Category Archives: Pollution and spills

Kitsap to receive major funding for stormwater, sewer construction

Washington Department of Ecology is poised to award $229 million in grants and loans for projects that will help clean up waters throughout the state.

Grants

Grants to Kitsap County include $4.2 million for planned stormwater projects, plus another $4.6 million to lay sewer lines designed to protect shellfish beds in South Kitsap’s Yukon Harbor.

This level of funding for a single round of water-quality grants demonstrates that elected officials are serious about cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies throughout the state. The Legislature must still approve the funding for the proposed grants and loans.

The Yukon Harbor project is interesting, because Kitsap County officials were able to show that residents of the South Kitsap area would face a severe hardship if forced to pay for a new sewer line and all the connections themselves.

Yukon Harbor has been the subject of pollution identification and correction projects by the Kitsap Public Health District. Fixing septic systems and cleaning up pollution from animals allowed 935 acres of shellfish beds to be reopened in 2008. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008. But recent studies show that the pollution is growing worse again as some systems continue to have problems. Officials say the best answer is to run a sewer line to properties on or near the beach.

The grant will pay for the sewer line and pump station to carry sewage to the Manchester sewage treatment plant. Some money will be used to help residents pay for the costs of connections to their homes.

Without the state grant, officials estimate that each of the 121 property owners would need to pay about $70,000 to complete the project, according to David Tucker of Kitsap County Public Works. Without the “severe hardship” grant, the project probably would not get done.

One nice thing about this project is that residents will not be required to hook up to the sewer, Dave told me. Those who have upgraded or replaced their septic systems or have systems still working well may continue to use their own on-site systems.

“The common infrastructure will be covered by the grant,” Tucker said, “and people can make a choice about whether they want to connect. Everybody’s septic system is in a different state of condition.”

In addition to the $4.6 million grant, the county will receive a low-interest loan of $432,000 for the remainder of the $5 million needed for the project. Design is scheduled to begin this year, followed by construction in 2017 if things go well.

Meanwhile, stormwater projects continue to gain attention, because they can address both pollution and streamflow problems. In Kitsap Countyu, grants were proposed for the following stormwater projects, which require a 25-percent local match:

  • Clear Creek project, known as Duwe’iq Stormwater Treatment Wetland, which will use a $937,000 grant to create a stormwater wetland off Silverdale Way near Ross Plaza to collect water from 18 acres of commercially developed property.
  • Ridgetop Boulevard Green Streets project, which will use $1 million in a second phase of construction to create biofiltration systems in the median of Ridgetop Boulevard in Silverdale.
  • Silverdale Way Regional Stormwater Facility project will use $1.5 million for new stormwater ponds north of Waaga Way to collect stormwater running off steep hills in the area.
  • Chico and Dickerson creeks project will receive $500,000 to complete the second phase of a project to replace two culverts on David and Taylor roads and establish floodplains to take excess water during heavy rainstorms.
  • Bay Shore Drive and Washington Avenue Filterra project will use $277,000 to install 15 Filterra planter-box stormwater filters to reduce pollution coming off streets in Old Town Silverdale.

Kitsap County also was successful in obtaining a low-interest loan of $3.8 million to replace three aging pump stations and upgrade a sewer line on the beach near Manchester. Since the line is part of the Manchester system, the loan will be repaid through sewer fees.

In all, Ecology received 227 applications requesting more than $352 million in grants and loans. Some $143 million went into loans, and $21 million went into grants allocated to 165 projects statewide. About 110 of the projects involve stormwater pollution.

A public meeting on all the projects will be held at 1 p.m. March 4 at Pierce County Library, 3005 112th St. E., Tacoma. Comments will be taken until March 15. For information and a list projects, check Ecology’s website.

Amusing Monday: Waste to water provides a drink for Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates together make an interesting combination. One is about finding new ways to solve serious world problems, while the other is looking for new ways to surprise and delight people.

Bill gates recently challenged Jimmy Fallon to the “ultimate taste test” involving two glasses of water. Jimmy would try to tell the difference between bottled water and sewage effluent from an innovative treatment plant built in Sedro Woolley, south of Bellingham. As you’ll see from the video, there was a bit of trickery involved.

In his blog, “Gates Notes,” Bill Gates describes the Omniprocessor, designed by Janicki Bioenergy of Washington state. A video on that page (shown here) demonstrates how the processor works, with an ending in which Gates drinks water that had been in the form of human feces just minutes before.

Gates makes the most of this humorous but deadly serious issue, knowing that one of the greatest health threats in the developing world is contaminated drinking water — and that a machine could help solve the problem.

The Omniprocessor burns dried human waste as fuel to dry more waste as it comes into the plant, providing an endless supply of fuel that can be burned at a very high temperature, thus controlling air emissions. The drying process produces steam, which can run a generator for electricity. The water vapor is cooled and goes through a final filter to produce clean drinking water.

I’ve read many articles written about the Omniprocessor over the past month, but Mark Stayton of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote the most informative piece I’ve seen.

A working prototype is scheduled to be fabricated this spring in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa, and go into use soon after. Graphics and photos are available on the Omniprocessor home page.

I’ll be interested to see how this entire operation works in practice. Not much is said about getting the waste to the machine. Apparently, some locations have trucks that pump out latrines and then dump the untreated waste someplace else, risking contamination to groundwater or surface water. Transportation of the waste/fuel might be less of an issue in cities with inadequate sewage-treatment plants, but I don’t know how efficient trucks would be in rural areas, where roads are often a problem.

Anyway, I will try to keep you informed about the Omniprocessor and similar technology in the months to come.

Kingston wastewater could be valuable for watering golf course

Kingston’s sewage treatment plant could provide irrigation water for the nearby White Horse Golf Course and possibly other uses under a plan now in development.

Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant Photo courtesy of Golder Associates
Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant
Photo courtesy of Golder and Associates via Sky-Pix.com

Kitsap County commissioners recently signed a $325,000 “predesign” contract with Brown and Caldwell engineers. The firm was hired to answer a host of questions about the feasibility of producing high-quality effluent at the plant and then putting the clean water to good use.

“We’re just starting to look at the whole project,” said Barbara Zaroff of Kitsap County’s Wastewater Division. “We just had our kickoff meeting two weeks ago, and now Brown and Caldwell will be going out to collect data.”

I peppered Barbara with questions that she could not answer at this point, because the detail work is yet to be done. But we know from a previous study by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) that producing high-quality effluent in Kingston is more than a random thought.

Golder found benefits from using the water for supplementing flows in nearby Grover’s Creek while recharging much-needed groundwater in that area of the county. The Suquamish Tribe, which owns White Horse Golf Course, has expressed interest in acquiring the water if various issues can be resolved.

The Kingston treatment plant, completed in 2005, produces an average of 150,000 gallons of effluent per day, currently discharged into Appletree Cove. As population grows, the plant can be expanded to about 300,000 gallons per day.

It appears it would be cost-effective to treat the water to tertiary standards with sand filters, although other technologies will be explored. A pond could be built on or near the golf course, which would store the water for irrigation and allow infiltration into the ground. The available water should provide the needs of the course with plenty of water left over.

Discharging into a wetland that feeds into Grover’s Creek is another idea, along with providing irrigation at the county’s North Kitsap Heritage Park. Unused water might still be discharged into Puget Sound, particularly in winter months when irrigation water is not needed.

One question that always arises with reclaimed water is what happens to trace amounts of chemicals that pass through the treatment process, such as pharmaceutical drugs that mimic hormones. We know from studies that some of these chemicals can affect the growth, development and metabolism of fish in some situations.

An analysis by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) concluded that future treatment processes in the Kingston plant would remove between 80 and 97 percent of endocrine disrupting compounds coming into the plant. Environmental conditions where reclaimed water is discharged would degrade the chemicals further, so the overall risk would be low for salmon and other fish, according to the report.

The new study is expected to look further into the risks. Meanwhile, the state Department of Ecology is continuing to work on a new reclaimed-water rule that could improve permitting and monitoring by producers of reclaimed water.

The Kingston project would be similar to what is happening at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville, where construction is adding sand filters as part of an overall upgrade to the plant.

Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014
Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant // File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014

The nearby Silverdale Water District has installed about 15,000 feet of “purple pipe” for reclaimed water on the major arterials of Silverdale, including Silverdale Way. The project is part of the water district’s major pipe-replacement project. Another 2,000 feet will be added as part of the Bucklin Hill Bridge project, General Manager Morgan Johnson told me.

Much of the new commercial construction in Silverdale is being designed to use reclaimed water for irrigation, and some buildings are being plumbed to use reclaimed water for flushing toilets and other secondary uses. Ballfields in the area could get some of the water.

A public-outreach program is being planned to educate the public about reclaimed water and to answer questions that people may have. Under the current schedule, the reclaimed-water valve would be turned on in 2020, but that date may be pushed back, Morgan said.

In Kingston, it will take about a year to put the information together and identify a preferred alternative, Barbara told me. Final engineering and design will follow under a new contract if things go as expected.

The current contract will examine pipeline routes to convey the water to the potential users. Costs for building and operating the system will be explored.

Yet to be determined is how costs and benefits of the reclaimed water will be shared between the county, which owns the treatment facilities, and those who will use the water. That goes for both Kingston and Central Kitsap.

Many golf courses across the country — especially in the arid Southwest — are using reclaimed water for irrigation. In a few places where water is in extremely short supply, water systems have begun adding the clean effluent straight into their drinking water. Check out reporter Emily Schmall’s story for the Associated Press.

While water is still somewhat plentiful in the Puget Sound area, it only makes sense to find uses for freshwater that would otherwise be dumped into salty Puget Sound.

County officials identify 18 problem boats; three considered ‘derelict’

A two-day survey of Kitsap County’s shoreline identified 90 boats moored on buoys, at anchor or aground — and 18 of them were found to have some kind of problem, according to Richard Bazzell of the Kitsap Public Health District.

Contractors demolish an old boat turned in as part of a new state program. Photo: Department of Natural Resources
Contractors demolish an old boat turned in as part of a new state program.
Photo: Department of Natural Resources

The survey, conducted Monday and Tuesday, is considered a key step in Kitsap County’s new Derelict Vessel Prevention Program, which I described in a Kitsap Sun story (subscription) last May. The idea is to identify neglected vessels that could pose a risk of sinking if not given some attention.

Of the 18 vessels with problems, three were declared “derelict” boats with a high risk of sinking or polluting the water, based on criteria developed by the state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program. Owners of those boats will get an official warning, and the state could take control of the boats if the owners fail to make them seaworthy.

Richard told me that he has the greatest concern for a 30-foot power boat moored in Port Gamble Bay. The other two boats are sailboats. Because of their condition, they could be considered illegal dumping and managed under the county’s solid-waste regulations, as well as under the state’s derelict vessels laws, he said.

For the other boats needing attention, the approach will be a friendly reminder, Richard told me. Ten of the 18 boats were unregistered, which is an early sign of neglect for boats in the water. Other problems range from deteriorating hulls to weak lines to excessive algae growth. The greatest concerns are that the boats will spill toxic chemicals, such as fuel, or create a navigational hazard for other boats.

It was encouraging to find a relatively small number of boats with problems, Richard said.

“We were expecting to run into a lot more problems,” he noted. “Surprisingly, we didn’t, and that is a good thing.”

The county will offer technical assistance to help boat owners figure out what to do, and educational workshops could provide general maintenance information.

Boats with the most significant problems were found in these Kitsap County embayments: Yukon Harbor in South Kitsap; Dyes and Sinclair inlets in Central Kitsap; and Liberty Bay, Appletree Cove and Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap.

This week’s survey covered about 250 miles of county shoreline, where the health district’s efforts are funded with a state grant. Excluded are military bases, where private mooring is not allowed, and Bainbridge Island, where the city’s harbormaster is conducting similar work under the state grant.

The overall $250,000 grant for the prevention program is being coordinated by Marc Forlenza, who developed a procedure proven to be successful in San Juan County. Marc credits Joanruth Bauman, who operated the derelict vessel program in San Juan County, as being the brainchild of the prevention program.

Money for the prevention program came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Puget Sound Restoration Fund. The grant is managed by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Seven counties, including San Juan and Kitsap, are involved in the regional effort. The other counties are King, Pierce, Snohomish, Mason and Jefferson. Thurston County is covered by the Pierce County grant.

Some counties have been up and running for months. Others, including Kitsap, are a little slow because of contract complications. San Juan County contracted with Kitsap County, which then contracted with the health district and Bainbridge Island. Those last contracts were approved earlier this month.

The whole idea, Marc said, is to work with boat owners to keep the vessels from becoming derelict in the first place. If boat owners can take care of the problems, it costs the county and state almost nothing. Once declared derelict, government officials are forced to spend money in an effort to keep boats from sinking.

When a boat sinks, Marc said, the cost of dealing with the problem rises 10-fold, and the resulting pollution can destroy marine life.

In San Juan County, early action on problem boats has reduced the cost of dealing with derelict vessels from $76,000 in 2012 to $23,000 in 2013 to zero in 2014, he said. That doesn’t include vessels taken by the Washington Department of Natural Resources under the new Voluntary Turn-In Program, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Marc has a good way of dealing with people. He seems to understand the needs and challenges of boat ownership, and he tries to nudge people in the right direction.

“You have to take time to talk to boat owners,” he explained. “I call it ‘boat psychology.’ Some of these people have held onto their boats for 20, 30 or 40 years. They have loved their boat. When I talk to them, some will say, ‘I guess it’s time to let ol’ Betsy go,’ while others will say, ‘Over my dead body.’”

For the latter group, Marc drives home the fact that a boat owner may be held criminally liable for maintaining a derelict boat — and the Attorney General’s Office is now prosecuting such cases. Beyond that, an owner may be held financially responsible if a boat sinks — including the cost of raising the boat along with any natural resource damages caused by pollution.

“That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases,” he said. “You try to appeal to people’s better sense.”

In Kitsap County, people who see a boat listing or potentially sinking should call 911. For nonemergency conditions, one can call Kitsap One, 360-337-5777, except for Bainbridge Island where people should call Harbormaster Tami Allen at 206-786-7627. Additional information and phone numbers for other counties can be found on a Puget Sound Partnership webpage.

The DNR’s Vessel Turn-In Program gives some people a way to take action with little cost. To qualify, boats must be less than 45 feet long and have practically no value. The owner must lack the means to repair or dispose of the boat. If approved by DNR, the owner must drive or tow the vessel to a disposal location and turn over ownership to the state. For details, check out the DNR’s website on the Vessel Turn-In Program.

Since the turn-in program started last May, DNR has disposed 19 boats, with another five lined up for disposal, according to Joe Smillie of the agency. The Legislature provided $400,000 for the new turn-in program, which is separate from the larger Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

The removal program targets vessels at risk of sinking. In emergencies, DNR or local agencies can take immediate action, but normally the owner is given at least 30 days to move or repair the vessel.

Since 2002, DNR has removed about 550 abandoned vessels throughout the state. About 150 others have been tagged as “vessels of concern.”

In 2014 alone, 40 vessels were removed, including the sunken Helena Star. The Helena Star was raised from Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway and salvaged at a cost of $1.16 million, requiring special funding from the Legislature. The owner of the vessel was later charged with a crime.

See the Washington Department of Ecology’s Helena Star website and other information from the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

Ken Balcomb offers his personal observations about J-32’s death

UPDATE, DEC. 17, 2014
A news release sent out yesterday by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms what Ken Balcomb suspected when I interviewed him on the day the necropsy was performed. See also Associated Press story by reporter Phuong Le.
—–

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring inside her.

J-32 awaiting necropsy on Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
J-32 was taken to Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C., for the necropsy conducted Saturday.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the necropsy, which I reported in Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations as he watched the young whale grow up:

“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in 1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of 50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.

“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby (J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”

Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:

“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population — including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and her unborn offspring.

“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action.”

Ken’s full report is well worth reading. It can be found on the website of the Center for Whale Research or you can download the title, “Preliminary Necropsy Report for J32” by Kenneth Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

Kitsap gun club withdraws from toxic cleanup program

Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club has decided against undertaking a formal environmental cleanup of its property on Seabeck Highway — at least not any time soon, according to club officials.

The property is listed as a “hazardous site” by the Washington Department of Ecology, mostly because of lead and metals associated with shooting activities. The club had entered into the state’s Voluntary Cleanup Program — which puts a property owner in charge of the cleanup — but then withdrew from the program in late October.

Marcus Carter, executive officer for KRRC, told me that the club had been assured by state officials that if it entered the Volunteer Cleanup Program, it would not be placed on the state’s Hazardous Sites List.

“But they went ahead and ranked us anyway,” he said.

Map

I wrote about that ranking in the Kitsap Sun in January of 2013. The gun range was rated a “2” on a scale from 1 to 5, with “1” being the worst. I noted in the story that many sites ranked a “2” go without action for years. KRRC later disputed the ranking, saying available evidence should place it no higher than a “3.”

A letter written in October by Bruce Danielson (PDF 889 kb), attorney for the club, explained why KRRC was withdrawing from the program. He also noted, “Our voluntary participation has been an unacceptable drain on valuable resources that KRRC can no long afford to expend for no purpose.”

As an example of wasteful spending, Danielson cited a charge for a “fraudulent” phone call from the state Attorney General’s Office related to the site. The unwarranted billing was dropped, he noted, but only after significant effort by club officials.

Marcus Carter said he realizes that the shooting range could get stuck on the “Hazardous Sites List” for many years, similar to the situation with the Navy’s Camp Wesley Harris. The abandoned shooting range on Navy property also was ranked a “2.” Other than an initial cleanup, the Navy has taken no steps to get the property removed from the list. For a full list of hazardous sites, download the latest Hazardous Sites List (PDF 535 kb).

Marcus said the club initiated an extensive recycling program years ago to regularly remove lead and other contaminants from earthen berms that stop the bullets. The only contamination outside the range itself are small amounts of materials where shooting took place years ago, he said.

“Nothing is leaving our property,” Marcus insisted. “There have been no suggestions from DOE to make our operations more efficient or to do anything differently.”

As described in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2012, the gun club has been following an approach generally accepted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency:

“The club has relied on using EPA’s ‘best management practices’ to avoid being deemed a hazardous waste site subject to cleanup. State law does not include such provisions, but Ecology endorses EPA’s suggested practices, which are outlined in a 1997 letter written by Jeff Hannapel in EPA’s Office of Solid Waste.”

I then quoted from the Hannapel’s letter:

“The agency has taken the position that the discharge of ammunition or lead shot does not constitute hazardous waste disposal, because the agency does not consider the rounds from the weapons to be ‘discarded.’ Furthermore, the lead shot has not been ‘discarded’ by virtue of its discharge at the shooting range, because the discharge is within the normal and expected use pattern of the manufactured product. Accordingly, lead shot would be considered scrap metal for regulatory purposes.”

Ecology officials admit that they don’t have enough money to force property owners to clean up the most-contaminated sites, let alone those lower on list.

For several years, the group CK Safe and Quiet, which includes residents living near the shooting range, has been urging Ecology to get the site cleaned up. The group has expressed concerns about contamination leaving the site and getting into nearby waterways.

In 2011, the organization filed a notice saying it would sue for cleanup under the federal Clean Water Act, which allows citizen-initiated lawsuits. I mentioned the claims in a Kitsap Sun article at the time.

The group never filed the federal case, pending legal action against the club by Kitsap County, which focused on land-use and noise issues. A ruling in the county’s case was recently handed down by the Washington State Court of Appeals. See Kitsap Sun story by reporter Josh Farley.

Some members of CK Safe and Quiet say they are now considering a renewal of their Clean Water Act claims. Ryan Vancil, an attorney who wrote the 2011 letter (PDF 134 kb), no longer represents the group, but members are consulting with a new lawyer.

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

Hope of seeing larger orca population dashed by calf’s death

A seven-week-old baby orca born to our Southern Resident pods was reported missing and presumed dead today. This was the newborn orca who brought so much hope and excitement to our area, being the first reported birth in more than two years.

The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. The calf is reported missing and presumed dead. Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.
The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. // Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.

When I called Ken Balcomb this morning, he was in a “subjective” state of mind, as he put it. Ken, of the Center for Whale Research, has been keeping track of the three Southern Resident pods since 1976, and he’s clearly worried that these whales may be headed for extinction.

As we talked on the phone, Ken was peering through the large windows of his home on San Juan Island and watching a large purse seine vessel scooping up chum salmon and possibly other species as bycatch.

“I look at this every day, and I’ve seen this for almost 40 years,” Ken said. “There is no letup on the human part. Virtually no fish are getting past the outlet. We know the Fraser River runs are in poor shape, and our management doesn’t seem to take any kind of ecosystem approach.”

Salmon biologists set the sport and commercial fishing seasons based on an estimate of the number of fish returning. They update that estimate during the season based on harvest numbers caught in the nets.

“Whatever they are doing, it obviously has not worked, since we’ve seen run after run not doing well,” Ken said. “I get subjective about it and wonder when our society is going to do something to get more prey (for the whales).”

Ken said there was much hope for the seven-week-old orca, designated L-120, the third known offspring of the 23-year-old mother designated L-86.

“I was optimistic,” he told me. “When we first saw the baby, it had a squished-looking head, but even human babies can be born with a flattened head.

“Within a week, it was filling out well and was energetic,” he continued, and there was no reason to believe the calf would die.

The Southern Residents are known to bear a heavy burden of toxic chemicals, but transient killer whales are even more contaminated. The difference may be that transients, which eat marine mammals, may be getting enough food. Was the orca mom unable to nurse her baby? Did the toxic chemicals cause an immune deficiency? Or was there another problem? We’ll probably never know.

All three orca pods were probably out in the ocean when the youngster disappeared. The mom was seen with other whales on Friday, Saturday and Sunday without the calf — something that would not happen if the baby were alive.

L-120 was the third calf born to L-86. Her second calf, L-112, washed up dead at Long Beach in February 2010. After much investigation, researchers concluded that L-112 had died of blunt force trauma, but what caused the injury was never determined. Ken suspects some kind of explosive detonation, although that cause was discounted by investigators.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network said the orcas have faced a shortage of food, toxic chemicals, routine shooting with guns and a series of captures that depleted the population.

“We haven’t treated these magnificent orcas well at all,” Howie said in a news release. “As a society we are not successfully restoring this orca community, despite the many warnings and legal declarations.

“Our challenge is clear: Bountiful salmon runs must be restored and protected or we won’t see resident orcas in the Salish Sea in coming years,” he added.

The latest population count places the total number at 78, the lowest number since 1986, according to records by the Center of Whale Research.

Amusing Monday: Fascinating videos score high in E360 contest

Last month, “Yale Environment 360” announced the winners of a video contest with a focus on environmental themes. I found the videos fascinating and very well done, although they may not fit my normal definition of “amusing.” I think you’ll enjoy them.

Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town," the second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.
Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town,” second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.

“Yale Environment 360,” or “E360” for short, is a thoughtful online publication published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies. It is filled with reports and opinions on many environmental issues.

Clicking the image on this page will take you to the second-place winner in the contest, titled “A Red Dirt Town: An Enduring Legacy Of Toxic Pollution in Southern Waters.” Producer Spenser Gabin tells how the community of Anniston, Alabama, has been forced to cope with a legacy of PCB pollution from a Monsanto plant located upstream.

Gabin focuses on two main characters, Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper, who is attempting to get the rivers and lakes posted with warnings, and David Baker, a community activist who was one of the first to begin cleanup at the Monsanto site. Baker’s brother, who played in a PCB-contaminated area as a child, died at age 16 from cancer of the brain and lungs.

“A Red Dirt Town” was actually my favorite of the three.

The winning video in the contest is “Badru’s Story: Inside Africa’s Impenetrable Forest,” an account of Badru Mugerwa, who manages a network of cameras to document the loss of biodiversity and effects of climate change on Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The film was produced by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

The third-place winner is “Peak to Peak: An Intimate Look at
The Bighorn Sheep of the Rockies.”
Produced by Jeremy Roberts, the video captures images of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and their playful lambs, while biologist Jack Hogg talks about their behavior and describes how climate change may affect their future.

The contest rules prevent the entrants from showing their videos anywhere but on “E360” for at least 60 days, So I’m not able to embed the videos at this time.

Contest judges included “E360″ editor Roger Cohn, “New Yorker” writer and “E360″ contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon.

Another fascinating video produced for “E360″ is “The Colorado River: Running Near Empty,” which takes award-winning photographer Pete McBride back to his home area in Colorado. From there, he follows the Colorado River until it runs dry short of its historic delta in the Sea of Cortez.

Remember the “Raise the River or Move the Ocean” blog from earlier this year? It featured Robert Redford and Will Ferrell feigning a debate about the future of the Colorado River. I still get a laugh from those videos, which manage to help educate us about the issue.

Related websites:

Raise the River Facebook page

Save the Colorado

Three videos take us upstream, where it all begins

John F. Williams of Suquamish, known for his brilliant underwater videos, has worked his way upstream from Puget Sound and into the freshwater streams of the Kitsap Peninsula.

His latest video project began somewhat haphazardly, John told me. But the end result is nothing less than an entertaining and educational series that anyone can enjoy. It helps that each video is just a little over four minutes. In such a short time, John was able to tell a story while packing in a lot of information.

“It all started,” John said, “when Ron (Hirschi) invited me to come film him taking some preschool kids down to the South Fork of Dogfish Creek. He thought that would be fun.”

Ron Hirschi, who grew up around Port Gamble, worked as a biologist for years before becoming a successful children’s author. He tells stories of nature in simple and endearing ways. In the first video on this page, you’ll see Ron reading from one of his books.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ron and I have known each other for more than 30 years. He was an early mentor for me as I was learning about streams and shorelines in Western Washington, and I still rely on him for advice from time to time. He was an important voice in the book “Hood Canal: Splendor At Risk.”

Anyway, it was nice to see the two storytellers — John and Ron — link up on a project together.

“At the time, we had no idea where this was going,” John said.

A member of the Kitsap Environmental Education Program, John learned that some money was available for education projects through the “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign.

“It occurred to me that what I was doing with the streams fit into what they wanted,” he said, “so I pitched the idea of doing several movies about streams and people’s interactions with them. I wanted people to understand that these streams, which are hidden behind the trees, are part of their lives.”

John completed the video with Ron Hirschi, showing a visit to a forgotten stream, Poulsbo Creek, as well as the well-known Dogfish Creek, both in North Kitsap. John also obtained leads for stories about Olalla Creek in South Kitsap and Chico Creek in Central Kitsap.

His contact in South Kitsap was teacher Lisa Wickens at Ollalla Elementary School. It so happens that I had worked with Lisa on a story about elementary school children building a rain garden to prevent dirty water from getting into Olalla Creek. Check out “Olalla students learn science with a rain garden,” Kitsap Sun, Dec. 13, 2013 (subscription).

John was blown away by the intellectual and scientific skills of this younger generation.

“I was sitting in Lisa’s classroom one day, and she was giving her second-graders an assignment to write a persuasion piece,” John noted. “She wanted them to persuade someone to take care of the Earth. I said I would love to come and film the kids reading their papers… It was so amazing.”

You’ll get a feeling for their abilities in the second video.

For the third video, John connected with Maureen McNulty, a teacher at Klahowya Secondary School who was organizing the students to build a rain garden. It turned out that older students were teamed up with younger ones on the project, so that everyone learned something.

John also traced the path of a stream from the school wetlands into the adjoining forest and encountered Frank Sticklin, the chief guru for Newberry Hill Heritage Park. Frank educated John about beaver dams.

“I had never seen beaver ponds, and he showed me these incredible things,” John said.

In reality, John probably had seen beaver ponds and beaver dams without knowing that beavers were responsible. After Frank’s tour, he went for a walk south of Port Gamble and encountered something that he immediately recognized as a beaver dam. Once you’ve seen one, you know what to look for.

“I think of this as a metaphor of what I do with my movies,” John told me. “I help people see things that they haven’t seen before and to look at the world in a new way.”

John’s videos have been recorded onto DVDs and distributed to nearly 200 schools and environmental organizations throughout the area.

He’s now working on some projects involving the Puget Sound shoreline. I’ll let you when they are done. Meanwhile, you may wish to check out his websites, Still Hope Productions and Sea-Media.org.