Category Archives: Pollution and spills

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

Skokomish restoration makes progress in federal funding arena

UPDATE: June 12, 2016
The Skokomish River ecosystem restoration project, as proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, remains on track. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on May 25 unanimously endorsed the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize the project. The legislation must still be approved by the full House and Senate.
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After decades of in-depth studies and anxious waiting, restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem took a major step forward today, when a committee of the U.S. Senate endorsed the $20-million effort as part of a larger legislative package.

Skok watershed

The Skokomish restoration was one of many projects that sailed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it passed a $9-billion authorization bill on a 19-1 vote. The bill must still be approved by the full Senate and House, but supporters of the Skokomish restoration were thrilled with the light at the end of the tunnel.

Rich Geiger, project engineer for the Mason Conservation District, has been shepherding the Skokomish effort for as long as I can remember. I asked him how it feels to finally see some action in Congress.

“It feels really really good,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word.

The restoration program consists of five separate projects along the Skokomish River. Although not designed for flood control, these projects for improving ecological health are expected to reduce flooding along one of the most frequently flooded rivers in the state.

The restoration effort has received support from far and wide. As Rich likes to point out, experts generally agree that Puget Sound cannot be restored without restoring Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored without restoring the Skokomish River.

Sen. Patty Murray has been a strong advocate for the project.

“The waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound are essential to the Washington state environment, economy, and our way of life,” the senator said in an email, “so I am proud to fight for investments in the restoration of the Skokomish River. This critical work will restore habitat and wetlands and improve fish passage, which in turn supports salmon recovery — all necessary to maintain our precious natural resources.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said improving the health of the Skokomish River would be a boon for Mason County and the entire region. He said he applauded the efforts of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, the Skokomish Tribe and area residents who worked together to shape the restoration program.

“This project ensures we can better protect critical species like salmon … while restoring more natural areas for folks to explore,” Kilmer said in an email. “That will help bring more visitors to recreate in this watershed while protecting it for future generations.”

The $9-billion authorization bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (PDF 4.1 mb), includes money requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for water-related projects across the country. In additional to restoration efforts, the bill includes authorization of projects related to flood control, dredging, drinking water emergencies, water treatment and pipelines. For a summary of the bill see the report to the committee (PDF 284 kb).

The bipartisan endorsement and near-unanimous support offers hope that the needed money will be approved in a future appropriations bill tied to the budget, Rich Geiger told me. He is also optimistic that the 35-percent state/local match will be made available through state grants or a legislative appropriation.

“Now that have an approved plan, we are coming to Washington state with a funding request that is much larger than normal,” Geiger said. “This is a little unprecedented.”

The federal share for the project would be about $13 million and the state share nearly $7 million.

Some money has already been provided for engineering work, Rich said. If things go well, the final designs can be ready for the start of construction in October of 2019.

These four projects would come first:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The fifth project would be constructed over two years in 2020-21:

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

The original plan for the Skokomish, as developed in an early report by the Army Corps of Engineers, called for more projects and would have cost closer to $40 million.

Some of those other projects are being funded through other programs, such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. For example, the reconnection of a stagnant section of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek is scheduled for this summer using SRF Board money.

In addition, numerous man-made logjams are being planned to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. Also, preliminary designs and discussions are underway to relocate Skokomish Valley Road, a main route into the Olympic Mountains. Moving the road would allow for the removal of levees, river bank restoration and a reconnection to about 60 acres of floodplain.

Amusing Monday:
You can vote for year’s best Eco-Comedy film

The Eco-Comedy Film Competition was created to get people thinking about the environment by reaching them through entertainment instead of a heavy-handed message.

“Clean Water” is the theme for this year’s competition, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking.

More than 80 short films were entered into this year’s contest. Everyone is eligible to vote online for the People’s Choice Award by selecting from among the seven finalists. Watch those seven videos on the Eco-Comedy Film Competition website, and vote using the form beneath the video players. Make sure you click in the lower right corner to go full screen. I’ve posted a couple of my favorites on this page, but please don’t let that influence your own choice.

The winning video will be selected by a panel of judges. The Grand Prize winner will be announced March 22 and will be awarded a $2,000 prize.

Last year, Patrick Webster won both the People’s Choice Award and the Grand Prize for his video “Dude! Or the Blissful Ingorance of Progress.”

Kitsap groundwater model points to promising future

Overall, the Kitsap Peninsula is expected to have enough water for people and fish for many years into the future, as long as the water is managed well, according to a groundwater model developed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The model offers reassuring findings for residents of the Kitsap Peninsula. It is also encouraging to see local water, sewer and public works officials working together to plan for infiltrating stormwater along with recycling wastewater for irrigation. Those efforts will not only protect the peninsula’s water resources but will save money for water customers.

Drilling for water on the Kitsap Peninsula Kitsap Sun file photo
Drilling for water on the Kitsap Peninsula
Kitsap Sun file photo

Lonna Frans of the U.S. Geological Survey met this week with members of WaterPAK — the Water Purveyors of Association of Kitsap — to discuss the conclusions of a five-year, $1.4 million study of water resources across the Kitsap Peninsula. Lonna said a final written report should be available in about a month. (See website Kitsap GW model.)

The most impressive part of the groundwater model is the mapping of geology across the entire peninsula, based on more than 2,100 well-driller logs that describe the type of soil at various depths. Putting that information together provides a three-dimensional picture of the underground structure, including sand and gravel deposits, which contain water, along with layers of clay and compressed soils, which slow down the water movement.

By monitoring water levels in 66 wells over time and accounting for rainfall and groundwater withdrawals, the computer model provides a dynamic picture of what happens under various conditions. The model can be used to predict what will happen to Kitsap’s aquifers under various rainfall scenarios, including long periods of drought.

Map

Key

The model also can predict what will happen to streamflows under various rainfall scenarios. The Kitsap Peninsula has no mountain snowpack to supply the streams with water during dry summer months, so the water must come from slow-moving underground supplies.

Now that the model is complete, it can be run for almost any pattern of rainfall or drought that one wishes to dream up. For example, running the model with average rainfall and no pumping at all (close to a predevelopment condition) would bring the average groundwater level up about 25 feet — although groundwater levels in some places would be raised more than in other places.

Streamsflows under the no-pumping scenario would be an average of about 2 percent higher — although this would be difficult to measure with current instruments. Nobody would really notice the difference.

If pumping across the peninsula were increased by 15 percent, there would not be much difference in aquifers near the surface and only a two- or three-foot drop in aquifers around sea level. Streamflows would go down by a fraction of a percent but not enough to notice.

Decreasing groundwater recharge by 15 percent, such as paving over the landscape with new roads, houses and parking lots, would have a greater effect on streamflows.

Again, not all areas on the peninsula will see the same effects. The model can be used to zero in on specific streams and their watersheds — although the smaller the area of study, the less accurate the prediction is likely to be.

Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District, said the model can be used to predict the effects that new wells would have on streamflows as the population grows. The model could advise managers whether it would be advisable to pump certain wells at certain times of the year and hold back at other times.

Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city of Bremerton, said the model can also be used to make sure aquifer-recharge areas are protected and that industrial facilities that store large quantities of chemicals are not located where a spill could contaminate a major underground water supply.

Morgan Johnson, general manager of Silverdale Water District, said he would like to use the model to predict what will happen when highly treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant is used to irrigate ball fields and other areas in Central Kitsap. Efforts between the water districts and Kitsap County might lead to greater infiltration of water and greater groundwater supplies to be pumped from existing wells throughout Central Kitsap.

The model was built on background information, which can be found in the report “Hydrogeologic Framework, Groundwater Movement, and Water Budget of the Kitsap Peninsula” (PDF 49.8 mb).

The USGS provided half the costs for the study. The other half was shared among Kitsap PUD; Silverdale Water District; West Sound Utility District; North Perry Water District; Manchester Water District; the cities of Bremerton, Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Gig Harbor; Washington Water, a private utility; and the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

In September of 2014, I wrote about water resources for the series we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The story was called “Making sure there is enough water to go around.”

A chance to talk
on televison about the wonders of Puget Sound

More than 50 people came together at the beginning of this month in Washington, D.C., to share their stories and concerns about Puget Sound. The annual event is becoming known as Puget Sound Day.

The group included leaders from local government, tribes, non-profit groups, businesses and state agencies, noted U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, who organized the get-together and discussion about federal legislation and funding.

Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who is involved in these issues, asked me to share my thoughts about Puget Sound on the public access television program “Commissioner’s Corner.” If you haven’t seen the show, you can view it on BKAT the next two Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., or click on the video above.

I have to say that speaking off the cuff in front of a television camera is a lot different from writing a story or blog post, but I was pleased to be invited. The broadcast includes Kathy Peters of the county’s Natural Resources Division.

Charlotte wanted to give credit to Rep. Kilmer and Rep. Denny Heck for launching the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, a group of federal legislators working on Puget Sound issues in the “other Washington.” Review a summary of the effort (PDF 1.1 mb) or other information on the Puget Sound Partnership blog.

Derek Kilmer
Derek Kilmer

Three years ago, a newly elected Rep. Kilmer picked up on Puget Sound issues where former Rep. Norm Dicks left off. Through the years, Norm was able to secure funding for many Puget Sound projects — ranging from the removal of Forest Service roads that were smothering salmon streams with sediment to extensive studies of Hood Canal’s low-oxygen problems.

Derek is now promoting a bill known as Puget SOS Act, which calls for greater federal coordination with state, local and tribal partners, as well as formal recognition of Puget Sound as a “great water body’ under the Clean Water Act. Check out the story in the Kitsap Sun by reporter Tristan Baurick.

This month, Kilmer and Heck introduced a new bill, the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Investment Act, to help communities reduce the flow of toxic stormwater into streams and ultimately Puget Sound. The basic idea is to use natural infiltration to reduce stormwater at the source, before it can pick up toxic pollution. This approach has been given the name “green stormwater infrastructure” or GSI.

Denny Heck
Denny Heck

“If our legislation passes,” Derek said in a news letter to constituents, “local communities would be able to access dedicated funding within the Environmental Protection Agency for water quality projects that utilize GSI. Our hope is that this can increase the number of breakthroughs that are happening in places like Tacoma to help protect these vital waterways.”

He offered more details in a news release:

“Stormwater runoff is the top contributor to pollution in Puget Sound, but our nation’s largest estuary isn’t the only place impacted by stormwater. Across the country, in every community, rain mixes with chemicals, oils and other harmful pollutants to flood into our waterways. A stronger federal investment in the prevention of runoff allows for the implementation of cutting-edge solutions and puts our communities on a course towards healthy waters for everyone.”

Specialized bacteria can remove rogue drugs during sewage treatment

UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
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Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound, where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish and other organisms.

Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.

Now, researchers are working on a process that would use specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound region.

Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top treatment plant in the lab. UW photo
Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top sewage-treatment plant in the lab.
UW photo

Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for predators.

In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine, cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.

A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment plants around the country, finding significant levels of many compounds.

A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the compounds.

According to a NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.

These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work together to create different effects, depending on their concentrations and the affected organism.

Many people would argue that we have enough information to dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or drain. See the Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover everyone.

Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.

More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.

The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.

Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall. Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific journal.

Previous reports:

  • Genes involved in Bisphenol A degradation, Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria, Pub Med.
  • Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.

Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope in the short term, because it is how most sewage-treatment plants work can be implemented quickly without major modifications and appears to be economical on a large scale, Nocolette told me.

In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria. Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.

The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage digesters reactors, preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might require several tanks for growing different bactieria.

If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment process as needed.

The research into this treatment process has progressed to where the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested for the level of treatment.

Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe concentration for the various chemicals that come from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.

Amusing Monday: Endangered species emerge as art forms

Painting large murals of endangered species on exterior walls across the U.S. is a way of “fostering connections between people and the other forms of life that surround them,” according to Roger Peet, a Portland artist who is leading the project, commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Whale mural in Los Angeles. Photo: Jess X. Chen
Whale mural in Los Angeles // Photo: Jess X. Chen

The latest mural, painted on a building in Los Angeles, shows a blue whale breaching off the coast of an urban area with an industrial skyline. The mural was painted from a massive stencil by Brooklyn street artists Icy and Sot, who are brothers, according to the website “Brooklyn Street Art.” The mural is designed to inspire protection for the whale and reduction of ocean pollution, the artists said in an interview.

Mountain caribou mural in Sandpoint, Idaho
Mountain caribou mural in Sandpoint, Idaho

The Center for Biological Diversity is perhaps best known for suing the federal government to list and protect declining species, but it has also been committed to public outreach, including the distribution of condoms featuring endangered species. The organization launched the mural project to call attention to at-risk wildlife specific to local communities where the murals are painted, according to the CBD’s website on the mural project.

The first mural in the series, featuring a mountain caribou, was painted in Sandpoint, Idaho, northeast of Spokane. This area of the Selkirk Mountains is the last remaining territory for the caribou in the lower 48 states. Mural artists Mazatl and Joy Mallari worked with Peet on the project.

Arctic grayling mural in Butte, Mont.
Arctic grayling mural in Butte, Mont.

“The city of Sandpoint unanimously approved the mural project for a prominent downtown building and passed a resolution supporting recovery of the caribou and augmentation of the southern Selkirk herd — exactly the kind of local support for endangered species our project is designed to foster,” states the CBD’s website.

The second mural, painted by Peet last summer in Butte, Mont., shows the Arctic grayling, a fish in the salmon family that was once common in Northern Montana, the headwaters of the Missouri River. Because of river diversions and pollution, the fish population has declined dramatically. In the lower 48 states, the fish survives only in a stretch of the Big Hole River near Butte. The Montana Standard has the story.

Monarch butterfly mural in Minneapolis, Minn.
Monarch butterfly mural in Minneapolis, Minn.

A monarch butterfly on a wall in South Minneapolis, Minn., is the third mural in the series. In late summer, monarchs undergo metamorphosis in Minnesota and other northern regions before migrating to Mexico for the winter and then to the southern U.S., where they lay their eggs. Pesticide and development have taken a toll on the monarch habitat and reduced their population by 80 percent over the past 20 years, according to the CBD website. Peet worked with Barry Newman on the mural.

In November, a mural featuring the watercress darter was completed in Birmingham, Ala. This small, brilliantly colored fish is found only in the Birmingham area. Peet worked with Birmingham artists Merrilee Challiss and Creighton Tynes on the mural.

Watercress darter mural in Birmingham, Ala. Photo: Kyle Crider
Watercress darter mural in Birmingham, Ala.
Photo: Kyle Crider

“Birmingham was selected as the site of darter mural because Alabama is a world hotspot for freshwater animal diversity, and the center is working to protect hundreds of Alabama species from extinction,” says a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Upcoming murals include a mussel — the pink mucket — in Knoxville, Tenn., an aquatic salamander — the Ozark hellbender — in St. Louis, Mo., multiple fish of the Colorado River on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and bull trout in Oakridge, Ore. Organizers say more murals could be painted with additional funding and support from local artists.

Painter Roger Peet, who continues to manage the mural project, says the effort is built upon the biodiversity of individual places:

“Those species embody an area’s natural history and contribute to what makes it irreplaceable. They also have something to say about the future, as many are in danger of going extinct. And when we lose species, the places and lives we live become poorer and shallower places as a result.

“To help bring these species into the light, we decided to paint them on the walls… Whether that’s a fish in a river, a butterfly flitting from plant to plant or a caribou chewing lichen off a tree trunk, we’re bringing together artists and communities to create big, bold images that will become part of the neighborhoods where they’re created, making it a little easier for people to care about the native species struggling to survive in their midst.”

All photos courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Research on ocean noise could help save whales

In the underwater world, where hearing can be more important than sight, whales are being bombarded by a cacophony of sounds, which started cluttering up their lives when the first steamships were launched into the ocean.

J-1, known as “Ruffles,” uses echolocation clicks to locate chinook salmon as a tanker approaches in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. J-1 was the oldest male among the Southern Resident killer whales when he died in 2011. Photo: beamreach.org (CC BY SA)
J-1, known as “Ruffles,” uses echolocation clicks to locate chinook salmon as a tanker approaches in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. J-1 was the oldest male among the Southern Resident killer whales when he died in 2011. // Photo: beamreach.org

Now, after 200 years, people are beginning to care about the kinds of noise imposed upon marine mammals and other creatures. To a limited extent, research can now answer this important question: How are humans affecting marine life with noise coming from our ships and boats, our ocean exploration and construction, and our military exercises.

It is time to think about how we can apply new scientific knowledge in a more meaningful way than current regulations, which depend on putting a “safe” distance between one vessel and one whale.

A month ago in “Amusing Monday,” I featured the music of Dana Lyons, who wrote a song about sound from the perspective of the whales. The song got me to thinking about how the sailing ships of yesteryear must have been so much more pleasant for the whales — assuming, of course, that they weren’t whaling ships.

Scott Veirs, an oceanographer, joined forces with his dad, physicist Val Veirs, to operate a hydrophone network based in the San Juan Islands, where they study the sounds of whales, ships and anything else that makes sounds in the waters of the Salish Sea.

“We are trying to get a statistically significant characterization (of sound),” Scott told me. “For me, the question is: Does this make a difference for certain species? To be honest, I’m seeing lots of evidence in the emerging literature that ship noise really does make a difference.”

Scott and Val, along with acoustics expert Jason Wood, recently published a research paper in the journal “Peer J.,” in which they describe their acoustic encounters with more than 3,000 ships passing by their hydrophones. Through careful calibration of their instruments, they were able to calculate sound levels at the source — which can tell us which ships and boats produce the most noise before attenuation of the sound through the water. Check out the news release, or read the entire article.

It has long been known that cargo ships and other large vessels produce low-frequency sounds that can travel great distances in seawater. That adds to an overall background noise that seems to be increasing over time. For baleen whales, who communicate with lower-frequency sounds, this changing soundscape could be something like the difference between a person living downtown in a busy city and a person living in the country.

In an interesting but unplanned study after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, researchers were able to show that right whales in Canada’s Bay of Fundy had lower stress hormone levels immediately after the attacks. That’s when ship traffic — and noise — were significantly lowered. The findings were limited to the short time frame that ship traffic diminished, but the researchers were fortunate that fecal samples from another study could be used to measure stress hormones before and after 9/11. Review the paper: Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales.

It was not a big surprise that large ships can affect baleen whales, but Scott and his colleagues were able to show that large ships produce not only low-frequency sounds but also high-frequency sounds in the hearing range of killer whales.
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      1. Sounds from a passing ship

Sounds from a passing ship are picked up on a hydrophone in Haro Strait.
Sound file: beamreach.org


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“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,” Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to killer whales.”

He said the challenge for orcas is to hear the reflection of high-frequency clicks sent out by an orca to locate chinook salmon and other prey. The echolocation clicks are loud as they leave the whale, but the return signal they are attempting to hear can be faint unless the fish are very close, Scott said. If other high frequency sounds, such as from nearby boats, interfere with their hearing, then the whales may struggle to locate their prey, he noted.

“My greatest concern is how much a single container ship might decrease the range that a killer whale would be able to hear the echo,” Scott said. “The impact in terms of decreasing their foraging range is really kind of scary.”

Studies of various ships might identify what is causing the high-frequency sounds and lead to a technological solution to the problem, Scott said. Military ships are designed to be quiet, and some of that technology could be transferred to commercial vessels. If the noise from just 10 percent of the noisiest vessels could be reduced, it could lead to a significant improvement in the noisy ocean.

Digital acoustic recording tags are used to measure sound levels felt by killer whales. NOAA photo
Digital acoustic recording tags are used to measure sound levels felt by killer whales. // NOAA photo

The question of how much high-frequency noise reaches the killer whales was the focus of a study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries. Researchers used suction cups to temporarily attach digital acoustic recording tags, or d-tags, to killer whales to measure the level of sound. They also used laser-positioning equipment operated from a research boat to measure the size, speed, location and type of vessel emitting the noise.

“The goal was to understand this missing but assumed link between what we see at the surface and what the whales experience at depth,” said Juliana Houghton, a recent UW graduate and lead author of the study, who was quoted in a UW news release.

A key finding was that the number of propellers on a vessel influenced the sound volume, but the most important factor was the speed of the vessel — with higher speeds producing significantly more high-frequency noise. The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Taking these and other studies together could help chart a path toward quieter vessels, less noise around whales and ultimately a better outcome for marine mammals dependent on underwater communication and echolocation.

Port Metro Vancouver in British Columbia has taken these ideas one step further with a hydrophone listening station installed in the inbound shipping lanes in the Strait of Georgia north of the U.S. border. The listening station is part of a program called Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO). The listening station will monitor the noise of identified ships passing through. See news release from the port.

The video below shows the deployment of the listening station in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia.

From what I know about the system, it could potentially lead to an individual sound profile for each ship entering Canadian waters, and authorities could investigate whether slowing certain vessels could reduce noise for whales in the area.

“The ECHO program’s long-term goal is to develop mitigation measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential threats to whales as a result of shipping activities,” Duncan Wilson, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Port Metro Vancouver, said in an op-ed piece in the Vancouver Sun.

“These mitigation measures may include incentives for the use of green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of ocean-going vessels, a certification program for quiet vessels, and/or the development of noise criteria for vessels entering the port,” he added.

Report

A 2013 report by World Wildlife Fund–Canada (PDF 2.6 mb) makes the case for developing tools to better manage noise. The 96-page report, which came out of a 2012 workshop on ocean noise in Canada, concluded that the ability to profile individual ships could lead to these ideas for reducing noise:

  • “Use existing data on noise output from different sizes and classes of vessels, and establish percentage criteria below which ships should fall. Vessels above the criteria would face pecuniary consequences, e.g., higher port fees…
  • “Shipping noise should not be allowed to reduce whale communication space beyond a certain percentage … Masking is a significant threat to marine animals.
  • “Establish a cumulative noise exposure level…, rather than only maximum event-based exposure criteria for individual populations.
  • “Develop a report card system that identifies the noisiest 10% of vessels passing over a noise monitoring station. In the absence of legislation, letters could be sent to vessel owners advising them of their noisy ships, and a list of worst offenders could be published. Letters could also be sent to the owners of quiet ships, congratulating them on their reduced contribution to the soundscape.
  • “Ports could adopt maintenance requirements for noisy ships, as poor vessel maintenance is the source of extraneous noise on approximately 10 percent of merchant ships.
  • “A mandatory phased-in program could be established to incentivize quietening technologies for retrofitted vessels. Proposed new projects could require quietened ships.”

Although the United States began regulating the effects of ocean noise earlier than most countries — as early as the 1980s — U.S. agencies have been slow to keep up with the best available science, according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who wrote a chapter in the WWF report,

Jasny’s recommendations:

Be honest about estimating effects: U.S. sound thresholds for marine mammals assume that 120 decibels of “continuous” noise or 160 decibels of “intermittent” noise have an adverse behavioral effect, while noise above 180 decibels is considered injurious. But these numbers fail to account for differences in species, bias in observed impacts and masking effects. This makes the thresholds “outdated” and “insufficiently conservative.”

Think cumulatively: Regulators and managers should look beyond the effects of a single sound exposure to the effects of noise over time on the population of animals from all sources of noise.

Evolve beyond the near field: The traditional approach has been a “safety zone,” in which sound sources are powered down when marine mammals get within a specified range. The U.S. has begun to move beyond this simple idea to habitat-based management, including area closures for important habitats when marine mammals are likely to be present. Also under review are technical alternatives to reduce noise from ships, airguns (used in seismic studies) and pile-driving equipment.

Amusing Monday: Finding art and humor on the toilet seat

If you write about “all things water,” as I do, sooner or later you must write about toilets. On the serious side, we’ve discussed the issue of sanitation and the lack of clean water in many areas of the world. On the humorous side, toilet jokes seem to have claimed a spot on many television sitcoms — but we don’t need to get into that.

The Fish and Flush
The Fish and Flush

One of the toilets I found amusing was the “Fish and Flush,” a toilet tank designed to contain living fish. It turns out that one can buy a variety of aquariums to serve dual purposes, as I first described in Water Ways in November of 2010.

The word “toilet,” by the way, originated not from the device used to eliminate waste nor from the room where this device was located. It came from the French toile, the word for “cloth,” which was draped over a lady’s or gentleman’s shoulders when their hair was being dressed, as explained by Wikipedia. Eventually, the entire ensemble of the dressing table, mirror, powders and brushes came to be known as the toilette, as I described in an Amusing Monday post in October of 2013.

I’ve covered funny signs to direct people to the appropriate restroom. Visit the Chive gallery for 14 of these amusing signs.

I don’t believe I have ever taken a close look at toilet seats and their lids, but it turns out that many are available for purchase on the Internet. On a related note, my wife Sue and I have a bathroom decorated in a Seahawks theme. The green-and-blue lid on the toilet seat celebrates the Super Bowl victory two years ago. It was a gift from her brother.

Here are some of the amusing toilet seats I found. Click on the image to find at least one place where the item is sold.

Dog

Eye

Hope

Hand

Money

Piano

Ouija

Office

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Force

Santa

Deer

Skull

Teeth

Hydrant

Fish

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Wood

Droplet

Bowl

Guitar

Cow

Amusing Monday: Fighting climate change with a silly school play

A school play about climate change, featuring a worried mother polar bear and evil villains named “Mr. Carbon” and “Mr. Methane,” have captured the imaginations of elementary and junior-high-school students across the country.

The program, called “Cool the Earth,” includes follow-up activities that encourage the young students to bring climate-saving ideas home with them.

The first video on this page shows a play performed by teachers at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. I love the laughter of the children in the background. The second video shows an NBC News story from 2011.

The “Cool the Earth” program was developed in 2007 by Carleen and Jeff Cullen, parents in Marin County, Calif., who became inspired to take action on climate change after viewing Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Showing the film to others failed to gain the action they desired, so they expanded their horizons by developing an easy-to-understand message that could be shared with kids and their parents.

The program was launched at Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., and has grown to involve more than 200 schools across the country, though most are in California. See the list at “Participating Schools and Troops.”

An article on the Green Schools Initiative website quotes Heather Dobbs, a parent coordinator at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, N.J., who says “Cool the Earth” explains climate change in a meaningful way:

“The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts are big hams. It tugs at the kids’ heart strings when they hear about polar bears in danger. Kids can take in that story more easily than just hearing about carbon emissions.”

Students then take home coupon books offering 20 ideas for no- or low-cost actions that they can do on their own or with their parents to earn points and sometimes prizes, such as earth-friendly trading cards.

Carleen Cullen explains the program in the video below.