Whatcom County shorelines are dynamic places, both in terms of vibrant, distinct communities as well as the diversity of natural habitats. And they face increasing threats.
While we might not realize it as we visit the region’s beaches, lakes and rivers this summer, our shorelines are under mounting pressure from sea level rise, climate change-strengthened storms and haphazard development in a rapidly-growing county. Decisive measures need to be taken to protect them and ensure a balanced approach to these areas in our changing environment. This fall may be Whatcom County’s best chance to do just that.
The Whatcom County Council is updating the county’s Shoreline Management Program (SMP) which governs activities within 200 feet of any type of shoreline – seashores, lakes, rivers, streams and some wetlands. If you do the math, that’s a huge portion of our coastal home. If done well, the SMP has the ability to safeguard the shorelines that are critical both for Whatcom County residents as well as the plants and animals who live here.
Whether or not we witness it, shorelines provide us all with invaluable services. These unique areas, where land and water meet, filter toxic substances from rain runoff. They are on the front lines of protecting homes, businesses and habitat – preventing erosion and moderating the impacts from flooding and storm surges. They provide public spaces for play and learning. They support small fish, like herring, that make up the base of the salmon and Southern Resident orca food chain (which is critical, as our local herring populations at Cherry Point have been in decline).
As it is currently written, however, the SMP is not quite up to snuff. It doesn’t take climate change data into account in spite of the scientific urgency to do so, nor does it include any means of determining if our current shoreline management techniques have been successful in protecting critical shoreline functions. These are two simple, but critical elements that could save our county millions of dollars down the road.
As a rule, we know the cost of prevention is far cheaper than the cost of mitigating or repairing problems that arise. Paying for flood damage, cleaning up contaminants, building seawalls – these are all taxpayer costs that can be avoided or greatly minimized by smart planning during this shoreline planning process.
In order for the county council to improve the plan to protect our shorelines, Whatcom County residents must call upon them to do so.
Council members need to hear that taxpayers support studying the efficacy of current and future shoreline management techniques. Will our shorelines continue to provide habitat for critical species? Will they continue filtering pollution in a natural manner (the most cost effective filtration system available)? Will they continue to be safe for public access? If we aren’t at least maintaining the value of our shorelines, then the county needs to take a serious look at how we can save money and let the shorelines do the work.
Second, we need county council to take the lead on protecting Whatcom County from impacts due to the emerging climate crisis, especially with a federal government denying the reality of climate science. They need to plan proactively for foreseeable, negative impacts on the all-too-immediate horizon from climate change.
We already know the likely impacts that are projected for our shorelines – the worst being several feet of sea level rise encroaching on buildings, and powerful storms putting them in harm’s way like never before. It makes financial sense to use Whatcom County residents’ tax dollars to address, prevent or minimize damages rather than remediate later.
If the county allows some kinds of development in areas we know will have higher seas nipping at its heels, emergency measures will happen on the taxpayer’s dime down the road – and the bill will be much, much higher.
Shorelines are already stressed in many areas. There have been massive impacts to habitat from docks, shoreline armoring (seawalls or bulkheads) and over-water structures that were allowed to be grandfathered in. The SMP is our county’s best chance to step up and stop even more damage to waterways that commercial and tribal fisheries, salmon and endangered orcas can’t exist without.
We need to ask Whatcom County to save us money, to save us the heartache of losing homes and habitat to rising seas, powerful storms and poorly-planned development. Whatcom County isn’t required to reevaluate the SMP again until 2024. We can’t wait that long.
The very beaches, lakes and rivers we all love to explore with our friends and families will also play a part in protecting us from the cost – and dangers – of living in the era of climate change. This is an opportunity for Whatcom County to ensure some common-sense protections for these valuable places and our safety and financial security decades into the future.
Shannon Wright is the executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a non-profit environmental education organization based in Bellingham.