By Jennifer Sutherst

Project Watershed has filed a natural resource violation complaint with the province against the Town of Comox for the work they are undertaking along Lazo Road in the Point Holmes area.

The town has chosen to install rip-rap (large angular rocks) to address erosion taking place along the shoreline, and to make room for a three-meter wide shoreline trail. We believe this treatment will destroy an important remnant area of sensitive Coastal Sand Ecosystem and will be ineffective in the long-term.

Erosion-control structures such as bulkheads, seawalls and rip-rap, are known as hard armouring and have been shown to cause a loss of natural shoreline ecosystems, damage vital shoreline habitat and exacerbate erosion problems on adjacent properties.

Hard armouring amplifies the energetic forces of the waves that come into contact with it, whereas a natural, gradually sloping beach will absorb the energy of the waves.

You can read more about Comox shoreline erosion and its causes, and other concerns over the town’s rip-rap project at Cape Lazo here and here.

The accelerated erosion in the Point Holmes area is the result of a domino effect of hard armouring that started when the CVRD buried a sewer pipe beneath the Willemar Bluffs in the mid-1980s. This initial disturbance destabilized the natural processes of erosion and accretion from longshore currents and wind that shape the landforms such as spits, dunes, beaches and sand bars.

Local property owners began to experience erosion issues and successfully sued the CVRD for damages. In order to halt this erosion rip-rap was installed below the Willemar Bluffs. Soon after, other beaches began to erode and private property owners to the north of the bluffs began to lose shoreline. They in turn also began to install rip-rap to save their properties.

Now, the popular Cape Lazo/Point Holmes beach has started to suffer from erosion during more frequent and intense winter storms, a trend which is likely to continue as we experience the impacts of climate change.

Another consequence of this work being undertaken by the town is that the remaining natural dune vegetation in the area will be significantly reduced or lost due to the stabilizing effect of the rip-rap armouring. This will promote the establishment of shrubs and then trees over herbaceous dune plants. Species present at the site such as Silver Burweed and Beach Dunegrass will likely diminish in extent.

Given the high level of soil disturbance associated with the work, Scotch Broom and other invasive plants will likely become dominant in many places.

Rip-rap armouring of shorelines in our region also impacts the marine ecosystems. In particular, the beach areas shorten and become steeper which reduces the area available to beach spawning fishes (known as forage fish), and decreases the availability of forage fish to salmon, seabirds and other marine species.

The State of Washington recognizes that hard armoring destroys sensitive shorelines and has an incentive program to help landowners remove hard armouring and replace it with Green Shore projects.

Green Shore projects imitate natural systems and confer many benefits including: shoreline stability, improving the habitat for fish and other wildlife, improving access for swimming and other water activities, offer a more natural aesthetic, and can save a significant amount of money.

The Town of Comox has stated that they are using a blending of ‘Green Shore methods’ but no Green Shore project would include the installation of rip-rap along one of the last remaining sand dune areas in our region where the greatest amount of natural dune vegetation is located.

Based on the information that has been provided to Project Watershed, the Town of Comox does not currently have a permit to undertake this work on Crown land. We have made multiple requests to the provincial government to clarify whether or not they require such a permit, but have received no response to date.

We believe that permits and an adequate public review processes are required and in the interim we have filed a natural resource violation complaint against the town and the contractor undertaking the work. Extensive damage has already been done to the area since work started at the end of June.

This area is one of two locations in the entire Georgia Basin where wind-formed backshore dunes are known to occur, and the only place on Earth where Garry Oak – Shore Pine – Sand Dune communities occur.

Jennifer Sutherst is the estuary coordinator and staff biologist for Project Watershed. She wrote this article on behalf of the Project Watershed  board of directors: Barbara Wellwood, Bill Heath (biologist), Bill Heidrick, Brian Storey, Dan Bowen, Don Castleden, Paul Horgen (biologist) and Tim Ennis (biologist).

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