For those who live along the river, the idea of having a boat dock can be attractive. However, specific laws, rules and procedures go into installing a boat dock, and it’s important to be aware of the process, especially for those living adjacent to federally managed shorelines.

For example, most of the shoreline on Lake Wallula (the reservoir behind McNary Dam) is federally managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Walla Walla District. In 2012, the Walla Walla District developed a plan, the McNary Shoreline Management Plan, to properly balance environmental stewardship, protection of cultural resources, and the public's desire for recreation.

“It’s kind of a unique situation in that it’s the only area we have in our area of responsibility where there are private docks on these public lands, which is pretty cool. It’s not unique in the United States though. It’s actually quite common,” Rodney Huffman, Chief of Real Estate for the Walla Walla District Corps of Engineers said.

Environmental effects

While boat docks may seem innocuous, development along the shoreline can pose problems from an environmental perspective. Lawns and artificial structures can interfere with wildlife habitat, limiting nesting opportunities for birds, causing erosion, or providing improper shade along the river’s edge.

A natural shoreline might have trees and shrubs providing dappled patches of shade where young salmon can find food and enjoy the cover and cooler water.

This natural covering is very different from the shade created by a dock, which can provide ideal hiding spots for predators. Ambush predators like bass often use shadows created by docks and pilings to hide before darting out to eat small fish, like young salmon.

Because some docks and other structures pose a problem to the Corps’ mission of environmental stewardship and hamper recreational access to the river, the shoreline management plan comes into play.

“Ideally we would offer both the opportunity for land owners to have the docks and the access that they would like, but also at the same time try to keep the environmental consequences in mind for fish and wildlife,” Brad Trumbo, Biologist in Environmental Compliance for the Walla Walla District, said.

There are rules applicants must follow when applying to build a boat dock. For example, docks must allow for at least 50 percent light penetration, using grating with minimal floats underneath to avoid creating hiding places for predators.

“On pillars and posts that are used to hold docks in place, if someone isn’t using an auger type system and chain which holds it underwater, we ask for cones up top because that stops birds from landing on it and perching and basically using that as their line of sight to pick off young salmonids or adults. And then there are certain materials that are more environmentally friendly,” Damian Walter, Wildlife Biologist for the Walla Walla District, said, commenting on the use of certain metals over pressure-treated woods which may release leachates and affect water quality.

Private use of public lands

Even though some of the people who live along the shoreline can apply for private docks, the land along the shoreline is still public land and is open to public access. A homeowner cannot, for example, mow the land around the dock without permission, clear vegetation, or add fences or decorative features. The land should not look like private land. Those who are out recreating are allowed to walk across federally managed shorelines freely.

“If you have a picnic table, or you have a chair, for that day, yeah that’s fine. But just take it off at the end of the day and bring it back on your property … that land is open to the public and they need to be able to go back and forth. And if somebody were to pull up near the shoreline, they have a right to be there and so just have that professional courtesy that you have with all your neighbors, that’s all we ask,” Walter said.

From an environmental perspective, the shoreline is crucial riparian habitat for a variety of species. While landscaping may seem like a good idea from a property value perspective, it could wind up harming the species who depend on that land as a corridor to reach food and shelter.

In addition to concerns for fish and wildlife, the Corps is also responsible for managing and preserving historically significant resources such as archaeological sites. The shoreline behind the McNary Dam contains numerous sites that are important to various tribes including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Yakima Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Nez Perce Tribe. These resources are similarly protected by federal law and are carefully considered when deliberating on a new dock approval under the McNary Shoreline Management Plan.

“We might have a different goal or management objective for that land, and it may not be putting a lawn on it. It might be for wildlife habitat for instance, because critters gotta have a place to live too. And so we do run into those situations, where [homeowners] think they’re doing the right thing, but it might be actually kind of in opposition to what the agency’s goals are for those lands,” Huffman said.

Within the permit

“Advice to homeowners: read your permit. That’s really the first thing. And when you have questions, ask the natural resource ranger what that permit says and what their expectations are,” Huffman said.

The most important thing a homeowner can do is take the time to read all the way through the permit and become familiar with what they can and cannot do. Familiarizing yourself with the permit can go a long way towards avoiding misunderstandings in the future.

“The biggest challenge we have is where people have done things that are in direct conflict with their permit and that puts them at risk to lose their boat dock permit. Because if they don’t follow the rules, we can’t reissue a boat dock permit. So that’s where we get into problems is when people are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which kind of ties our hands as to how we can react,” Huffman said.

The process of getting a permit to build or keep a boat dock can be time-consuming, as the Corps must evaluate the effects of each individual proposal on environmental and cultural resources. Proposals may need to be altered so that construction plans meet regulations.

Once approval is given for construction of a new dock, additional coordination is needed to make sure construction occurs within a timeframe that won’t affect the fish swimming up or down the river. Often this process can take up to a year and involves applicants paying administrative fees to cover the time spent processing requests. To ensure the most efficient outcomes for all parties it is crucial for applicants to keep clear lines of communication open with the Corps.

For those interested in learning more, information about the McNary Shoreline Management Plan and about boat dock permits can be found at Also at that link is a pamphlet outlining the guidelines for property owners who live adjacent to federally managed lands. Those with questions can contact the McNary Natural Resources Office at 541-922-2268 or the Walla Walla District Real Estate Office at 509-527-7320.