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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Archive for October, 2009

Name ‘Salish Sea’ offers new possibilities for description

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

“Salish Sea” is now the official name for our inland waterway that stretches across more than 1,400 square miles of Western Washington and British Columbia. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

<em>Salish Sea watershed</em><small> EPA graphic</small>

Salish Sea watershed
EPA graphic

The question now is whether the name will catch on and be used more frequently.

One application that comes to mind is the description of the three pods of killer whales known as Southern Residents. I’ve often referred to these animals as the orcas that frequent Puget Sound. That’s because “Southern Residents” have little meaning to the average reader, who wishes to know why they are “southern” and what I mean by “residents.”

It so happens that the Salish Sea just about defines the range of these whales for a large percentage of the year.

Now I may refer to them as the killer whales that frequent or mainly reside in the Salish Sea — including much of the summer in the San Juan Islands, with winter and fall stints into Puget Sound.

I’m not sure how else I will use this term, but I no longer feel constrained by the idea that the Salish Sea is not a real name and has never been defined by any authority.

Here are some facts about the Salish Sea provided by the SeaDoc Society. (I’ve converted meters to feet and kilometers to miles.)

  • Coastline length, including islands: 4,642 miles
  • Total number of islands: 419
  • Total land area of islands: 1,413 square miles
  • Sea surface area: 9,942 square miles
  • Maximum depth: 886 feet
  • Number of different marine animals species estimated: 20 species of mammals, 128 species of birds, 219 species of fish, and over 3000 species of invertebrates
  • Number of species listed as threatened, endangered or are candidates for listing: 64
  • Total watershed area, not counting the upper Fraser River area (See Stefan Freelan): 42,000 square miles

Climate change: Can we be winners instead of losers?

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Winners. Losers.

These two words have been spinning around in my brain since I attended a conference on water resources a couple of days ago. Check out my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Western Washington may not experience an overall water shortage as a result of climate change the way some regions will, according to climatologists. But our rains, on average, are likely to come in heavier downpours. To me, that means we will have our hands full trying to reduce the frequency of flooding, which affects natural systems as well as man-made ones.

In areas of the country that become drier, water could become scarce and the price of water is likely to go up. We’ve seen an ongoing drought in the Southwest. While it could be a just temporary trend, the situation calls for better water management and makes people nervous about the future. Click here to see an animation of changing conditions over the past 12 weeks.

A speaker at the conference, Michael Read of the Water Environment Federation, predicted that the Northwest will attract population from the Southwest as climate change continues. Winners and losers?

It may not be a question of whether we want the extra people. It may be more about whether we can manage the population growth with the least disruption to our ecosystem. Will we find ways to work with the coming changes in climate — or not? Will we be winners or losers?

If water gives our region a competitive edge, maybe we could attract industry looking to move away from more arid regions. That could help stabilize our economy, which seems to be a perpetual goal of many people. Winners and losers?

If climatologists are right, many species in the Northwest will struggle to adapt to the changing conditions. Some will survive and some will go extinct. Winners and losers.

I am not discounting efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and possibly avert some of the more dire consequences of climate change. But a growing effort is looking into how humans and animals may adapt to whatever changes will come.

While experts study adaptation, I don’t believe the concept has entered our general consciousness, let alone our actions. Perhaps waiting to see what happens is the prudent thing to do. After all, how do we plan for something uncertain?

On the other hand, maybe it would be wiser to begin considering the range of futures we could face within a few short decades. How do we become winners instead of losers?


It looks like the “shoreline science” debate has begun

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners has jumped out in front of what promises to be a lively debate over shoreline science.

Don Flora, a retired forest researcher, conducted a statistical analysis of data compiled in separate shoreline assessments of East Kitsap and Bainbridge Island. Flora concluded that the reports show no apparent relationship between man-made stressors and ecosystem functions. Please take a look at my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Not finding a correlation between these two factors does not mean that man-made structures are harmless or without effect on the ecosystem. But these findings do raise questions, as Flora points out. Download his report here (PDF 188 kb).

So far, I have been unable to find a qualified scientist who has read Flora’s report and wishes to respond on the record. I’ve heard from a few who have questions about the analysis and may prepare a response in the future.

Among the complaints about Flora’s report are these: It does not follow standard protocol for a scientific report; it is not obvious how he conducted his analysis; and it was not peer reviewed by third-party experts.

Flora told me that his intent was to create a paper that could be read by average people, and he did ask a couple of people to edit it for readability. He did not intend for it to be considered a scientific paper nor for it to be peer-reviewed in the scientific sense.

I have heard complaints that Flora did not show his work, and I found myself asking him to point me to the data tables that he used to plug numbers into the standard regression analysis — a statistical tool used to show relationships between two independent variables. I suggested to Flora that he include an appendix that would show the raw data and help people replicate his work. He thought this might be a good idea.

If you want to take a closer look, review the findings related to Bainbridge Island shoreline planning and Kitsap County shoreline planning, including the county shoreline assessments.

Some scientists find it offensive that Flora lifted data from these two reports and manipulated them to his own ends without consulting the scientists involved. Others are suspicious that Flora used these data to reach his own conclusions — a suspicion heightened because Flora is a member of KAPO. And KAPO’s press release (PDF 64 kb) about Flora’s report makes a leap that stirs the pot of controversy:

“These reviews bring into question the justification for any nearshore restorations or the need to impose any shoreline buffer zones in the upcoming Shoreline Master Program updates.”

Dealing with numerous scientific studies will be an important part of the effort to update the county’s shorelines plan. Kitsap County planners say they aren’t sure how they will deal with Flora’s report, but they intend to lean heavily on expertise from the Washington Department of Ecology to point them to reliable scientific studies.

The planners say they want to make sure that any studies upon which they rely for planning are vetted before they move into policy discussions. During the update of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance, such studies were never fully vetted — at least not to the satisfaction of property rights advocates. KAPO members ended up arguing about science all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court — though the court did not address science issues at all when it overturned the county’s shoreline buffers. See the Sept. 9 Kitsap Sun and the Water Ways entry the next day.

I’ve always expected that experts would engage in a healthy discussion about what it will take to protect the ecological functions of the county’s shorelines. Now it appears the discussion may take on the tone of a debate. In comments posted at the bottom of today’s story, some people are showing their distrust of government while others are showing their distrust of KAPO.

I hope everyone can somehow relax enough to embark on a real search for truth knowledge as it relates to shoreline ecosystems. After all, isn’t that what science is really about?


Amusing Monday: It’s in the Water

Monday, October 26th, 2009

This week’s bit of humor comes to us from National Lampoon, which espouses the health benefits of water in a new video.

Water has numerous effects, thanks to unintended additives, according to the video at right. But watch out for the consequences of consuming drinking water.

Quoting from the video:

“With residual pharmaceuticals entering our water table daily, you can be confident the cure is only a faucet away. Results may vary by region.”

And then the requisite warning:

“Water is not for everyone. Water may not be consumed if you are currently on water. If you’re pregnant and nursing, … might become pregnant or are reaching puberty before the age of 7, water may not be right for you. Please discontinue use of water while drowning or if drought occurs.”

And then come the freaky side effects of water, which take up the remainder of the video.

Another video about water purports to show a world record for drinking 1.5 liters of water — just about 4 seconds.

I found another video that has nothing to do with water but shows a world-record speed for a person getting undressed. I’m hoping this is amusing without being offensive.


Low oxygen waters lurking in southern Hood Canal

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Dissolved oxygen in southern Hood Canal has dropped to dangerously low levels, and the table appears to be set for a fish kill if we get strong winds out of the south. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

It seems a lot of experts are surprised that we have reached this level of low oxygen, considering that we were seeing near-record high oxygen levels earlier this year. See a story I wrote in August.

Although we have had low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal for years, monitoring buoys installed a few years ago now allow us to see what is happening at the moment and to describe the conditions in some detail.

In 2006, for the first time, scientists were able to show the factors leading up to a fish kill. Until then, it was only reasoned speculation. What may be equally troubling, however, is the level of stress that sea creatures are coming under before and after a fish kill — or if none occurs at all.

I didn’t mention it in my story, but oxygen levels at Twanoh and probably up toward Belfair are even lower than at Hoodsport. Lower Hood Canal is an area where the oxygen is so chronically depleted that fluffy mats of bacteria can be seen growing on the bottom at times when no other life can survive.

I feel that I need to express my disappointment with some of the comments posted to my story. To write this piece, I took note of the monitoring buoys; I pulled together observations of divers and others; and I even informed a few officials about the conditions that were developing.

I told this story straight, basing it on facts and observations that I gathered. Yet some people apparently chose to believe that my writing had something to do with taxation, government control, funding for Puget Sound Partnership, another costly study or hysterical tactics by environmental wackos.

I suppose I should be used to cynical comments by now, and I am glad that one person took the time to say he was pleased that I was “telling it like it is.” I just thought people would like to know of the dire conditions facing sealife in southern Hood Canal and what might occur if a south wind blows.


Samish Tribe names the newest member of J Pod

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

The Samish Tribe recently held a formal ceremony to name J-45, a killer whale first spotted in March. See the Kitsap Sun, March 5. The young orca is the son of J-14, named Samish.

It is becoming a tradition for the Samish Tribe to name the offspring of the whale we call Samish, now a 35-year-old female. Samish is the granddaughter of J-2, or Granny as she is called. Granny is possibly the oldest living orca among the Puget Sound whales.

Officials with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor participated in the naming ceremony Saturday. They provided the account below, which I think you will enjoy reading.

By the way, some of our local orcas have shown up in Central Puget Sound, where they were sighted this morning between Fauntleroy and Southworth. I have not yet heard if these animals have been identified. (Note: I updated this with a story late this afternoon.)

The Samish Indian Nation Names New Calf J-45

Friday Harbor — On Saturday, October 17, 2009, the Samish Indian Nation held a traditional potlatch naming ceremony for J-45, the newest J Pod calf in the Southern Resident Community of orcas.

The Whale Museum participated in the ceremony by providing ceremonial gifts for the attendees as well as a greeting by Executive Director Jenny Atkinson. The museum was asked to appoint a witness to the ceremony. Because of her role as the Orca Adoption Program Coordinator and the storykeeper of the whales, Jeanne Hyde was named.

“It was an honor to be asked to witness, ” Jeanne noted.
(more…)


Hood Canal restoration being outlined in a new plan

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Hood Canal Coordinating Council is developing an “Integrated Watershed Action Plan” to dovetail with related work being done by the Puget Sound Partnership.

An outline of the action plan, titled “A Vision for Hood Canal,” was discussed at today’s meeting of the coordinating council, which is made up of county commissioners and tribal officials in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties.

Scott Brewer, director of the council, told me that actions to address low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal will be rolled into this watershed plan — but specific projects will move forward on their own time tables.

A new sewage-treatment plant in Belfair is expected to reduce nitrogen flowing into Lower Hood Canal. Nitrogen has been determined to be a key factor in creating low-oxygen conditions in this region of the canal, which gets very little flushing.

Other sewage-treatment plants are being considered in Hoodsport, Potlatch and the Skokomish Reservation, all in Mason County, along with a single system for Dosewallips State Park and possibly Brinnon in Jefferson County.

Immediate actions include:

  • Making sure people understand the basics of septic system maintenance,
  • Continued funding for a low-interest loan program for septic upgrades (See Shorebank),
  • Support for the Working Forest Initiative to maintain forestlands in the Hood Canal region,
  • A request for research into the effectiveness of nitrogen-removal septic systems,
  • And a request for research into the extent that alder trees can increase the flow of nitrogen into Hood Canal and whether to pursue changes in forest management.

The action plan contains a “watershed assessment,” which will describe a “desired future condition” for Hood Canal along with factors that need to be addressed to reach measurable goals. As the outlines states:

In a general sense, the hypothesis to be tested through the watershed assessment is whether ecosystem function throughout the Hood Canal watershed can be protected and restored, and water pollution reduced, while at the same time accommodating expected future population growth. More specifically, the desired future condition will describe healthy habitat and life histories of target populations and other habitat and socioeconomic conditions.

The plan’s description of desired future conditions will be used as a template against which to compare current conditions, for purposes of identifying limiting factors and strategies to correct them. The plan’s description of desired future conditions will be based on a reconstruction of historic conditions, taking into account changes that are irreversible.

For further details, check out materials provided for today’s meeting on the home page of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.


Culvert case about treaty rights could be a new landmark

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

UPDATE, Oct, 25
Former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director Jeff Koenings testified in the federal culvert trial on Friday. See AP reporter Tim Klass’s story in the Kitsap Sun. Koenings told the court that diverting state dollars for culvert repair and replacement could harm salmon if it means less money for higher-priority salmon-restoration projects.
—————

I was beginning to wonder if I was the only environmental reporter who recognized the significance of a lawsuit involving Indian treaty rights and state culverts. I wrote about the case for the Kitsap Sun in March, after it appeared negotiations had broken down.

The outcome of the case could well determine how much power the courts hold over state budgets when it comes to the enforcement of Indian treaty rights.

After all, from the tribes’ perspective, the state has been dragging its feet in restoring salmon habitat — including the replacement of culverts that block the passage of salmon. On the other hand, the courts could force the state to spend money that it doesn’t have, or else shift dollars from education, social programs, law enforcement, even other environmental initiatives. That is why I think this is such an important precedent-setting case.

The issue is now in trial, having started in U.S. District Court last week. Reporter Craig Welch does a nice job of putting the issue into historical perspective in today’s Seattle Times.

I was on vacation when the trial started, so we referred the story to the Associated Press. AP reporter Tim Klass has done a good job of following the trial. See his first story in the Oct 13 Kitsap Sun and a follow-up in today’s paper.

If I hear the tribal attorneys correctly, they are looking to fix the major blocking culverts under state jurisdiction within 20 years, rather than the 50-60 years under the state’s current schedule.

If this case succeeds, the next logical step would be to go after counties — which may have hundreds of culverts that need attention. Other habitat issues also would be on the table. Anybody want the courts to set stream and shoreline buffers?

I suppose we’ll have plenty of time to talk about the implications once the decision is handed down. And there will be appeals, of course. No matter the final outcome, this case will have repercussions for decades to come.


Puget Sound Partnership must chart its own course

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Puget Sound Partnership is creating a system designed to establish goals and to measure progress toward Puget Sound restoration. I wrote about those issues in a Kitsap Sun story on Thursday and a Water Ways entry that day.

At the same time, we need to remember that the partnership has not been a part of our political reality until recently. I’m not even sure whether to call it an agency or an organization. In any case, how the partnership goes about establishing its role in state government may be as important as how it goes about pushing and prodding state and local agencies to work on the cleanup effort.

At last week’s meeting of the Ecosystem Coordination Board, questions were raised about whether the partnership should be at the forefront of environmental legislation. See my story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun. The ECB is an advisory board to the Leadership Council, which sets policy for the partnership.

Bill Ruckelshaus, who chairs the Leadership Council, seems to be aware of history being made. After all, he was the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and has observed changes in that agency during many presidential administrations.

Ruckelshaus often reminds folks that success of the partnership depends on getting people to work together for a common goal. He told me last week that the partnership’s position on legislation should be the result of “rigorous” analysis, not what sounds good at the moment.

We also need to keep an eye on jurisdictional issues. State officials are working on a possible reorganization of the state’s natural resource agencies. Check out the governor’s Web site. One suggestion is to place the Puget Sound Partnership under an existing agency, such as the Department of Ecology.

I think most people who have read the statutory mandate of the Puget Sound Partnership recognize the conflict of interest that could result from this move. The partnership was designed without any regulatory authority, but rather with the job of judging all agencies on how well they are meeting their responsibilities to Puget Sound. Being critical of state agencies is going to be tough enough for a group that works closely with staffers from all natural resource agencies. How would that work if they were part of one?

David Dicks, executive director of the partnership, already serves on the governor’s cabinet. While the Leadership Council remains independent, members are appointed by the governor. Gov. Chris Gregoire is highly supportive of the Puget Sound restoration effort, so conflict so far is minimal. But what happens if we elect a governor antagonistic to the process? We should think through these issues carefully before we redraw the lines of authority.


Amusing Monday: Take some time for a little rhyme

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Are you in the mood for a little poetry? This week, I offer four funny rhymes plus a fifth that demands a little introspection. (I’ve linked to the sources where I found these.)

rowboat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Until you hit the waterfall
And then you start to scream.

New Tank for My Goldfish
By Kenn Nesbitt

I bought a new tank for my goldfish.
They shot me right in the behind,
and then they drove over
my little dog, Rover.
I guess that I bought the wrong kind.

Daddy Fell into the Pond
By Alfred Noyes

Everyone grumbled. The sky was grey.
We had nothing to do and nothing to say.
We were nearing the end of a dismal day,
And then there seemed to be nothing beyond,
Then
Daddy fell into the pond!

And everyone’s face grew merry and bright,
And Timothy danced for sheer delight.
“Give me the camera, quick, oh quick!
He’s crawling out of the duckweed!” Click!

Then the gardener suddenly slapped his knee,
And doubled up, shaking silently,
And the ducks all quacked as if they were daft,
And it sounded as if the old drake laughed.
Oh, there wasn’t a thing that didn’t respond
When
Daddy Fell into the pond!

Tinkle, Tinkle Little Car
By Cecilia L. Goodbody

Tinkle, Tinkle little car
How I wonder what you are.

Leaking oil every day
Having it your own way.

Going up hills real slow
I don’t want you any mo’.

Tinkle, Tinkle little car
Boy, what a lemon you are.

A Snowflake Falls
By Ruth Adams

One night I saw a snowflake fall,
Past memories it did recall,

And as the snow fell to the ground,
So quietly without a sound,

(Click here to read the entire poem.)


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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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