When Washington Sea Grant and the Washington Department of Ecology embarked on the Washington Coastal Resilience Project (WCRP) in 2016, we wanted to know how we could rapidly increase local governments’ ability to support coastal resilience to sea level rise and climate change.
The project team recognized we not only needed good science and effective state guidance-- we also needed to test out ideas for resilience planning and communication with local communities. The City of Tacoma and Island County offered to be those pilot communities, providing a larger urban environment and a more rural county, respectively, to look at what support might be needed to address coastal flooding and erosion hazards exacerbated by future conditions. This became the basis for “Objective 3” of the WCRP, and we've been working with local governments in a few ways.
Identifying the Needs
Our project team met with both City of Tacoma and Island County staff to identify issues and concerns they face or anticipate facing in the future about coastal flooding and storm surge. These first meetings focused on how impacts from sea level rise would affect the day-to-day operations and actions for Tacoma and Island County staff. Also, what kinds of sea level rise projections did staff need most, and how would they anticipate using that information?
Island County staff from Planning, Public Works and Public Health departments met with us in March to talk about issues and concerns for the county. Each department identified a range of ways in which coastal flooding currently affects their operations. Public Works staff discussed impacts to road infrastructure and drainage; Planning Department staff noted challenges issuing permits for bulkheads and erosion control measures; and Public Health staff identified concerns about saltwater intrusion on septic systems and drinking wells, among other issues. Participatory mapping of locations of these impacts for all three departments demonstrated “hot spot” areas of concern for Island County.
Our team used the information gathered from this workshop with Island County to conclude that developing a communication plan would be helpful. Staff thought it would be useful to have on-line tutorials, examples of model language to address sea level rise in policy and planning documents, fact sheets to use for communicating with the public, mapping to demonstrate potential impacts of sea level rise, and development of an expert contact list to call for questions on different topics.
Tacoma staff identified a different set of interests and priorities needing to be addressed. After conducting a Climate Risk Assessment in 2016, certain issues rose to the top of the list of concerns for Tacoma relating to impacts from sea level rise: What is the connection between Tacoma’s critical areas and sea level rise? How will sea level rise affect planning for capital facilities in the low-lying area known as the tide flats, home to Tacoma’s port and industrial area?
Bringing together staff from the City of Tacoma's Planning, Environmental Services, and Public Works departments in June, we met to discuss key issues related to steep slopes (geologically hazardous critical areas for Tacoma) and impacts from sea level rise. Very early on in the discussion, we discovered that vegetation management created much greater concern and challenge, particularly in the near term, than sea level rise. Staff noted a more relevant issue is the permit process and critical area ordinance standards for coastal flooding. We are now revising our research focus to evaluate how Tacoma’s critical areas ordinances can better address sea level rise.
On a similar note, the WCRP project team will work with Tacoma staff to look at how sea level rise should be incorporated into the city’s capital facilities planning process. Using the tide flats as our test case, we’ll work with Tacoma planners to understand how to incorporate projections for future flooding conditions into the existing planning process.
Finally, in addition to the efforts identified above, staff from both Tacoma and Island County expressed a need to address future sea level rise as it affects restoration projects. Island County staff wanted to know how to decide which restoration projects should be funded in light of how future conditions might affect a restoration site. Tacoma staff identified a need for guidance about how to maintain existing restoration projects that could become inundated. Look for a separate blog post on the restoration aspect of the WCRP next month.
Doing the Background Research
Now that we understand the needs of both Tacoma and Island County, we are on our way to identifying how we can develop resources for each community in coordination with the ongoing efforts of other aspects of the WCRP. As our “Objective 1” team continues to develop more detailed scientific information about coastal hazards, we will take that information and begin to apply it in a number of different ways:
- Develop a pilot communication plan for local governments to understand how to use new sea level rise projections and communicate about this information to the public,
- Assess the implications of sea level rise on local flood permit processes and critical areas ordinances, and
- Evaluate and incorporate sea level rise understanding and projections into a local government capital facilities planning process.
Our final step will be to take our knowledge and insights from working with our two pilot communities and make this information available to other coastal communities throughout Washington State. Objective 4 of the WCRP will use these local government experiences to create case studies, inform a Community of Practice, and communicate guidelines on building capacity for a resilient Washington State.