Salmon stream buffers scrutinized - New strategy could mean no protection for waters too degraded

July 24, 2002 - A new strategy for protecting streams could mean an end to salmon-protecting buffer zones of trees and brush that developers are required to maintain on shorelines.

The potential change comes as communities look at new environmental studies and consider how best to preserve the streams that still can support salmon and other wildlife, said Steve Morrison, senior planner with Thurston Regional Planning Council.

"We established the buffers based on the best available science at the time," Morrison said. "Unfortunately, the information wasn't right 10 years ago."

To comply with state growth management laws, municipalities drafted environmental protection and resource conservation plans about 10 years ago. Now, most are reviewing the portions of those plans that regulate environmentally sensitive or critical areas.

Different approach

While the old plans followed a state model that called for buffers to protect streams from damage from development, Morrison said many revised plans likely will take a different approach.

After studying the impacts buffers have had on stream health over the past decade, Morrison said he's discovered despite the protection, some urban streams have become so degraded they can't support salmon or other wildlife.

So, in the future, some streams should perhaps have no buffers, Morrison said, and others that still are healthy should perhaps get larger buffers, more sophisticated protections or both.

"Some of our watersheds are pretty nice and we probably need to protect them more, and some of them aren't very good at all," Morrison said

The proposal is logical, said Olympia Master Builders executive officer Doug DeForest.

"In general, buffer zones vary from being a difficult issue to being an impossible issue," DeForest said.

The buffers generally are larger than necessary and don't particularly help the health of streams, DeForest said.

"The first 50 feet count, and after that, the buffer zones don't seem to have value," he said.

Environmentalists, however, disagree.

"Just speaking as a purist, I don't think it's a good idea," said Thurston Conservation District biologist Kim Toal.

"Unless you're talking about a creek that isn't even daylighted."

Such creeks that have been surrounded by concrete and culverts might not need buffer zones, Toal said. Beyond those obvious examples, however, who is going to decide what other creeks are no longer worthy of protection and how are they going to decide? Toal asked.

As they revise plans, municipalities would designate a buffer requirement for each stream, Morrison said. The decision should be based on the presence of salmon as well as other animals and plants, water temperature, and other features, he said.

Local streams

Streams in Lacey and Tumwater are healthy enough to still require protection, as are most Olympia streams, Morrison said. But Schneider and Moxlie creeks, both of which have significant urban development in their watersheds, might be irretrievable, he said.

Moxlie Creek's watershed is about 48 percent developed and a large portion of the creek runs through a concrete pipe, Morrison said.

"In some streams, while the most heroic efforts could be made, they'd never be as productive as other streams where we can make a bigger difference," Morrison said.

More important than a buffer is how much of a stream's watershed has been covered by roads, sidewalks, buildings and other development, Morrison said. For watersheds with as little as 20 percent development, the streams can be unlivable for salmon and other fish, he said.

Green Cove Creek

In urban areas like Olympia, some watersheds and streams are beyond saving. By eliminating buffer zones around these creeks and making them attractive to development, the still-viable streams can be better protected, Morrison said.

Green Cove Creek, for instance, still can support fish but needs more protection than a 200-foot buffer can offer, Morrison said. That might mean designating a larger buffer or taking other steps to limit development in the watershed, he said.

"We believe it's recoverable, but it's right at the brink," Morrison said.

DeForest said he agreed the change actually will improve the environment.

The web of environmental regulations that apply to development -- from requisite green space, to stream buffers, to road and sidewalk width and others -- makes it nearly impossible for builders to create housing plans with the ideal density, DeForest said.

If the proposed change for stream buffer zones could eliminate unnecessary buffers around already-dead streams, it could actually help the environment in the long run because developers could build more compactly, he said.

Officials at the state Department of Ecology haven't reviewed the proposal and therefore can't comment on it yet, spokeswoman Sandy Howard said.

Lacey is among the first municipalities to begin revising its critical areas plan. The state requires the updates be complete by the end of 2004. Lacey, however, likely won't change the 200-foot buffer it requires.

Woodland Creek

Lacey's only stream, Woodland Creek, is healthy enough to still require the buffer zone's protection, principal planner David Burns said. In fact, Woodland Creek's health is because of that buffer zone, Burns said.

"The 200-foot buffer zone is a good thing. It's working," he said.

For other streams in the area, however, the buffer zone may be too little, too late.

"Some of the streams that were really unhealthy were lost causes, and it didn't really make sense," he said.

The change in strategy doesn't mean officials are writing off the irretrievable streams, Morrison said. Planners and scientists need to find new ways to redeem these streams because buffers haven't been enough, he said.

"While we're not going to throw up our hands and walk away from streams, the buffers we apply in the next round of critical areas ordinance updates are going to look at how watersheds are different," Morrison said.


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