Piling on Puget Sound (Part 2): Cumulative impacts and what we can do about them, but aren’t

It’s clear that the cumulative impacts of docks and bulkheads throughout Puget Sound are changing the character of our region, putting salmon and orca in peril and harming treaty-reserved harvest rights.

So why are these impacts allowed to continue?

A small change in how the federal government permits shoreline modifications could help turn the tide.

Shoreline modifications are often regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act. Many of the permits are authorized through a streamlined nationwide permit system.

The Corps issues nationwide permits for several types of shoreline modifications ranging from bank stabilization and dredging and filling, to boat ramp construction and mooring buoy installation. As long as a property owner meets the conditions of these permits, they are automatically authorized with little opportunity for public comment or to assess possible cumulative effects of multiple projects in an area.

Fortunately, the federal Clean Water Act creates a test to prevent fast tracked permits from causing serious harm to the aquatic environment. A key provision of the Clean Water Act says that the Corps cannot authorize these permits if they cause more than minimal individual or cumulative adverse effects to the aquatic ecosystem.

The Corps contends that they were conducting a cumulative impact analysis of shoreline modifications to determine whether their permits pass that test, but the process has not been transparent. It is unclear what the nature and scope of the analysis was, or if a threshold is being determined to indicate how much shoreline armoring is too much.

The Corps has been clear on one issue, though. With the recent publication of their final draft regional conditions, the Corps is proposing to authorize another five years of streamlined shoreline modifications. By doing so, the Corps is effectively declaring that loss of critical shoreline habitat passes the Clean Water Act test, and is not causing more than minimal adverse cumulative impacts.