Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

July 22nd, 2014 by cdunagan

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.


Amusing Monday: See Spot; See Spot splash

July 21st, 2014 by cdunagan

Through the years, I’ve featured some surfing dogs in this “Amusing Monday” feature. While dogs are still surfing strong in various contests each year, I thought it would be nice to see some other doggy feats.

The first video player on this page is the Diving Dog competition at this year’s Western Regionals for the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge in Huntington Beach, Calif. The second video is the Fetch It Diving competition at the same event, which occurred on May 30 and 31.

The Incredible Dog Challenge, now in its 17th year, includes a slalom course for “pole weaving,” an agility course for large and small dogs and a freestyle flying disc event, in addition to diving and fetching. A good recap of the event is shown in the third video at the bottom of this page.

I suggest taking a closer look at some of these speeding-bullet dogs, shown in videos of the winning events. (Scroll down and click on “Western Regionals” for more options.) I understand that King TV Channel 5 will air events from the Western Regionals this Sunday at 10 a.m.

Winners from the Eastern Regionals, held in Atlanta in April, and winners from the Western Regionals will go on the compete at the National Championlship in September in St. Louis.

We can’t forget about the surf dogs. The Unleashed by Petco Surf Dog Competition was held July 13 in Imperial Beach, Calif. The page includes pictures of the winners. One of the better videos from that competition was put together by International Business Times of London.

Purina compiled some video clips to show surf dogs riding the waves at the Huntington Beach competition. Another good dog surfing video was offered by SoCal magazine.

Finally, for some high-resolution images of dogs in the surf, check out the slide show put together by The Telegraph of London with pictures by Joe Kalamar of AFP and Lucy Nicholson of Reuters.


Amusing Monday: Flushing out a Macklemore tune

July 14th, 2014 by cdunagan

It’s a serious message, but now King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division hopes their humorous approach will get people thinking about the “F word.”

The word, of course, is “flushing,” and the county was given permission to borrow Macklemore’s catchy tune from “Thrift Shop” (warning: language) to bring the message home to people: Don’t flush anything down the toilet except human waste and toilet paper. Check out the first video player to see what the creative folks came up with.

The campaign, called “Flushing Awesome,” uses music and simple cartoon videos. King County officials hope it will get the message across better than previous warnings, which seem to have had little effect.

Another video, also shown on this page, is built around the song “One (Singular Sensation)” from the long-running Broadway play “Chorus Line.”

I understand the urge to flush things and get them out of sight, but I was not fully aware of this enormous problem until 1998. That’s when Bremerton City Councilman Carlos Montgomery talked about a giant “rag ball,” 2 to 3 feet wide and 30 feet long caught in Bremerton’s sewer system. Read the full story in the Kitsap Sun, April 1, 1998.

For other great toilet tunes, including “Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes)” and “Dope in the Water,” check out the music of Steve Anderson of Portland’s Clean Water Services. You can listen to five of his sewer songs on my “Water Ways” entry from Dec. 19, 2011, which also features the holiday favorite, “O Christmas Grease.”

I’m pleased that King County is taking a light-hearted approach to the subject of flushing, but I have to hand it to Heather Graf of King 5 News, who went behind the scenes at the county’s West Point Treatment Plant to show us some stark video of why this is so important.

Says Graf: “The sign out front says nothing about this place being a landfill, but one look inside King County’s wastewater treatment plant and you’ll see most people act like it is… It’s not just gross, it’s expensive — $120,000 a year in ratepayer money just to haul all this trash to the landfill.”

Only time will tell if Macklemore and his music will help in a roundabout way to solve a messy problem for King County and other sewer operators in the region.


Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

July 7th, 2014 by cdunagan

This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past half-century.

The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.

Read “The Once & Future Alvin,” Oceanus Summer 2014.

What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature called “Alvin’s Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking creature to the next.

One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and mussels thriving without sunlight.

These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and not photosynthesis.

Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species examined and named.

The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities. The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are interviewed in this special edition.

The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.


Amusing Monday: Magician uses his acting skills

June 30th, 2014 by cdunagan

Magician Michael Carbonaro, 32, has become an outstanding television entertainer by acting as if his amazing illusions are part of ordinary life, then using hidden cameras to capture people’s surprise in the midst of impossible situations.

I first featured Carbonaro in “Amusing Monday” in April of last year after he had appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. For an Easter segment, he pretended to be a store clerk selling dehydrated baby chicks. He showed people how they could just add water to create a live bird. Check out “Magic Clerk — Easter Edition” if you don’t remember the bit.

Since then, Carbonaro has launched his own show called “The Carbonaro Effect” on the TruTV network. The show premiered in April. If anything, Michael has gotten better, I think, because of the ridiculous things he says with a straight face — and his victims just buy into his crazy stories.

In his segment on “Dehydrated Mice” (first video on this page), he tells about a “safe trap” that captures mice and dehydrates them. Someone picks up the mice each week, he explains, and takes them to a field, where they wait in their dehydrated form until the next rain allows them to run free. “I just can’t believe you’ve never seen this before,” he says as he describes the process to his unwitting victim.

One thing I like about the show’s website is that it includes videos of Carbonaro explaining what goes on behind the scenes, including the planning that goes into each idea. Look for videos called “The After Effect.”

The website also includes interviews with people who have been fooled by Carbonaro and what they think after Michael is revealed as a magician (video at right).

And if you think this whole thing is about trying to find stupid people and make fun of them, you’d be totally wrong. As Carbonaro explains in “Michael Reveals His True Identity,” he gets the most pleasure from smart people who know that what he is doing is impossible. The stupid ones are those that never notice that something strange is taking place.

First, review the original video at a sporting goods store: “Small Package Has Shocking Contents,” then review what happens after the trick is revealed in “Michael Reveals His True Identity.”

“I was so frustrated,” the woman says. “How can you not understand my question? I’m saying, ‘How?’ and you’re telling me why, and I want to know how. And I’m thinking to myself, like, ‘Does this guy not know what I’m saying?’”

Says Michael, “I’ve been dreaming about a person like you coming in here for this trick… You are amazing, because you’re smart and you come over here, like, ‘Listen to me, you idiot behind the counter.’”

Needless to say, Carbonaro’s acting skills are essential to pulling off these funny situations. He has had practice in both movies and TV. For his acting credits, see the bio on his personal website.

Options for viewing Michael’s videos include a list on YouTube and full episodes on TruTV, provided you subscribe to a provider of TruTV.

As a bonus, you need to take a look at one of Michael’s earlier bizarre performances, which he calls “Shaving Cream Dream.”


What we know and don’t know about killer whales

June 27th, 2014 by cdunagan

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam

June 23rd, 2014 by cdunagan

It seems kind of strange that we can spy on wildlife in a very personal way, thanks to modern technology.

The animals never notice the hundreds of humans peering over their shoulders via webcam. If they could know what is going on, I actually think they’d prefer the camera to the disturbance that even one person would create by crowding in that close.

It’s the time of year when many birds are active on their nests, so I thought I’d bring you some of the best videos on the web, weeding out those that are inactive or don’t have much going on right now.

The University of Montana operates two live osprey cams at part of its Montana Osprey Project. I believe the nest at Riverside Health Care Center in Missoula (shown in first video player) contains two chicks, while the nest at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo contains three chicks.The high-quality video and sound make you feel you are right there with the birds.

Alberta Conservation Association and its sponsors have set up cameras to observe three prime nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in Edmonton, Alberta. Chicks have hatched in each nest, and we can watch (in real time) the mothers taking care of their little bundles of fluff. Each bird has a story listed with the video.

Chesapeake Conservancy is in charge of an osprey cam on Maryland’s eastern shore. The live video features Tom and Audrey, who have returned to the nest after spending the winter in South America. I have seen two chicks in that nest.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, where Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station. The puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887, but they were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland. More than 50 pairs nest there. (Three live videos are set up to show the puffins.)

If you are interested in watching brown bears feeding on salmon, stay tuned for live videos from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The action should begin in July, according to information on the website. Meanwhile, you can watch recorded videos from previous times.

One of my favorite live cams is still Pete’s Pond (video player at right), a watering hole on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa. It began as a National Geographic project and is now operated by WildEarth, which features several other wildlife cams. Operators, working remotely, turn the camera to find the best action at any moment.

The Vancouver Aquarium has live cams showing:

If you’d like to see blacktip reef sharks and other fish, check out the video below from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.


Become a raindrop and learn how water travels

June 19th, 2014 by cdunagan

I’ve been meaning to visit and tell you about an interesting exhibit at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

The exhibit, called Water’s Extreme Journey, involves visitors in a walk through a maze. People become a raindrop and travel through time and space, changing forms and becoming parts of streams, lakes and wetlands.

The traveling exhibit, created by marine-life artist Robert Wyland, will be at the museum until July 20. The video on this page was created three years ago when the exhibit was in Edmonton, Alberta. I’m not sure how well the video represents the experience of the exhibit, since I haven’t been there, but it looks like a great educational event for kids and their parents.

In a description on the Harbor History Museum website, Casey Demory, program and exhibit manager, said “Water’s Extreme Journey” conforms to the museum’s goal of making education relevant to local conditions:

“The Harbor History Museum is always striving to develop ways to connect people with their community and to help educate them on the significance of living on the peninsula. The maze structure that ‘Water’s Extreme Journey’ utilizes is a fun and powerful learning opportunity that encourages guests of every age to think outside the box and interact with their environment in a new way.”

If you’ve seen this exhibit, please provide a few comments. Did you find it fun and educational? Should I take the time to visit before it’s too late?


Coast Guard seeks help in finding radio hoaxer

June 18th, 2014 by cdunagan

The Coast Guard is asking for help in tracking down one or more people who placed three emergency radio calls about two weeks ago. The calls turned out to be a hoax, but they resulted in emergency responses that cost more than $200,000.

Lilliwaup

The first call was placed on VHF-FM radio channel 14 about 11 p.m. on May 31, according to Coast Guard reports. The caller told the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service that five people were donning life jackets and abandoning the fishing vessel Bristol Maid, said to be on fire in Lilliwaup Bay in Hood Canal. You can hear a portion of the call:

 

The Coast Guard deployed two MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews from Port Angeles and sent a 45-foot response boat from Seattle. A boat crew from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office also searched the area. The search, suspended after five hours, cost an estimated at $138,000.

A similar call came in the following day about 9 p.m., reporting that two adults and a child were donning life jackets and abandoning a vessel between Hoodsport and Lilliwaup. The caller first said the vessel was Bristol Maid but later changed the name to Aleutian Beauty.

 

Again, a Coast Guard helicopter, rescue boat and a sheriff’s office boat responded, along with a tribal fisheries boat. The search was called off after more than three hours, costing about $71,000.

Coast Guard officials believe the same caller placed a third false call a day later around 10 p.m., saying a body had been found.

 

These kinds of calls must be extremely frustrating for emergency crews, who are on call around the clock to help people in distress. Personally, I would like to see this caller or callers caught and forced to explain themselves in court.

Coast Guard Capt. Michael W. Raymond, commander of Sector Puget Sound, said hoaxes are a major problem.

“The Coast Guard takes every distress call seriously,” he said. “False distress calls tie up valuable search assets and put our crews at risk. They impede our ability to respond to real cases of distress where lives may be in genuine peril.”

The Coast Guard would like to locate those responsible for the hoax, which is considered a federal criminal offense with penalties up to 10 years in jail and fines up to $250,000, along with possible reimbursement for the cost of the response. Boaters are reminded that they are responsible for radio use by their passengers.

Anyone with information about the caller or callers heard on the radio recording is asked to call the Coast Guard 13th District Command Center, (206) 220-7003. Here’s the original Coast Guard news release.


Watching the devastating decline of starfish

June 17th, 2014 by cdunagan

I went to the beach last week to see some starfish with three trained volunteers. What we found was a scene of devastation on the pier and along the beach at Lofall, located on Hood Canal in North Kitsap.

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Another infected star dangles by one arm.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

What had been a large population of sea stars, as scientists call them, were now generally missing. Those that remained were mostly dead or dying. Healthy ones were in a minority.

Sea star wasting syndrome is now clearly present on our local beaches, just as it has affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Friday, I was fortunate to be in the company of three women who knew quite a bit about sea stars. They were careful in their observations and precise in their measurements, able to provide data to a network of observers measuring the progress of this disease along the West Coast.

But these three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — also expressed their feelings of loss for the sea stars, a creature considered a key part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

As I reported in my story, published Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription), Barb was the first to assess the situation as we arrived at the beach, comparing her observations to just two weeks before.

“‘Oh my!’ shouted Erickson as she reached the base of the pier and took a look at the pilings. ‘I can see right now that there are hardly any (sea stars) here. These corners were just covered the last time. Now these guys are just about wiped out.’”

“’Look at the baby,’ lamented Tillery, pointing to a tiny sea star. ‘He has only four arms, and he’s doing that curling-up thing … We had so much hope for the babies.’”

Melissa Miner, who is part of a coastwide monitoring program, told me that researchers are working hard to find a cause of the advancing affliction. But so far no consistent pattern has emerged to explain every outbreak.

starfish2

A leading hypothesis is that something is causing the sea stars to be stressed, weakening their defenses against the bacteria that eventually kill them. The stressor could be temperature, she said, or possibly other factors such as increased acidity or low-oxygen conditions. Perhaps another organism attacks the immune system, leaving the sea stars vulnerable to an opportunistic bacteria.

Researchers may find multiple pathways to the same conclusion: a dramatic decline in the sea star population, both at the local level and throughout their range along West Coast.

When I hear about a population crash, I think about the basic tenets of population dynamics. Is it possible that the sea star population has reached an unsustainable level, given the available food supply and other factors, and that widespread disease is a natural outcome? Will the decline of sea stars be followed by an overpopulation of mussels or other prey, leading to a decline in ecosystem diversity? How long will it take for the sea stars to recover? These are issues worthy of study in the coming years.

But I’m haunted by another prospect. Having seen our familiar starfish attacked by strange bacteria and turned to mush, what lies in store for other marine organisms? Could ecological stress and other mysterious pathogens lead to the devastating loss of other marine species? Who will be next?

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on the sea stars they see clinging to the Lofall pier. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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