Updating Shoreline Master Programs to address Sea Level Rise

By Nicole Faghin

Washington State boasts 3,000 miles of coastline dotted with over 9,000 homes and critical infrastructure valued at more than $5.25 billion. The state’s Shoreline Master Programs (SMPs) play an important role in managing the land and environment affecting these resources. As we face increased storms and coastal flooding, we need to ensure our goals, policies, and regulations address planning for and accommodating future conditions.

Starting in 2019, cities and counties in Washington State will begin to periodically update their SMPs. This may be an opportunity for communities to explore ways to incorporate sea level rise into these planning and regulatory documents. The question is where to start with this effort, and how should this issue be raised?

On August 2, the Puget Sound Climate Preparedness Collaborative, with the support of the Washington Department of Ecology and the Shoreline and Coastal Planners Group, sponsored a sea level rise workshop to begin this conversation. Participants included staff from federal, state and local agencies, sovereign tribal nations, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and academia.

The Puget Sound Climate Preparedness Collaborative was created to enhance coordination and improve the outcomes of climate change preparedness efforts in the Puget Sound region, with emphasis on the intersection of climate change impacts on public sector responsibilities (e.g., economic and community resilience, infrastructure, natural resource management, public health, hazard mitigation, etc.). Participating organizations (to date) include multiple local, county, and tribal governments in the Puget Sound region as well as regional public agencies like the Puget Sound Regional Council, Washington Sea Grant, and the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

A starting point for all planners is to develop an understanding of how sea level rise might impact their community. At the workshop, participants learned about the latest developments in sea level rise for Washington State. The Washington Coastal Resilience Project (WCRP) recently released localized projections based on a probabilistic model for 171 areas along the entire Washington coastline. The 2018 report detailing this study updates prior sea level rise information for the state from 2008 and 2012.  A presentation detailing the significance of sea level rise and these new projections is found here, with a description of how to choose the appropriate local sea level rise projections found here.

King County presented findings from an interdepartmental effort to develop a county-wide strategy to address sea level rise. The county found the need to go beyond simply updating SMPs. They recognized a need to not only update policies and codes for shoreline development but also strengthen requirements in coastal floodplains, commit to updating maps and data to incorporate sea level rise and begin educating shoreline residents about sea level rise implications.

Participants from the August workshop broke into smaller groups to discuss a wide range of issues. These included:

  1. Understanding public interest in addressing sea level rise risks
  2. Approaches to managing a dynamic process such as sea level rise
  3. Outreach, education and risk communication ideas
  4. Actions best suited to SMPs versus other regulatory frameworks
  5. Regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to address sea level rise

A write-up from the workshop with notes from these breakout sessions can be found here.

Meanwhile, the Department of Ecology is currently developing a set of recommendations for communities on how SMPs can address sea level rise. These recommendations are based in part on the 2017 Ecology study on how local SMPs currently address sea level rise. This new set of recommendations will be released in early 2019. 

For more information about the workshop, the Puget Sound Climate Preparedness Collaborative and the King County Climate Strategies, contact Lara Whitely Binder, [email protected], 206-263-0825. For other sea level rise information including if you are interested in joining the APA Climate Adaptation Workgroup, contact Nicole Faghin, [email protected], 206.685.8286.

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