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Sea Level Rise: A Challenge for Washington’s Coastal Communities

April 28, 2014  by  Carol Tobin
Category:  Climate Change

Sea Level Rise: A Challenge for Washington’s Coastal Communities

Coastal communities throughout the world face significant challenges with rising sea levels. Increases in atmospheric temperatures cause ocean water to expand and land ice to melt. Rising sea levels coupled with increased severity and intensity of storms lead to increases in coastal inundation and erosion. In Washington State, sea level projections estimate a middle range rise of about 2.6 inches by 2030, about 6.5 inches by 2050, and about 24 inches by 2100.[i] Although our situation is nowhere near as dire as low-lying Florida’s, rising sea level is a major concern for cities along Puget Sound as well as for our Pacific Coast communities. Only a few inches of sea level rise can make a difference in flooding associated with increased rainfall and more intense wind, storm surge, and tides.

Challenges Posed by Sea Level Rise

Some of the risks of rising sea levels include:

  • More frequent flooding events, including storm surges and extreme high tides

  • Damage to low-lying infrastructure in coastal communities (such as wastewater treatment facilities)

  • Disruption of port and harbor facilities and low-lying transportation networks

  • Increased inundation and flooding of low-lying coastal lands, including farmland

  • More potential bluff erosion and landslides, resulting in property damage and potential human casualties

  • Loss of beach and nearshore habitat and resulting effects on fisheries resources

  • Drainage problems.

Washington Communities and Sea Level Rise

In Washington State, the Department of Ecology (DOE) is the primary agency that is working on climate issues and has responsibility for the oversight of shoreline management. DOE has been leading the charge on this issue, along with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, Washington Sea Grant, and other partners. DOE’s webpage on Sea Level Rise and Coastal Hazards brings together many useful reports, resources, and mapping and visualization tools.

Several Washington communities have begun to factor sea level change into their comprehensive planning and public works programming. Olympia has studied the impacts of sea level rise on the downtown and infrastructure and has been working to address inundation of Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake shorelines and pipe backflow flooding. Sea level rise is addressed in the city’s recently adopted shoreline master program and in the current comprehensive plan update.

Seattle has mapped areas that are most vulnerable to sea level rise. King County has assessed the vulnerability of major wastewater facilities to flooding from sea level rise and has included adaptation policies in its Strategic Climate Action Plan (2012). The Gorst Watershed Subarea Plan, prepared by Bremerton and Kitsap County, recommends adaptation measures to account for sea level rise in the design of buildings and impervious areas, as well as roadway, flood management, and utility facilities. Also, a proposed mitigation measure could require land use permit applicants along Sinclair Inlet to conduct a sea level rise adaptation analysis.

What Can Local Jurisdictions Do?

Planning for sea level rise is a multi-step process just like any planning process. The first step is to identify an overall planning process appropriate for the community. Next, the community needs to identify its vulnerability to the impacts from rising seas. Once the vulnerable aspects of the community are known, then an adaptation strategy can be developed with specific action plans. Finally, implementation measures can be designed to specifically target the vulnerable locations and facilities.

Communities can design implementation measures to address sea level rise through their planning processes, regulatory tools, capital investments and incentives, and through local leadership.

Planning Tools

In Washington, local governments including Olympia and King County are starting to consider sea level rise in their comprehensive plans, shoreline master programs, climate action plans, hazard mitigation plans, and other functional plans. Recommendations may involve limiting new development in highly vulnerable coastal areas and promoting new sustainable development in appropriate non-vulnerable and upland areas. Planners can use maps showing affected shoreline areas, FEMA floodplain maps, visualization tools, and guidance manuals.

Regulatory Approaches

Local governments can use many existing regulatory tools to accomplish their goals. Critical areas ordinances and shoreline regulations, which limit development in sensitive waterfront areas and include setbacks and buffers, are among the most useful tools for Washington communities to mitigate and adapt to sea level rise. Other tools include: zoning and overlay zones; subdivision and clustering regulations; building codes and resilient design; floodplain regulations; and rebuilding restrictions. Favoring soft-armoring, green techniques over traditional “hard” shoreline protection, such as seawalls and dikes, can help to minimize impacts of sea level rise. Rolling coastal management/rolling easement ordinances are another option.[ii]

Spending Tools and Incentives

Through local capital improvement programs, governments can invest in appropriate infrastructure that is designed and located to take sea level changes into account so that the public investment will not be lost. The Port of Bellingham, which developed a waterfront redevelopment project design that incorporates sea level rise, is an example of this strategy. This involved raising the site two to four feet to anticipate future conditions and protect the port’s investment in its new facilities.

When funds are available, local governments, special districts, and nonprofit organizations can purchase property at risk from flooding and other natural hazards, including fragile habitat areas, and preserve it as open space, parks, and conservation areas. Conservation easements can be used to restrict development for either compensation or tax benefits.

Other incentives can include tax reductions based on the restricted use value of property and the transfer of development rights to upland parcels.

Leadership Opportunities

Local governments can play a leadership role in developing a coordinated approach to mitigation and adaptation associated with sea level rise. As a starting point, local governments should designate a lead department or central office to coordinate climate change programs and address sea level rise. Another key strategy is to establish an internal working group comprised of representatives from the main government departments with responsibilities likely to be impacted by sea level rise. The City of Shoreline created an interdepartmental sustainability team along these lines to implement its sustainability strategy. Communication and coordination with the broader community is also essential, using advisory committees, public-private partnerships, public meetings and workshops, and regional collaboration.

Concluding Thoughts

Andy Haub, Olympia Public Works Water Resources Director, who has been working on Olympia’s leading edge program on sea level rise for many years, offers some insightful observations. Starting in 2007, the Public Works Department has developed annual work plans that respond to climate change considerations. One of the city’s strategies involves taking the overwhelming issue of climate change/sea level rise and breaking it down into smaller, basic steps that can be addressed incrementally over time. Each year, Public Works staff meets with the city council to review progress and approve the annual work program. Communication and community education are essential to Olympia’s success. Also, the city holds a yearly community forum that typically attracts about 100 people. One of the takeaways from Olympia’s experience is that the city has learned how vulnerable to flooding areas like Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake are under current conditions, even without a rise in sea level. This may be a useful lesson for other coastal communities.

MRSC is interested in hearing from jurisdictions that have been working on sea level rise issues. Please comment on this blog or contact me at

Resources for More Information
Additional resources will be available soon on MRSC’s Climate Change webpage. Thank you to Jamie Mooney and Nicole Faghin, Washington Sea Grant, University of Washington, and Andy Haub, City of Olympia, for assistance with this article.

[i] Sea Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future, National Research Council, 2012 - Full report and Report in brief.

[ii] Rolling coastal management and rolling easement ordinances combine different land-use regulations to ensure that coastal development does not impede the natural inland migration of coastal resources.

 Sea Level Rise Indicator Pole, San Francisco, courtesy of Matt Richardson

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Carol Tobin

Carol served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants and wrote about a wide variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.



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