On Bainbridge Island, Washington, a transformation is occurring: 7.5 acres of shoreline previously starved of natural vegetation and organisms has begun to recover. Salt marsh vegetation is returning, juvenile salmon can safely swim along the banks, and the shore is reshaping itself into a gentle slope.
This environmental success story hung on one family’s decision to remove their shoreline walls rather than replace them.
The Powel family has cared for this land for nearly five decades. In 1993, they signed a conservation easement with the Bainbridge Island Land Trust (BILT) for the land to be conserved regardless of the land owner. So when the family noticed their crumbling shoreline walls, they turned to BILT for an answer. After a careful study, the property was determined to be at a low risk for erosion and the family was encouraged to remove their shoreline walls rather than replace them.
Now, for the first time in nearly 60 years, the Powel property has marine and terrestrial environments converging again. This project offers hope for the survival of intertidal coastline habitat being lost in the Puget Sound and around the nation.
“It is critical that this is happening now,” says Jim Brennan, a marine biologist from Bainbridge Island who has worked on the Powel Project for three years. “This is very important habitat for salmon and many other fishes and wildlife.”
Removing the walls will greatly expand shallow water and salt marsh areas, creating refuge and migration corridors. When walls are replaced with gently sloped native vegetation, more of the insects important to juvenile Chinook salmon will become readily available.
“Plants create shade for the intertidal habitat,” says Brennan, “They help stabilize beaches and banks, moderate erosion, sedimentation, and contaminants. They produce insects that we now know juvenile salmon, particularly Chinook, eat. So vegetation is an important function for recovery.”
Biologists and volunteers have replanted along the Powel property with pickelweed and salt grass that are adapted to the extreme conditions of a salt marsh ecosystem.
The Powel project aligns with Washington State’s salmon and shoreline restoration goals, overseen by the Puget Sound Partnership, and was partially supported by grant funds through the state’s Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund. Martha Kongsgaard, chair of the Partnership, believes the Powel Project sets the gold standard for shoreline recovery.
“This kind of a model shows what can happen when people listen to each other, get out of their desks, and come on site,” says Kongsgaard. “My hope is this project is one of a string of great stories that we can cobble together around the Puget Sound that’s going to add up to a full recovery.”
However, some private land owners raise concerns about the erosion of beaches and how removal of their shoreline walls would impact their property. Brenda Padgham, stewardship director for BILT and project manager for the Powel Project, wants these land owners to know that they have options.
“A restored shoreline could be a more resilient shoreline,” says Padgham. “Restored shorelines may not need to be maintained with heavy construction equipment and big checks written by landowners every 10 to 20 years. This project helps private land owners know that there are more options out there than the traditional ways of ‘protecting’ their property.”
In other words, a shoreline wall may not be necessary for all land owners, and the removal of shoreline walls could save them money in the future while improving habitat conditions. Padgham and Brennan hope the Powel family’s decision can be an inspiration to others.
“If you can take incremental steps, neighbor by neighbor, then I think people will start to feel more open to a dialogue [about restoration] without feeling a loss to their property rights,” says Padgham. This is an example for others to look to on how people can live along their shoreline in a way that can contribute to the overall goal of recovery.”