Sea Star Summer 2013

Beyond Bulkheads

Puget Sound has more armor than a medieval arsenal — 600-plus miles of concrete, rock and timbers, enclosing 26 percent of its shoreline. Quantified local data on shoreline armoring’s biological effects are in short supply (see next page for one Washington Sea Grant scientist’s efforts to obtain these). But armoring has been widely observed to block natural beach replenishment, contribute to scouring, and choke off intertidal habitats that are essential nurseries and feeding grounds for salmon and many other fish species.

And the armoring continues: A little over a mile of it still gets laid along Puget Sound’s shores each year, 76 percent of it beside single-family residences, according to data collected by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This trend may accelerate as climate change progresses and sea level rises, colliding with development near and on top of intertidal areas. “It’s really death by a thousand cuts,” says Randy Carman, DFW’s near shore section manager.

This unwelcome trend briefly reversed last autumn, when the bulkheads came down along 1,544 feet of placid Port Madison at the northeast corner of Bainbridge Island. The Powel Shoreline Restoration Project, as it’s called, marked the culmination of three years’ painstaking work by Jim Brennan, Washington Sea Grant’s Bainbridge-based marine habitat specialist, in close collaboration with Brenda Padgham, the stewardship director of the Bainbridge Island Land Trust (which sponsored the project), the Powel Family, and other stakeholders.

The Powel estate presented both a rare opportunity and some special challenges. The Powels held an unusually long stretch of shoreline, about 1,800 feet, and were sympathetic to shoreline restoration. They had already granted a conservation easement to the Land Trust, and Padgham had maintained a close relationship with them. And, as their 40-to-80-year-old bulkheads started to fail, they faced a potential half-million-dollar replacement bill — a strong inducement to consider alternatives.

Nevertheless, the project was challenging on both the technical and human levels. The shore was lined with a complex mix of stone and concrete walls, concrete fill, riprap, and creosoted wood. One of the property’s two homes was only about 30 feet from shore, and the family wanted to preserve the intervening lawn and riprap and be assured that removing the armoring on either side would not undermine them. And how could so much rock, timber, and concrete be removed without damaging either the grounds above or the tidelands below?

Padgham had the diplomatic skills to mediate the intrafamilial issues that inevitably arose; Brennan and family members alike marveled at her tact and patience. But the Land Trust lacked experience at large-scale shoreline restoration. And so it turned to Sea Grant.

The Land Trust initially asked Brennan and other resource managers to evaluate the feasibility and conservation value of de-armoring the property — the sort of technical assistance he’s provided on a wide range of shoreline projects. Feasibility: check. Conservation value: check — this could be a prime feeding ground and refuge for young salmonids. But who could manage it?

The Land Trust hired Brennan to manage first the design and then the execution. He helped the Trust secure $400,000 in grants from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund (the Powels put up matching funds) and steered the project through a multi-agency labyrinth of permits and soil, drainage, vegetation, and archaeological assessments. Getting the last done early, rather than waiting to discover old artifacts, avoided later delays.

Brennan found contractors who could bring the necessary finesse and enthusiasm to the job. Chris Kachman, a backhoe maestro from Tacoma’s Sound Bulkhead, managed to demolish the bulkheads and deposit the rubble on barges while sparing the salt-marsh vegetation below.

Above the waterline, crews removed vinca, sweet peas, and other invasive plants from nearly 33,000 square feet of grounds and planted 2,650 native trees and other plants. They left more grass lawn than setback models might normally call for — but again, conservation had to be balanced against human use. They let stay several large conifers growing dramatically out over the water; their roots actually run far back from the bank, Brennan explains, anchoring them securely, and they provide valuable shade for salmon and other fish.

The team refrained from excavating and reshaping the banks or “enriching” the beach with added sand. “I tend to take a minimalist approach,” Brennan explains. “You remove the obstacles, then get out of the way and let nature do the rest.” Nature is already obliging; much of the backfill behind the bulkheads proved to be barnacled rocks and other old beach material. “It’s dropped back down on the beach and taken its own shape,” says Brennan. Pickleweed and other intertidal plants have already begun to emerge.

A third-mile of restored shoreline may seem like small change against the 600-plus miles of local armoring. But the Powel project is nevertheless a signal achievement — what appears to be the largest residential shoreline restoration ever undertaken on Puget Sound, surpassing all the residential armoring removed Sound-wide in the six recent years tallied by the Department of Natural Resources. (Most de-armoring occurs on public lands, though these contain just 14 percent of local armoring.) It stands as a model, a challenge, and an invitation to other waterfront owners — a proof of possibilities beyond the familiar riprap and bulkheads. “The idea is to have this be a demonstration project, and allow other people to see alternatives to armoring,” says Padgham.

By undertaking this demonstration on Bainbridge Island, the Land Trust and Sea Grant have taken the message to ground zero in the debate over shoreline armoring. Nearly two-thirds of the island's shores have been clad in concrete, stone and timbers. Kitsap and nearby Mason and Island Counties together account for more than half the new armoring in all 12 Salish Sea counties. And Bainbridge has been home to some particularly vehement defenders of armoring, including a now-retired bulkhead builder renowned for monumental projects using what DFW’s Randy Carman calls “rocks the size of Volkswagens.”

So far the Powels’ example hasn’t induced any other waterfront dwellers to rip out their riprap. But skeptical neighbors have been won over, says Padgham, and “a couple people are interested in pursuing their own de-armoring.” And the example has resonated further afield. In March, Padgham, Brennan, and Babe Kehers, a Powel family member who played a key role in seeing the restoration through, spoke about the project at the annual conference of the Oregon and Washington land trusts.

Kehers says family members are delighted with the outcome, and even one brother who doubted the project now grudgingly concedes its success. Carman publicly touts it as “a great example of complexity and collaboration.” Following its completion, “I gave a presentation to our habitat program quarterly meeting in Olympia. I used the Powel project as a positive example of what we can do — after all the dire reports, here’s a good one!”

Contact Eric Scigliano, Science Writer for Washington Sea Grant, for further information.

Elwha Unchained, Fish in Flux

The Elwha River is starting to flow free once again. The last pieces of the Elwha Dam, which blocked the river’s course for nearly a century, came down last year, and the upstream Glines Canyon Dam was supposed to be gone by autumn 2013 (though downstream issues now delay completion).

The river has already changed: Fish that were blocked by the dams have begun to recolonize the river’s upper reaches, mixing with populations that were trapped above them. Newly released water and sediments are transforming the riverbed and downstream beaches. This is a lab experiment on steroids, a large-scale test of adaptation and evolution. Washington Sea Grant-funded researchers are taking advantage of this unique opportunity to learn how a river returns to a natural state.

Thomas Quinn, a professor in UW’s School of Aquatics and Fishery Science and a lead researcher on the Elwha project, is studying the changing life histories of the Elwha’s anadromous and resident fish populations. The river is home to all five native salmon species — Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink — as well as Dolly Varden, steelhead, rainbow, bull, cutthroat, and nonnative brook trout. Before the dams, the Elwha’s salmon runs were among the biggest in the state; now only a few thousand fish return each year. But the river is primed for recolonization; 87 percent of its watershed lies within Olympic National Park, whose mossy trees and fog-shrouded hills are shielded from logging and mining. Quinn and other researchers hope to see dormant life cycles resume with the opening of the salmon’s ancestral habitat.

Just as the Chinook can now reach upstream habitat, Lake Sutherland’s formerly landlocked kokanee (freshwater sockeye) can now move downriver. Quinn wants to know if they were a pre-dam freshwater population or anadromous fish that got trapped behind the dams. To find out, he and his colleagues are measuring eggs and body shapes, sampling tissue isotopes, and removing otoliths (“ear stones” that show annual rings), all of which differ in anadromous and freshwater populations.

These questions aren’t just matters of curiosity, Quinn notes. They affect a population’s resilience and ability to adapt to changing conditions. If the ocean-going steelhead are flourishing while river-bound rainbows (freshwater versions of the same species) struggle, or vice versa, might one population stabilize the other?

This isn’t the first time Quinn has investigated salmon recolonization. When barriers to fish passage at the Landsburg Dam on the Cedar River came down in 2003, Quinn and other scientists measured and sampled the first salmon to venture upstream. But the Cedar pales in complexity; the Elwha is a much bigger river with many more species, and the dams’ removal will trigger a multitude of physical and biological changes. “On the Cedar, we essentially opened the door and kept count,” says Quinn. “On the Elwha, we kind of blew up the door… The removal of the huge dams will not leave convenient sites for counting fish, so keeping track of the recolonization will require many different kinds of studies.”

Historically the Elwha was home to stream-type Chinook, which are typically found in colder, larger and more stable river systems. Because of the low temperatures, stream-type Chinook are slow-growing and linger in freshwater for a year before migrating to sea. In contrast, ocean-type Chinook migrate after only a few months in freshwater. The Elwha’s headwaters were ideal for stream-type Chinook, but the dams blocked their way. Now these kings are returning and spawning — in very small numbers, NOAA fisheries biologist George Pess says, “but we’re starting to see it.”

The researchers are using a number of tools: sonar, which helps track fish in sediment-laden water; physical sampling to determine genetics, body morphology, and sex ratios; tagging to determine where the fish are spawning; and on-foot and snorkel surveys of juvenile fish.

Quinn is collaborating with researchers from a host of federal, state, and tribal entities, including NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Fish and Wildlife and National Parks Services, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Collaboration is central to the project, he says, and necessary to avoid costly duplication. For example, Quinn asked tribal biologists, who were already measuring water quality and temperature on Lake Sutherland, to begin sampling zooplankton in the lake to determine whether returning salmon would have enough food. The tribe agreed, saving Quinn money and gaining information it could also use.

Student contributions are key to Sea Grant projects, and Emily Thornton, a fisheries graduate student at UW, has assisted with everything from sampling kokanee and zooplankton to snorkel surveys and invasive plant removal. She’s now trying to determine how long it takes steelhead fry to lose the saltwater isotopes transferred from their parents, to help identify fresh and saltwater fish in the Elwha. Lab fry will be fed ocean or freshwater food and the subsequent decline in nitrogen isotopes measured. “It’s trying to find the little ways the world works that haven’t been discovered before,” says Thornton. She’s also assessing how brook trout introduced after the dams’ construction will affect coho recolonization.

The dams’ removal has physical as well as biological implications. Preliminary estimates by the USGS suggest that the river has already flushed out nearly 1.2 million cubic meters of sediments. Sea Grant coastal hazards specialist Ian Miller is monitoring these sediments’ effects on the eroded beaches at the river’s mouth. Twice a month, Miller measures grain size and beach shape at three sites east of the mouth and one to the west. He uses kinematic differential GPS — basically the same system surveyors use — to compare today’s beach with measurements taken as far back as 2001. And he uses a USGS system called Cobble Cam to measure sand grain size from digital photos.

The changes are striking: The rocks of a year ago have been replaced by sand — a phenomenal amount, “unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” says Miller — and the once-eroding beach just east of the mouth has grown by nearly 100 meters.

Deciphering the Elwha’s changes requires both rapid response and long-term commitment. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe expects full restoration to take 20 to 30 years. That will consummate decades of work by the tribe, which helped win passage of the federal Elwha River Restoration Act in 1992.

“Getting the river restored has been one of the tribe’s top priorities ever since I can remember,” says Robert Elofson, who directs the tribe’s Elwha restoration projects. “When we started, just about our only allies were the environmental groups.” Eventually the federal agencies came on board, as the cost-benefit ratio for dam removal improved. Now the river itself, in its free-flowing natural state, is their ally.

By Jocelyn Robinson, WSG Science Writing Fellow

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