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  • Oystercatchers
  • Cascade Falls, Orcas Island
  • Hundreds of islanders arriving on the interisland ferry to speak up against coal export. Photo by Kelly Andrews
  • FRIENDS efforts work to protect San Juan County's coastal and upland wetlands
  • A large ship transits through Haro Strait in the fog  photo by Chris Teren
  • Local kids exploring the San Juans

Defending our Shorelines
Land Use
Critical Areas Ordinance Update
Shoreline Master Program Update
Safe Shipping through the Salish Sea
Endangered Species





Critical Areas Ordinance


In 1990, the Washington State legislature passed the Growth Management Act (GMA), a law requiring cities and counties to create land use plans that manage development and protect natural resources.  The GMA requires specific protections for five critical areas: wetlands; fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas; critical aquifer recharge areas; geologically hazardous areas; and frequently flooded areas.

The state does not mandate a single approach to critical areas protection; instead, the GMA allows each county or city to develop protections that meet their unique needs.  Counties may protect identified critical areas and their buffer zones by non-regulatory means (conservation easements, public education, etc.) and regulatory means (subdivision codes, clearing and grading ordinances, zoning, critical areas regulations, etc.).  However, to meet the goal of the GMA, critical areas must be managed in such a way that their values are preserved with no net loss of ecological function.

To ensure that a CAO will achieve no net loss, local jurisdictions must employ the best available science. In other words, critical areas regulations must be formulated in light of documented research.  In the absence of existing scientific data, counties must either limit development or use adaptive management--regulating the critical area and evaluating results scientifically in an ongoing experiment to determine the possible negative effects of development.


Where are we now?

In January 2013, FRIENDS filed an appeal of the County’s CAO to the Growth Management Hearings Board (Board).  On September 6, 2013, the Board issued a decision that agreed with FRIENDS on several meaningful issues. They concluded that the CAO’s buffers, which could have been as narrow as 30 feet, did not protect water quality or wildlife habitat. The Board also rejected exemptions that authorized septic systems, new agriculture, and utility transmission lines in or near wetlands, streams, and marine shorelines.

Although the Board decision addressed many of FRIENDS’ concerns, it failed to redress several others, compelling FRIENDS to appeal those issues to San Juan County Superior Court in October, 2013. That appeal seeks to eliminate the CAO’s authorized impacts to important, smaller wetlands and to bolster the shoreline “tree protection zone” so that it protects shrubs and other vegetation necessary for habitat, erosion control, and scenic shoreline views. The appeal is scheduled for hearing in February 2014. Stay tuned to learn the outcome.

You can read the ruling here.

What You Can Do:

Stay informed. Stand up for clean water, fish, wildlife and safe and responsible development.

FRIENDS Comment Letters, Reports and Presentations that relate to the CAO update:

Wetland Comment Letter

Fish & Wildlife Conservation Area Comment Letter 

General Section Comment Letter

Geologically Hazardous and Frequently Flooded Areas Comment Letter

Wetlands and You Presentations

Best Available Science White Paper



Wetlands come in various guisesswamps, marshes, bogs, ponds, and fields, to name a fewand perform invaluable services such as modulating the hydrogeologic cycle, filtering toxins from runoff, and providing prime habitat.  When rain pounds down, wetlands act to capture, store, and then gently release that rainwater into aquifers and streams.  Wetlands also moderate the sometimes fierce interface between winter waves and dry land, stabilizing shorelines and protecting both wildlife habitat and human activities on land.  Wetlands are ubiquitous; they can be small or large, in forests or along the shore.  Wetlands are rated and regulated according to their sensitivity to disturbance, rarity, irreplaceability, and the functions and values they provide.



Fish and Wildlife Habitat

San Juan Countys forested uplands, beaches, and nearshore waters are nurseries and refuges for countless species.  GMA guidelines require protection of the habitats of endangered species and of species of local importance.  Critical areas provide their benefits through a delicate balance perfected by the earth over eons.

If that functioning system is destroyed, it is extremely difficultor impossibleto recreate.  Restoration is expensive and inadequate; preservation takes foresight and commitment to our own well-being and to the future of the San Juan Islands.


fish and wildlife habitat


Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas


Aquifers are water-bearing layers of rock and soil that store water underground.  In San Juan County, more than half the population taps these aquifers for drinking water. In 2008, after significant hydrogeological evaluation, San Juan County adopted an ordinance designating all county lands as critical aquifer recharge areas (CARAs).


A CARA is defined as an area where the land contributes significantly to the replenishment of groundwater or where it is highly susceptible to contamination by pollutants from the surface.  Typical pollutants include petroleum products from automobiles and other machinery, fertilizers, and inadequately treated animal and human wastes.  San Juan County also faces the possibility of seawater intrusion into fresh water aquifers.


critical aquifer

Geologically Hazardous Areas


Geological hazards take a variety of forms: abandoned mines that could cave in, emit noxious gases, or contaminate groundwater with poisonous metals; filled wetlands whose soils would be unstable in a seismic event; coastal bluffs and other slopes subject to landslides or erosion; or tsunami-prone lowlands and inlets. For the sake of human welfare and safety, the state requires that such areas be identified and that development therein be regulated or prohibited.


hazardous area

Frequently flooded Areas


Streams overflow; rivers slow, broaden, and create new channels as they reach their mouths; storm waves surge over coastal areas.  Flood-prone areas constitute a hazard to property and sometimes to human life. However, some frequently flooded areas also serve a valuable function as part of a natural hydrological process by which flood waters are slowed and distributed over the land allowing aquifers to be recharged.








Go to San Juan Countys Critical Areas Ordinance website for more information.

For more information on human impacts, visit FRIENDS Education page.

PO Box 1344, Friday Harbor, WA 98250 Phone: (360) 378-2319, Fax: (360) 378-2324 © 2013


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