Better data, documentation needed to ensure consistency in public land lease rates for docks, shellfish farming and more

Mar 26, 2024

Washington shellfish are enjoyed the world over; marinas connect people with the state’s beautiful stretches of water. Both can rely on publicly owned land under the waves, through aquatic land leases. 

A performance audit published today reviewed the processes for determining the lease rates for aquatic lands, and how those processes contribute to fairness for leaseholders and the state through consistency. 

The Office of the Washington State Auditor focused on leases for water-dependent uses, such as marinas and docks, and aquaculture, such as oyster and clam farming. Auditors found that the Department of Natural Resources lacked sufficient data and documentation of how it determines rates to accurately compare all leases of either type. 

However, the department does take many steps to ensure its lease rates are consistent. More than 80 percent of the department’s aquatic leases are for water-dependent uses, and it has standardized policies and procedures to determine those rates. A particularly complex area of the process involves selecting appropriate comparisons with other shoreline parcels. 

Aquaculture leases, such as those for raising shellfish, are much less common. Auditors found the department lacks written guidance for determining these rates, and in some cases, it relies on staff’s institutional memory for consistency. A case-by-case approach gives the department more flexibility to negotiate rates for unique sections of land, but it also makes it more difficult to ensure consistency in rate setting. 

“Although there was insufficient documentation to fully determine whether current rates are set consistently, that itself is an important finding,” said State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “The state can better demonstrate consistency by completely documenting how it determines lease rates and by improving its data. Our report includes recommendations to make these improvements.” 

Aquatic land leases generated about $13.6 million in revenue in 2022. 

The full report, including summary materials and the department’s response, can be found on our website: Aquatic Land Lease Rates

Media questions: Assistant Director of Communications Adam Wilson,, 564-999-0799