Major revisions to 14-year-old wetland rules sought

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter

June 13, 2004

Seattle, WA - Standing a few paces from a beaver dam, wetland ecologist Klaus Richter points out signs of the birds, mammals and amphibians that inhabit this near-pristine wetland and wonders how long it will last.

Richter, who works for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, isn't well known outside scientific circles, but he is one of the principal authors of a report that lays out the scientific basis for proposed ordinances that would change the way land can be developed in much of the county.

The proposals, sent by County Executive Ron Sims to the Metropolitan King County Council in February, have sparked protests from rural property owners who say they are unnecessarily restrictive and that owners should be compensated for any reduction in the value of their land.

Science has played a role in several generations of regulations in recent decades: first protecting the edges of streams and wetlands, then setting aside buffers around them, and now, if Sims' regulations are passed, adding restrictions across the entire rural landscape.

Because the state Growth Management Act requires the county to consider "the best available science" in protecting streams, wetlands, floodplains and slide-prone slopes, scientific issues are at the center of the debate over Sims' proposals, now being studied by the council's growth-management committee.

The first major revisions to the 14-year-old critical-areas ordinance would widen in some places threefold buffers required around wetlands and along streams. No development would be permitted within those buffer zones.

In rural parts of the county, landowners would be required to leave trees or other native vegetation on at least 65 percent of their land. That requirement, already in effect in Bear Creek, Issaquah Creek, May Creek, East Sammamish and parts of the Soos Creek basin, would be extended countywide.

Sims also proposes to limit buildings, pavement and other "impervious surfaces" to 10 percent of a property. The last two proposals have been dubbed "65-10."

If King County adopts those rules, it would be among the first jurisdictions in the nation if not the very first to go that far in restricting rural development.

Stricter than necessary?

Richter and his colleagues have written a two-volume, 500-page scientific review that is twice the size of the regulations themselves. The document is almost as controversial as the rules, with some opponents calling it "bogus science."

Critical scientists use more diplomatic language but say the proposed rules based on the science document are stricter than necessary.

Authors of the report say it accurately reflects a growing body of research that shows damage to streams and wetlands accompanies levels of development once thought to be harmless.

Much of that research has been done by University of Washington and King County government scientists who have helped make this region a national leader in research into the effects of development on creeks and wetlands.

Researchers have known for decades that land-clearing adjacent to streams and wetlands can have devastating consequences for fish and amphibians. More recent studies suggest that development anywhere in a watershed inflicts damage.

An amphibian paradise

A downy woodpecker lands on the ground a few feet from Richter as he points out signs of northern red-legged frogs and other amphibians flourishing in the wetland he is studying.

Known only as "Wetland 24," this amphibian paradise is in the headwaters of Struve Creek, a Bear Creek tributary northeast of Redmond.

Wetland 24 supports the second-largest number of animal species of all the wetlands Richter has studied in King County. Frogs and salamanders still find damp logs to hide under in the maturing, second-growth forest.

Development can put amphibians at risk. On the Sammamish Plateau's Beaver Lake, Richter recalls, the western toad was once so abundant "you couldn't step out of a person's house without stepping on 10 or 20 toadlets." With continued development, the toad has disappeared from the plateau.

Amphibians need both wetland and forest. Studies have shown red-legged frogs range half a mile to four-fifths of a mile from the shallow water in which they lay their eggs.

"People ask me how wide the buffer should be," Richter says. "I answer, 'It should encompass the entire home range of the animals.' If we start talking about that, we're talking half a mile to ensure healthy amphibian populations and bird populations."

That amount of habitat wouldn't be needed on every side of the wetland but would have to be somewhere.

After discussions among scientists, department managers, political appointees and Sims, the county executive proposed widening the buffer around wetlands like this one from 100 to 300 feet far less than Richter's half-mile.

Translating science into policy is more art than science. While state law requires that local jurisdictions consider science in writing regulations, it gives them wide discretion in balancing environmental protection with other goals such as building roads, accommodating population growth and providing affordable housing.

The county scientists' analysis of Sims' proposed regulations says they fall short in some ways of what science suggests should be done. Wetland buffers are narrower in urban areas where Sims wants to encourage high-density development and may be slimmed further if more than half the homes in a development meet affordable-housing standards.

Some scientists question the rationale for more restrictive buffers and the 65-10 rule.

Andy Kindig, an aquatic ecologist who consults for development interests and local governments, said the county's "best available science" document failed to consider studies monitoring the effectiveness of state-of-the-art stormwater detention ponds in large developments.

Other considerations

"We have data for them, but I see in here no indication that shows us they were considered," Kindig said. Monitoring by Kindig has shown no damage to the delicate water quality of a boglike wetland at the Trossachs development on the Sammamish Plateau. And bog cranberries which weren't found in a wetland before construction of Snoqualmie Ridge showed up in post-construction monitoring.

Richter said developer-financed monitoring was accidentally overlooked by county scientists and he would welcome discussion of it during County Council deliberations.

Kenneth Raedeke, a consulting wildlife biologist and UW research associate professor who also has done monitoring for developers, challenged the proposed 820-foot buffer around great blue heron colonies, saying some local colonies are flourishing within 100 to 200 feet of roads and buildings.

As for proposed restrictions on forest clearing, Raedeke said, "Some species benefit from cleared areas. Some go up, and some go down. It's like people that say clearcutting is habitat destruction. It's a massive alteration but it's not destruction, because there are some species that thrive in clearcuts."

With the total package of proposed restrictions, Raedeke said, "You will virtually shut down any development opportunities in King County."

Subtle changes in streams

Environmental damage caused by "impervious surfaces," such as buildings and pavement, has been extensively studied since Maryland state researcher Richard Klein reported in 1979 that sensitive fish-bearing streams are put at risk when 10 percent of the land in a watershed is covered.

Impervious surfaces are a problem because they increase flooding of creeks in the winter and depress water levels in the summer.

More recently, researchers using more sophisticated measuring tools have found problems at even lower levels of development. Christopher May, an environmental scientist at Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, and other researchers reported last year that Puget Sound's declining coho salmon were displaced by vigorous cutthroat trout in low-elevation streams when as little as 5 percent of the land is covered by impervious surfaces.

Cutthroat, once thought to be an indicator of healthy streams, turn out to be "in some respects the cockroach of the salmon family," said Gino Lucchetti, a King County government ecologist who has studied the relationship between cutthroat and coho.

Lucchetti and others have found that cutthroat fill the gap left when coho are driven out of streams by development-induced flooding that eliminates pools with slow-moving water. Cutthroat, it turns out, adapt more successfully to those changes.

Forest-clearing concerns

Some scientists believe forest clearing does even more harm to streams than does construction of homes and roads. A forest functions like a giant sponge that prevents winter flooding and retains water to keep creeks flowing in the dry summer months.

Modeling the effects of stormwater runoff in rural watersheds, King County scientists Derek Booth and Lorin Reinelt concluded in a 1993 paper that stream conditions would seriously deteriorate by the time 30 percent of the forest was cleared.

"For us, really, the discouraging realization was that the quality of these aquatic systems declined very rapidly with the first tendrils of human presence and disturbance. This came as very much a surprise to us," said geologist Booth, who is now a research associate professor at UW.

Subsequent studies using a "biotic integrity" index developed by UW Professor James Karr have shown significant changes in the abundance of bottom-dwelling insects and worms in rural creeks as low-density development occurs.

Those studies haven't been refuted by other researchers, and industry consultant Kindig said they are "not bad studies at all." But they have one flaw, he argues: They don't take into account more restrictive stormwater regulations adopted by King County five years ago.

"What most of the reports are looking at," Kindig said, "are what I would call the unmitigated condition, without stormwater detention. The objection I've got to that is that's not really the case."

But as Booth puts it, "By the time a dumb geologist like me walking the stream can see a problem, the critters long before have seen it."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or

King County's two-volume report on "best available science -




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