Better Ground

Rivers, Creeks & Streams

The veins of our lands.

Our region’s streams and rivers used to be bordered by water-loving trees and thickets of native shrubs. This vegetation plays a crucial role in our ecosystems, but it’s vanished along many parts of our waterways as development continues to change the landscape. 

We can help restore our land’s rugged beauty by replenishing river and stream banks with native plants, shrubs and trees. We call this work “riparian restoration.” Removing invasive species, like knotweed or blackberry bushes, also helps restore the natural function of our environment over time and provides benefits for all who depend upon our streams and rivers. 

Riparian restoration projects are a large part of our job, and your District likely offers programs and services to help rural and urban landowners protect the health of creeks, streams, rivers and wetlands by enhancing and restoring nearby vegetation, or the “riparian buffer.” Your District may also offer financial incentives, as well as project design and implementation services to qualified property owners.

What’s so important about riparian restoration?

Fish habitat

As dying or uprooted trees fall into the stream, their trunks, root wads, and branches slow the flow of water. Large snags create fish habitat by forming pools and riffles in the stream. Riffles are shallow gravelly sections of the stream where water runs faster. Many of the aquatic insects that salmon eat live in riffles. Salmon also require riffles for spawning. They use pools for resting, rearing, and refuge from summer drought and winter cold.

Wildlife habitat

Over 80 percent of all wildlife species in western Washington use riparian areas during some part of their life cycle. Riparian vegetation provides food, nesting, and hiding places for these animals. Unfortunately, forested riparian areas account for the smallest percentage of forest land in Washington.

Bank stabilization and water quality protection

The roots of riparian trees and shrubs help hold streambanks in place, preventing erosion. Riparian vegetation also traps sediment and pollutants, helping keep the water clean.​

Food chain support

Salmon and trout, during the freshwater stage of their life cycle, eat mainly aquatic insects. Aquatic insects spend most of their life in water. They feed on leaves and woody material such as logs, stumps and branches that fall into the water from streambanks. Standing riparian vegetation is habitat for other insects that sometimes drop into the water, providing another food source for fish.

Thermal cover

Riparian vegetation shields streams and rivers from summer and winter temperature extremes that may be very stressful, or even fatal, to fish and other aquatic life. The cover of leaves and branches brings welcome shade, ensuring that the stream temperature remains cool in the summer and moderate in the winter. Cooler, shaded streams have less algae and are able to hold more dissolved oxygen, which fish need to breathe.

Flood control

During high stream flows, riparian vegetation slows and dissipates floodwaters. This prevents erosion that damages fish spawning areas and aquatic insect habitats.

Waterfront Living Basics

Puget Sound’s iconic shoreline is something we all get to enjoy, whether we own property that has it or not. That’s why it’s in our best interest to take good care of it in the best way we can. Below are some resources that will help.

What to consider when building on the waterfront or buying shoreline property:

Seek expert advice prior to purchasing a shoreline property or building a new home.

Things to keep in mind when developing a property:

Frequently Asked Questions:

The answer to this question depends on your specific site conditions and should involve a site assessment by a shoreline specialist.  If your home is not directly at risk, then it is likely the answer will be “no” – there will be little reason to invest in expensive shoreline interventions such as a bulkhead.  In fact, it will be difficult to get new shoreline armor permitted if it does not directly protect a primary structure such as a home.  Ideally, your shoreline exhibits the typical slow, natural erosion process that supports coastal habitat and functions in Puget Sound.  Whatever the outcome of your shoreline assessment, you will want to make certain that you are not contributing to (or accelerating) erosion problems inadvertently.  Your property management decisions can cause unintended problems with drainage or slope instability.  Understanding how best to manage water and vegetation on your shoreline will limit erosion on your waterfront.

As a basic rule, you benefit the most by keeping as much native vegetation (trees, shrubs and groundcovers) as possible on your waterfront (and on your property as a whole).  Layers of vegetation provide significant water management and slope stabilization services.  Instead of clearing your property and putting in a large lawn to the water’s edge, limit the extent of clearing to the area that you will actually use.  If trees are blocking your view, hire tree care professionals such as certified arborists to prune your trees. You can also plant additional native trees and shrubs in the unused areas of your property to improve water management and slope stability around your home. 

Try the International Society of Arborists, Pacific Northwest Chapter, for certified tree care professionals.

Try the Washington Native Plant Society for year round local sources for Pacific Northwest native plants.

Water often has a huge impact on slope stability.  You want to be certain that your shoreline drainage strategy or irrigation systems are not leaking or contributing to bank instability or erosion.  Drainage management above shoreline slopes can be complex, so we typically recommend using professional guidance to assess and develop a water management strategy that is appropriate for your property.  

Some things to keep in mind: if you have any pipe systems (tight lines, subsurface drains, French or curtain drains, etc.), know exactly where they are.  Monitor them several times each year for leaks or breaks, so you don’t soak extra water into a slope or bluff unintentionally.  Remember that our “natural drainage management systems” are incredibly valuable: our native vegetation provides an incredible service with regard to water management.  Layers of trees, shrubs and groundcovers will intercept, slow down, take up, and evapotranspire rainfall on your property, thus decreasing the amount of runoff that you need to manage.  In contrast, large paved or roof areas and big lawns actually create extra water that you will have to manage in order to avoid contributing to erosion or even slope instability.  

Yes, there are bulkhead alternatives and they are being used more and more often around Puget Sound. When deciding how you will respond to erosion on your waterfront, you will want answers to the following questions… 

  • First, are you certain that you truly need to do something? 
  • Is erosion posing a direct risk to your home, or is it part of the natural process of coastal change and something you can live with? 
  • Why is erosion happening? Is it natural or is it caused by vegetation and drainage management practices?

Is it possible to change upland management before modifying your shoreline? This could be a significantly less expensive and less complex process – as well as better for your property and for the overall health of the Puget Sound. 

Before you make a decision, seek unbiased guidance from a shoreline professional – not just a bulkhead installer.  When possible, consult several coastal professionals before you decide how to respond to erosion on the waterfront.  

If an intervention is necessary to protect a critical structure such as your home, you will also want to find out if bulkhead alternatives are feasible for your specific property.  Site conditions will determine the options available for your unique section of the marine shoreline. 

Characteristics such as bluff conditions, bank height, exposure to open water and wind energy, the surrounding shoreline context, upland conditions, and many other factors determine which options make sense for stabilizing a shoreline.  Again, seek unbiased professional guidance before making a decision.  Learn about the alternatives, their appropriateness for your site, and the timeline involved.  Taking time to learn all you can may save you thousands of dollars in the long run. 

If your shoreline armor can’t be safely removed, you can still contribute to a healthy Puget Sound. 

  • Start with shoreline vegetation: wherever possible, plant natives species that will overhang the shoreline armor and drop food such as insects into the water below. You can select lower-growing species for important view areas, and larger shrubs or trees for the edges.  Remember that birds, insects, and many mammals share the shorelines with us – and with all the sea creatures.
  • Be sure to properly maintain your septic system.
  • Avoid the use of fertilizers and chemicals along Puget Sound’s sensitive shorelines. Landscaping with native plants eliminates the need for fertilizers.

WSU’s Shore Stewards program has a great guide full of additional tips that can be downloaded from the link below or picked up at their office in downtown Shelton:

WSU Shore Stewards – Guide for Shoreline Living

Waterfront impacts vary depending on the specific context of each property, but the cumulative impact of shoreline armor has led to declines in quality habitat for many Puget Sound species.  The type and number of impacts depend on the form of armor involved and the nature of the property.  Potential (and commonly observed) impacts include:

Erosion, which affects

  • The area of dry beach at high tide
  • The area available for recreation
  • Upper beach and backshore
  • Wave reflection, which can undermine the stability of shoreline armor over time
  • Natural retreat of the shoreline, which narrows the remaining available beach
  • Connections between the water and land, which makes access difficult for people and for wildlife

Wildlife, such as

  • The amount of accumulated driftwood and logs and beach wrack (shells, seaweed, etc.) left on the beach at high tide line
  • Available forage fish spawning habitat (herring, sand lance, and surf smelt)
  • The quality of riparian (shoreline vegetation) functions, such as food delivery, wood recruitment, and shelter

Sediment, such as

  • The delivery and reduction of the available sediment moving along the shoreline in the local “drift cell” or littoral cell
  • Drainage patterns to the beach
  • Sediment delivery and transport, which affects the availability of materials that build Puget Sound beaches
  • Sediment movement along the shoreline, which causes localized erosion down-drift