U.S. communities routinely use zoning laws to control where businesses may operate in a neighborhood. Now there's a move to zone the ocean. A number of coastal states and the federal government have fledgling plans to coordinate competing uses for their off-shore waters.
The prospect of new wind-turbine farms going up within sight of popular beaches prompted interest in such plans in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. On the U.S. West Coast, the impetus has been wave and tidal energy development, but balancing competing uses for coastal waters has proved a difficult challenge.
At first glance, the Pacific Ocean looks wide open and mostly empty, but it's anything but that on a digital map the state of Oregon recently posted online. The interactive display includes some 150 layers of data about existing ocean uses and natural features.
Oregon Sea Grant fellow Todd Hallenbeck checks out prime fishing grounds on his laptop.
"There's a large area of the territorial sea that's important to fishing with the darker red colors representing some of the most important areas for each of the ports," he says, looking at the map, which lights up from Neah Bay, Washington south to the Oregon-California border. "We can turn on things like commercial shipping lanes...We can turn on some of the seabird layers that represent areas where there are seabird colonies."
Purple lines crisscross the screen. Little dots that appear along the shoreline and rocky reef areas represent seabird colonies.
All this leaves wave energy developer Justin Klure, of Pacific Energy Ventures, feeling excluded from the initial set of lines drawn on the ocean planning map.
"First blush, those maps look a little intimidating from the industry perspective," Klure says, "because the areas that they've identified are relatively small and don't align with some of the basic requirements that the industry is looking at, which is access to port, access to transmission, certain water depths."
Hallenbeck acknowledges there are challenges. "There are not a ton of areas that seem to not have something of importance in them already. So the challenge here is finding the few areas that do exist that have the least amount of conflict."
And Klure isn't giving up hope yet. It's early in the process, too early in his view to be "drawing lines in the sand." To stay with the zoning analogy, he argues for a "mixed use" approach while more data is gathered.
The planning process is moving slowly. That's creating regulatory uncertainty. It's scared off at least one ocean energy company interested in Oregon. Scotland-based Aquamarine Power closed its Oregon office this fall.
In a statement, the company expressed its hope of returning to the Pacific Northwest someday, but said it will focus on California in the meantime.
Aquamarine Power's energy generator relies on a large mechanical flap placed just below the surf. A more traditional ocean energy design uses an array of bobbing buoys. There are also new prototypes that employ pressure-sensitive airbags on the sea floor.
Groups representing the fishing fleet remain leery of such technologies and the ocean-planning process.
Ilwaco, Washington crab fisherman Dale Beasley has a hard time imagining sharing the sea with industrial energy installations. "Ocean energy and fishing are mutually exclusive. They will not be able to coexist in the same area."
Not everyone agrees with that perspective. A representative of environmental groups is more conciliatory.
"I do think there is a way through this," says Susan Allen, who directs a coalition called Our Ocean. "It has to do with the fact that Oregon is uniquely suited to deal with this. We have a long legacy of figuring out what compromises are. We are the state that pioneered...land use planning."
The ocean mapping and zoning process won't stop the West Coast's first commercial wave-energy park. Ocean Power Technologies' demonstration project near Reedsport, Oregon, has already been approved.
The company plans to launch the first of 10 massive floating wave energy generators there around the middle of this year.