CAO science must be applicable to the San Juans | Guest Column


An open letter to the San Juan County Council:

At one time, the Best Available Science told us only that the earth was flat and that it rotated around the sun. This was based on limited observations without correct scientific study.

Unfortunately, we have a similar situation facing San Juan County today. It is of the utmost importance that as legislators you maintain the independence of science from policy pressures. This is the only way to ensure legitimacy and quality of science.

You are being asked to judge the reasonableness of a new Critical Area Ordinance, which is supposed to be based on Best Available Science. Your decision will have far-reaching consequences on the quality of our lives with unforeseen economic consequences. It is important you have a full understanding of the Best Available Science being used to validate the need for the new and longer buffer zones.

As a professional geotechnical engineer, I have owned and operated a consulting firm for 35 years providing geotechnical, environmental and wetland studies on thousands of Puget Sound projects. For the last 20 years, as a resident of San Juan County, I have been providing studies on our islands. Most of the local projects have been for slope and bank stability.

Let me first address bank stabilization, as this seems to be the reason for a lot of misinformation being circulated. Based on my years of experience with hundreds of bank-stabilization projects, a natural rock embankment can be constructed on the shoreline that will perform for decades without any adverse affect on the shoreline environment. If you so desire, I can show you several of these rockeries that have performed as designed. They also blend in with our bedrock shorelines.

A properly constructed rockery placed at or above the high tide line will not adversely affect the movement of terrestrial insects onto the shoreline, or fish forage zones. All of the Best Available Science is based on the Puget Sound area, which is geomorphically different than the islands’ bedrock shorelines.

Most of our San Juan County shorelines are subjected to high impacts due to wind and wave action. In these areas, low-impact stabilization methods will not work; they will be destroyed by the high impacts on the shoreline. Low-impact stabilization will only work in areas not subjected to high impacts such as bays and inlets.

The other area of concern I would like to discuss is the prescriptive buffers that are being suggested. The arbitrary buffers have little value in protecting functions and values of critical areas. The Best Available Science cited and referenced does not provide the scientific conclusions to validate the reasons being offered for these new buffers in San Juan County. The buffers we have had in place for years have worked. In all my years on the island, I have not observed adverse impacts to our critical areas.

Maintaining the independence of science from policy pressure ensures legitimacy and quality of studies. Scientific studies can only be credible by rigorous peer review. Scientists agree that in the absence of monitoring, a project may be rendered invalid.

Most of the Best Available Science that is available is devoid of any long-range monitoring and in many cases performed by organizations that have a bias toward the end result: more restrictive covenants. Also, almost all of these studies are performed in the Puget Sound area. These studies are not applicable to our islands.

— Robert Levinson, P.E., is a professional geotechnical engineer and a master gardener. He lives on San Juan Island.

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