Washington state’s laws on waterfront development have caused hard feelings around the state for decades. The 71-year-old laws, known together as the Hydraulic Code, and the rules for enforcing them, govern what you can and can’t build on your waterfront; when you can or can’t build or repair or replace whatever sits in the water or repels the tide.
Waterfront owners who don’t take kindly to the controls tend to call their legislators, who tend to call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Hydraulic Code is the only set of laws written specifically to protect the waterborne creatures that were there long before any pretty cabin on the beach. The rules for enforcing the code are the center of a contentious dialogue between the DFW and Sound Action, an assertive advocacy organization.
Sound Action’s been around a couple of years under its current name, but before that it made news as a Vashon-based organization called Preserve Our Islands. It took on — and defeated in court — a powerfully connected gravel mining company that wanted to haul off a large chunk of Maury Island.
Now, Sound Action aims to stop what is generally agreed to be a serious decline in the biological health of Puget Sound. Other private organizations and government agencies have also tried at a cost, by SA’s accounting, of $230 million a year in state and federal funds for the past six years.
The watchdogs are pushing Fish and Wildlife to get tougher on permits for boat docks, piers, mooring buoys and bulkheads, anything regulated under the Hydraulic Code. The pressure comes while the department works with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, a policy- and rule-making body, on the commission's rewriting of the rules of enforcement. The commission is taking public comment on the rules and proposed revisions through Sept. 15.
The rules have not changed in 20 years, but everything else has. There’s enormous pressure to develop the Puget Sound shoreline and transform the beach with concrete, rocks and pilings, the kind of construction that can devastate fish habitat. There’s new science revealing much that we didn’t know about the small but vital forms of life in the water and on the beach.
The creatures of most concern are the small forage fish that hang near shore, including some that bury themselves in the beach to deposit their eggs. Sand lance, herring and surf smelt are what biologists call keystone species, for their crucial role in the health of the Sound. Without them, times get hard in a hurry for the larger species we’re more sociable with. Salmon, rock fish, orcas and seabirds all feed at a table set by the forage fish, at one step or another on the food ladder.
Sound Action says Puget Sound herring have declined by 40 percent from levels of the past. Chinook salmon feed on the herring and they’re down to at an estimated 10 percent of healthy populations and listed by the federal agencies as endangered. Resident Puget Sound orcas are thought to have numbered about 200 at one time; now they’re down to 80. Their prime food is the endangered Chinook.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website says the rewrite of Hydraulic Code rules will strengthen protections for the fish while streamlining the permitting process for in-water structures. The department’s critics — led by Sound Action and a dozen other environmental groups that have publicly backed SA in the controversy — worry that the new language will accomplish the streamlining but weaken the DFW’s authority as legal guardian of little fish.
In places the proposed new language does seem reluctant to stand up and say what it means. Take for example, “protection of fish life” — a rather straightforward phrase that would appear to mean “protection of fish life.” In the department’s revised version, “protection of fish life” means “avoiding, minimizing and compensating for unavoidable impacts to fish life and the habitat that supports fish life populations, through mitigation sequencing.”
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