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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawsuit says Army Corps is failing to protect Puget Sound’s marine habitat

Home are fronted with concrete seawalls along Puget Sound, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Seattle. Three conservation groups have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over how it regulates seawalls, bulkheads andother hard barriers in Puget Sound. Such structures prevent erosion and protect waterfront homes, but they alter beaches and disrupt habitat for juvenile salmon, forage fish and other species. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Associated Press

SEATTLE – Three conservation groups have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying it fails to protect marine habitat because it doesn’t adequately regulate seawalls and other structures built along many stretches of Puget Sound shoreline.

Sound Action, Friends of the San Juans and the Washington Environmental Council argue in a lawsuit filed Monday that the federal agency should be evaluating many more so-called shoreline armoring projects than it currently does.

Shoreline armoring includes seawalls, bulkheads and other concrete or rock structures that prevent erosion and protect waterfront homes, but they also shrink beaches and damage spawning habitat for juvenile salmon, forage fish and other species.

The lawsuit argues that the federal agency’s definition of shoreline is too lax, allowing many potentially harmful projects built in tidal areas to escape federal review.

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman with the Army Corps in Seattle, declined Tuesday to comment on ongoing litigation.

Rock or concrete walls have been erected along about one-quarter of Puget Sound’s 2,500 miles of shorelines. Nearly a mile of Puget Sound shoreline is built up each year.

Over time, such barriers turn sandy beaches into rocky areas that aren’t welcoming to forage fish and other species, according to the Puget Sound Partnership. The state agency has set a 2020 goal to remove more barriers than what goes in.

Shoreline armoring built or rebuilt within the intertidal zone reduces the availability of nearshore habitat and alters the natural functions of the intertidal zone, harming salmon and their habitat.

“The Corps has known for years that its high tide line marker in Puget Sound is unlawfully low,” Anna Sewell, Earthjustice attorney for the groups, said in a statement.

The groups say that if the Corps, which regulates structures or work in U.S. navigable waters, used the true high tide line, more shoreline armoring projects would come under its review.

The lawsuit notes that an interagency workgroup that included the Army Corp’s Seattle District and two other federal agencies recommended changing the Corps’ tidal jurisdiction. That change would have brought about 8,600 acres of shoreline habitat under the Corps jurisdiction.

But the Corps’ leaders in January directed its Seattle District to continue using the current definition, the lawsuit says.