of the high-tide line.
The plaintiffs argued that the agency placed the line too low on the shoreline, and thus excluded some 8,600 acres where much of the new armoring takes place.
In these areas, environmentalists say the armoring of the shoreline can cause beaches to become narrow and steeper, destroying habitat that is important for young salmon. It can also harm Pacific sand lance and surf smelt, which produce important sources of food for salmon.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, a draft report produced by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps’ Seattle District, also recommended a high-water line definition that would bring more shoreline acres under federal jurisdiction, according to a filing in the lawsuit.
But in a January 2018 memorandum, the commander of the Corps’ Northwest Division reaffirmed the agency’s old, more restrictive definition, an action that last year triggered the lawsuit from the three environmental groups.
The Army Corps of Engineers argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed. But U.S. District Court Judge James Robart rejected that motion. Then the Corps — in the plan approved by the judge — offered to scrap its old definition of the high-tide line and develop a “case specific” review process to determine the high tide line, according to the Corps’ statement.
The Seattle district will consider available tidal data, the physical characteristics of the shoreline and other information to make the decision on whether to review an armoring project.
Earthjustice’s Hasselman hopes the reviews could lead, in some cases, to requirements to remove some armoring that is not needed as development takes places.
The Army Corps of Engineers will come up with the new way forward within 120 days of the judge’s Oct. 30 approval, and that could lead — if the environmental plaintiffs agree — to the dismissal of lawsuit.