Coastal Estuaries

Puget Sound Series: Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise in Puget Sound threatens homes, infrastructure, and natural shoreline habitats.

Reducing the impacts of sea level rise will require planning and adaptation at the local level. Washington State’s Shoreline Management Act sets shoreline management policy and requires counties and cities to develop Shoreline Master Programs. While policy encourages these Shoreline Master Programs to address sea level rise, it is not a legal requirement.  Some counties have declined to address sea level rise in their Shoreline Master Program updates. In the last legislative session, Audubon supported amending the Growth Management Act to address climate change and include a provision to require the next round of Shoreline Master Program updates to address sea level rise. Unfortunately, that bill did not pass, but we will support its re-introduction next session.

In Skagit County, sea level rise threatens large areas of farmland and estuarine bird habitat. Dikes and shoreline armoring will do little to protect the lower-lying agricultural lands in the Skagit Delta from future storm surges and they prevent natural estuarine marshes from moving upland.

Harlequin Duck standing on a water-covered rock
Harlequin Duck. Photo: William Dix

Unfortunately, the Skagit County Shoreline Master Program draft update, under review by the County Board of Commissioners, ignores sea level rise. Scott Andrews, Audubon Program Manager of Puget Sound, has been working on this issue for years. As Environmental Manager for the Swinomish Tribe, he served on an advisory committee to the County Shoreline Master Program update, which stalled in 2016, but not before the issue of sea level rise was stripped from the draft. In 2021, Scott worked with Skagit Audubon Society and the Skagit Land Trust to develop testimony for the Planning Commission hearing on the restarted Shoreline Master Program update. Nothing on sea level rise was included and Planning Commissioners stated that since it was not required by law, they did not have to address it. This year, now as Audubon staff, Scott worked with Skagit Audubon and a coalition of local groups to comment to the County Board of Commissioners, again urging the draft address sea level rise. Scott and the coalition provided detailed language to amend the proposed code, including provisions on regulation of armoring that take sea level rise into account and protection of shoreline values and functions, rather than continuing to build in harm’s way and then add more armoring. We are awaiting the Commissioner’s final decision on the draft. After that, the county will forward the Shoreline Master Plan to the Washington Department of Ecology for a hearing and approval.

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