Washington and other coastal states seek to limit seawall construction

Protective structures can help save properties from erosion, but by blocking the natural flow of sand and sediment, they can accelerate erosion elsewhere.

Concrete seawalls along Puget Sound front homes in Seattle in this May 22, 2018, file photo. A new Washington state law will require regulators to evaluate whether seawalls are necessary when property owners file permits to replace existing structures. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

When coastal homeowners install seawalls to protect their houses from rising waters, they’re solving one problem by creating another. 

Protective structures such as seawalls and bulkheads can help save properties from erosion. But such structures, known collectively as shoreline armoring, can block the natural flow of sand and sediment down the coast and multiply the force of waves onto nearby shoreline — accelerating erosion elsewhere.

“Building seawalls just pushes the problem to someone else,” said California state Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

Seawalls are expensive to build and maintain. And if they’re allowed to degrade, they can wash into the water and hurt habitats. Environmental experts say many communities that build seawalls aren’t prepared to deal with the ongoing cost or damage to their shorelines.

In many coastal states, residents and officials are concerned that shoreline armoring is shrinking public beaches and harming natural ecosystems.

Some states are trying to stop that trend. Washington and Virginia recently enacted laws to discourage armoring structures and promote “living” shorelines, which use natural elements to slow erosion and maintain habitats. Those efforts could offer alternatives to seawalls in places where better options exist. Other states, including California and Hawaii, are weighing tough decisions about how to protect their beaches.

But rising sea levels and natural erosion leave many coastal homeowners with a stark choice: wall up the shoreline or lose their homes. Unless states come up with a long-term strategy to move homes and infrastructure back from the shore, coastal experts say, more armoring is inevitable — even as more states acknowledge the damage it’s causing.

This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We've got a shoreline that wants to erode, and we've built homes, roads, highways and power plants that don't want to move,” said Lesley Ewing, senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission, the state agency that regulates land use along the shore. “The ocean’s going to be coming against those walls, and we're going to lose our beaches.”

A last resort

On Washington state’s Puget Sound, nearly 30% of the shoreline is armored. That’s led to a loss of the critical shallow-water habitat that supports spawning fish, juvenile salmon and small organisms. 

“Over time, the beach washes away, and it removes that habitat for these creatures at the base of the food web supporting everything else,” said Margen Carlson, habitat program director with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

In recent years, Washington lawmakers have instituted civil penalties for illegal armoring structures, giving Carlson’s agency another tool besides misdemeanor permit violations, which are rarely prosecuted. State Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, introduced a bill that was signed into law this year to prohibit property owners from repairing or replacing their seawalls except as a last resort.

“You don’t just get a rubber stamp permit anymore,” Salomon said. “We determined that this is likely to gain more shoreline back than any other effort.”

Salomon’s measure requires regulators to consider alternatives to armoring, such as beach restoration, native vegetation and softer structures built with natural materials. Hard walls are limited to situations where no other option is technically feasible. 

The bill initially faced resistance from the Building Industry Association of Washington, which represents the residential construction industry. That group worked with leaders in the state House to include property owners’ cost concerns and technical challenges as part of the permit analysis. 

“We came to a good compromise,” said Josie Cummings, the group’s assistant director of government affairs. “The trend we're seeing is that landowners are already choosing the soft armoring option when it's available.”

Salomon’s bill is similar to a measure enacted last year on the opposite coast. Virginia’s new law will require living shorelines where feasible and limit armoring to emergency situations.

“The standard approach for decades has been hard infrastructure, bulkheads and seawalls,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Lynwood Lewis Jr. “Climate change has made it clear that living shorelines are a much more preferable means of controlling erosion.”

‘The beach or the beach house’

Many states are still struggling to slow the pace of armoring. On the Great Lakes, where water levels reached record highs last year, states including Michigan and Ohio issued armoring permits at a blistering pace as thousands of homeowners sought to protect their properties from the waves. 

Lake levels have dropped slightly this year. Experts say climate change is having a volatile effect on the Great Lakes waterline, causing higher highs and lower lows. The receding water is a relief for now, and it’s also causing state and local leaders to put the armoring issue on the back burner, said Richard Norton, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan.

“We've created this situation where it's easy to punt,” Norton said. “We absolutely need to start having hard conversations and making it clear there will likely be places where we’re either going to lose the beach or the beach house. The challenge for us is getting the states to still pay attention to this and lay the groundwork so that when the lakes come back up, we don't go back into panic mode.”

In Hawaii, a ProPublica/Honolulu Star-Advertiser investigation found that oceanfront property owners have used loopholes to get around the state’s seawall prohibition, including emergency permits for “temporary” structures, such as sandbags that are then left in place without consequence.

Among the properties that found exemptions to the state’s environmental laws was an estate tied to former President Barack Obama and widely assumed to be his family’s future Hawaii residence. The series found that roughly a quarter of the beaches on Hawaii’s major islands have been lost to armoring.

“Beaches are becoming a rare commodity, and for us that's a big part of our lifestyle,” said state Rep. David Tarnas, a Democrat. “These temporary emergency measures end up staying there for years and years and years. That doesn’t work anymore.”

Hawaii legislators passed a bill that this year will require real estate sellers to disclose to potential buyers when a property is threatened by sea level rise. In addition, Tarnas authored a new law requiring the state to inventory state-owned infrastructure threatened by flooding.

An environmental planner by profession, Tarnas said state regulators have assured him that they will issue new rules to crack down on the emergency loopholes. If not, he is preparing a bill that would allow for armoring only when the loss of an inhabited dwelling or public facility is imminent. That permit would be good for only one year, in which time the applicant would have to draft a long-term plan that requires removal of the threatened structure. 

“We’re dealing with significant public cost in order for these private homes to be protected,” he said. 

The Coastal Act

States have widely varying rules about how close to the shore residents can build, and how they’re allowed to defend their properties. Many environmental groups see California’s Coastal Act, which passed in 1976, as landmark legislation on the issue. That law established the California Coastal Commission to protect public access to the shore and regulate land use. 

Environmental advocates say the agency has limited development in flood-vulnerable areas and prevented many new seawalls. California’s coast was 8% to 9% armored when the Coastal Act passed in 1976, compared with about 12% today, according to agency officials.

But those efforts have prompted pushback from some property owners, who think the state should be doing more to protect their homes.

State Sen. Patricia Bates, a Republican, said the agency has been slow to process permits for armoring structures, and many are denied altogether: “What they have said without saying is, ‘We're not going to help you protect your house. It's going to be swallowed up by the ocean.’ ”

Bates sponsored a bill last year that would require the state to approve shoreline protection permits for structures including seawalls if certain conditions are met. The measure would automatically approve permits not explicitly denied by the Coastal Commission within 30 days.

While the measure did not advance in 2020, Bates has reintroduced it this year.

“[Property owners] really need a sensitive response to their needs in terms of time and tools,” Bates said. “There have to be other strategies than just ‘no.’ ”

How to say no

Even in states that have taken steps to limit development and armoring on the coast, few leaders are willing to tell people they must abandon their houses.

“I still think you have to have that [hard infrastructure] option,” said Lewis, the Virginia lawmaker. “The policy is clear that it is the last option, but at the end of the day we have to give property owners the availability of that last option.”

Environmental groups say states that haven’t figured out how to say no will be left with no choice but to approve more seawalls as sea levels rise.

“You can always wait until it's so bad that you get an emergency declaration to build whatever you want, and all that great policy goes right out the window,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager with Surfrider, an environmental nonprofit that works on ocean preservation issues.

Still, many states haven’t found a better option. Telling residents they must leave their homes is politically unpopular, and states don’t have the money to buy out thousands of expensive properties. Many states are funding research and technical programs to help local governments plan for managed retreat, in which homes are moved farther from the water or residents are relocated, but few have a clear picture yet of what that would look like. 

Allen, the California lawmaker, sponsored a bill this year that would create a loan program for local governments to purchase homes threatened by sea level rise, which they could then rent out until they became uninhabitable. Homeowners would sell their properties on a voluntary basis.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed the bill earlier this month, saying “it does not comprehensively address the costly activities envisioned, likely to be carried out over decades.”

Allen countered that the cost of buying the homes would be offset by the rental income they bring in over 20 to 30 years.

“The whole point of the bill is that it pays for itself, but that only works if we act quickly,” he said. “The longer we wait, the harder it is to make an upfront purchase pencil out.”

This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Alex Brown

Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Pew, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington.