The what, why and who of where the land meets the sea | TIDAL LIFE

In any discussion of the island environment, I hear over and over two terms that remind me of comedian Arsenio Hall’s famous question, “Why is it we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?” (For readers who were born yesterday, Arsenio originated “Things that make you go, Hmmm.”)

The terms I’m talking about are shoreline and watershed. Both are defined differently, depending on who you are and where you are when you use them. Sometimes they seem interchangeable.

The water’s edge is the place where the demarcation between the natural and the man made worlds is most profound. The water’s edge however, is deceptively difficult to define. But define it we must and 2012 is the final year of a multi-year update of the Shoreline Master Programs, the local plans mandated by the Shoreline Management Act.

I recently went along on a shoreline tour with a number of planners and scientists who are engaged in the SMP-update work. The idea was to get these folks together, out on a boat from which they could look back at the shore for a different take on things, and discussions about the task at hand. As Justin Craven, one of the Island County planners who made the trip remarked, “Our usual view of the subject is looking straight down the face of the bluff.”

From the water we could see the line where the tide met the beach. That could be one definition of shoreline.

We could also see the line where the beach met the bluff, or more frequently, the bulkhead. That’s another possible definition of shoreline.

We could also see the face of the bluff, yet another shoreline. At the top of the bluff, and sometimes tucked in at its base, we could see a line of waterfront homes. That’s what many homeowners mean when they say shoreline. The actual definition for the purposes of the SMA is the 200 feet inland from normal high tide.

But the other thing we saw from the boat is evidence of another set of lines that have to be considered.

Cutting through, running perpendicular to the bluffs and the beaches, are the various types of lines coming from the center of the island; drains, ditches, watersheds and creeks that follow the fall line all the way to the beach. It’s hard to leave them out of the equation, as they carry runoff and pollutants. They cause or manage erosion and impact bluff stability.

Then there are the roads themselves. They also direct water to the Sound. Though these lines fall under watershed instead of shoreline, I like to think of them as part of the greater definition of shore because it’s all so interconnected.

A century ago, developers turned fire hoses on Denny Hill in downtown Seattle to make a flat spot. Hugh Shipman, a geologist with the Department of Ecology, showed those aboard the Indigo a bluff north of Langley that received similar treatment in the 1950s. A developer built a sea wall and washed down the bluff to fill behind the wall, thereby making level lots where none existed before.

Today we recognize the devastating effect that kind of land “management” can have. But we’re also engaged in our own set of mistakes. Development on top of bluffs is removing more and more trees and replacing them with lawns. The walls of earth behind beachfront homes become more and more saturated with rainwater, more and more ripe for a devastating landslide. At a recent workshop about Glendale Creek, which is an area of constant slides due to historic mismanagement, a slope expert who travels around the sound surveying slides said, “Some of the places people build are just insane.”

How does a community deal with these issues when land has been mistreated for decades? How does the county prepare for an emergency? How can planners best help homeowners avoid catastrophe? These are the problems our shoreline managers must wrestle with every day on the job.

With the Shoreline Master Program updates underway, the Puget Sound Partnership and members of the Whidbey ECO Net (Education, Communication and Outreach Network), thought it important that officials of departments that are responsible for what goes on along the shore get together with scientists who study it.

Nancy Waddell, Whidbey EcoNet coordinator, said: “This opportunity provides community leaders and decision-makers a chance to view and experience our island shorelines and waters through hands-on learning experiences and interaction with a range of knowledgeable speakers and technical experts.”

Waddell noted that this trip was one of two for local decision-makers.

“The next one is from Oak Harbor in late June. Five trips are scheduled so far for Whidbey Island with SEA, including one for Coupeville Boys & Girls Club and Island 4-H programs of WSU Extension, one for Shore Stewards and one for Clinton Water Forum participants,” Waddell said.

There are also trips connected with the Penn Cove Water Festival this weekend, but those are not funded through PSP EcoNet.

The SMP updates are going to tell us some of what we need to do to protect our shoreline, at least as pertains to how we use our land, deal with bulkheads, storm-water drains and other feats of engineering.

But there are lots of things we can each do privately.

Here’s a quick list of things to quit doing:

Stop dumping stuff in Puget Sound. Gray whales are eating trash. Enough said.

Quit using chemicals on your garden. Instead of buying toxic weed-and-feed, use the money to hire an unemployed journalist or recent graduate to dig up your dandelions and aerate the lawn.

Plant natives to restore habitat for birds, squirrels and raccoons. Don’t worry about all those imported tulips that are blighting your landscape, they’ll be squirrel food soon enough.

Cease dumping yard clippings over the bank. There are all kinds of toxins in plants, especially non-native plants, that fish don’t care for.

Don’t clean the beach. Lots of shoreline homeowners like a neat beach, but driftwood and overhanging branches provide hiding places for juvenile salmon, so leave it all in place. Plastics, styrofoam, old tires? You can remove those.

Now here’s a do instead of a don’t:

Accept that Puget Sound, and all of nature, is filled with value. I’m not talking about economic value — worth as a resource. I’m talking intrinsic value. Worth just for itself. The worth found in the perfection of a bird’s wing, the iridescent flash of a fish’s scales, the frothy fronds of sea anemones unfurled to feed, and the familial bonds of a pod of orcas.

It’s not easy to sort out the complexities of living at the water’s edge. It’s a place that makes you go “Hmmm.”

For more information:

Island County Planning SMP: click here.

SEA Program: click here.

Whidbey Watershed Stewards: click here.

Puget Sound Partnership: click here.

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