By Scott Andrews
For the last decade and a half, I and other Skagit residents have urged Skagit County to address sea level rise planning in its Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) update. Some of these efforts have been covered in previous Skagit Scoop articles. Most recently, as it became clear that the County’s SMP update would not include sea level rise (SLR) planning, many began to push for an alternative.
If the Plan update was too far along to add SLR without significantly delaying its adoption, the County could seek a grant available from the Washington Department of Ecology to study SLR in Skagit and develop an amendment to the SMP.
This summer it seemed the County had heard us. A grant application to the Department of Ecology was drafted and ready for submission. At the last minute, submission of that application was halted. It appears the County will not pursue efforts to amend the Shoreline Master Plan to address the impacts of SLR anytime soon.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Skagit County has the largest area of any County in Puget Sound at risk for inundation from sea level rise. The low-lying lands of the Skagit and Samish deltas stand out on projected SLR maps of the Sound. Threats include damage to homes, roads and other infrastructure, loss of estuarine wetlands critical to salmon and shorebirds, and loss of agricultural lands.
Some of the biggest problems are the dikes along the marine and river shorelines of the lower Skagit and Samish Rivers. As the sea rises against the dikes, the shoreline is trapped and cannot migrate inland. Habitat outside the dikes will be lost, drowned by the rising seas. Agricultural lands inside the dikes in lower areas will become unfarmable due to increased salinity and higher water tables. Studies and planning are needed soon to guide future actions.
State Now Requires Climate Planning, But…
In 2023, the Washington Legislature passed HB 1181 requiring updates under the Growth Management Act (GMA) to add a new “climate element”. This includes resilience (addressing the impacts of climate change) and reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. The bill also has a provision requiring the Department of Ecology to develop new guidelines for future Shoreline Master Plans to address sea level rise. The new GMA guidelines apply to plan updates that are due from Skagit County in June of 2025.
These are broad requirements, potentially in a number of areas from transportation, to energy efficient housing codes, to general land-use planning, to reducing emissions and building climate resilience. There may be a potential pathway to address SLR through the comprehensive plans under GMA, but it is not as direct and targeted as dealing with it in SMPs that are policies and regulations specific to the management our shorelines.
Unfortunately, while HB 1181 applied to the GMA updates coming due soon, it did not apply to the shoreline updates that were already in process. These will only be a state requirement in the next round of updates. For Skagit County that is in 8-10 more years. The current update now under Ecology review was due 2 years ago. It could be said, since the SMP update before that was never actually adopted, Skagit County is a decade past due for a Shoreline Master Plan update.
The Longer We Wait, The More Costly
The longer we wait to address sea level rise, the harder and more costly it will be. I contacted Ecology and was told that had an application been submitted it was likely it would have been awarded in the range of $250K.
So why did the County decide not to pursue a grant on SLR from Ecology? I put that question to County Director of Planning and Development Services Jack Moore and received the following answer:
“We are looking at a different grant to address climate resiliency in conjunction with our comprehensive plan update.”
It appears these grants are from the WA Dept of Commerce. It is my understanding the current focus is Central Puget Sound. So, it is uncertain if Skagit will be awarded funding this round. If they are, the climate planning will be much broader than a Shoreline Master Plan update to address sea level rise.
It is understandable that the most immediate climate planning effort is the one that State law now says must be addressed in comprehensive plans under the GMA by 2025. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the County had a grant application ready to submit and instead punted dealing with sea level rise 10 years or more into the future. Our communities are already experiencing increased flooding due to sea level rise.
So What Do We Do Now?
Whether advocating to address sea level rise as part of the GMA update over the next two years, or pushing for an amendment to the Skagit SMP on sea level rise, it may be time for citizens of Skagit County to step in and do the needed work planning for a future facing rising seas and making the difficult decisions needed to build a resilient future along the marine shorelines of the beautiful and dynamic place we live.
Scott Andrews has lived in Skagit County for 22 years. For most of that time he managed shoreline and other environmental programs for the Swinomish Tribe. He currently works for Audubon Washington, the state office of the National Audubon Society.
Photos courtesy of the Town of La Conner