Category Archives: Sediments

Foot by foot, shoreline bulkhead removal outpaces construction

It’s always nice when I can report a little good news for Puget Sound recovery. For the second year in row, we’ve seen more shoreline bulkheads ripped out than new ones put in.

Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute
Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute / Data: WDFW

After officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife completed their compilation of permit data for 2015, I can say that 3,097 feet of old armoring were removed, while 2,231 feet were added.

Scientific evidence is mounting that bulkheads cause considerable harm to the shoreline environment, affecting salmon and many other species integral to the Puget Sound food web.

As I pointed out in a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, we cannot say whether the armoring removed has restored more valuable habitat than what was destroyed by new structures. But we can hope that’s the case, since state and federal governments have targeted restoration funding toward high priority habitats. They include shorelines used by forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, as well as feeder bluffs, which deliver sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches.

One problem with the data, which officials hope to improve in the future, is that we don’t know whether the new bulkheads being built are the standard concrete or rock bulkheads or the less-damaging “soft-shore” projects. Unlike hard armor, soft-shore projects are designed to absorb wave energy by sloping the beach and placing large rocks and logs in strategic locations. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a reasonable compromise where armoring is truly needed.

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Harper Estuary project nears fall construction; bridge to come later

A new Harper Estuary bridge is being planned with a trail to the water. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
A new Harper Estuary bridge is being planned with a trail to the water. // Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

The Harper Estuary restoration project is finally coming together, with one contractor being hired for culvert removal, others bidding for the excavation work and engineers completing the designs for a new bridge.

Since June, the first phase of the project has been divided into two parts. The first actual construction will involve the replacement of a 24-inch culvert that carries Harper Creek under Southworth Drive. The new structure will be a three-sided, open-bottom culvert that spans 16 feet across the stream.

A larger culvert will carry Harper Creek under Southworth Drive. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
A larger culvert will carry Harper Creek under Southworth Drive. (Click to enlarge.)
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

Bids were opened, and a contractor has been preliminarily selected, said Doris Small, project coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday to iron out the final details and award the contract, she said.

The work must be completed by Oct. 15, so things will progress rapidly, she said. An announcement will be made soon regarding a temporary detour on Southworth Drive.

The remainder of the first phase involves the excavation of dirt and other debris used to fill in the estuary years ago. The project has been reduced slightly in size from the original design, reducing water contact in certain spots, Doris told me. Also, an analysis of the soils to be removed concluded that some of the fill material is contaminated at such a low level that it can be used as fill elsewhere or sent to a composting facility.

Olympiad Drive crosses Harper Estuary. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Olympiad Drive crosses Harper Estuary.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Bids will be taken on the excavation project until Sept. 13, and the work must be done before the middle of February.

The design of a new 120-foot-long bridge on Olympiad Drive is between 60 and 90 percent complete. Applications have been submitted for several grants to complete the project, primarily construction of the new bridge. The bridge will replace a 36-inch culvert where the road crosses the estuary. The design includes access for people to walk down to the water, and it can be used to launch small hand-carried boats.

As I described in Water Ways in June, the existing makeshift boat launch must be removed to allow the restored estuary to function properly. I am told, however, that county officials are still looking for a nearby site to build a new boat launch with access for trailered boats.

If grants are approved to cover the cost, the bridge could be under construction next summer, Doris said. The total estimated cost of the entire restoration is now $7 million, with $4.1 million approved from a mitigation fund related to contamination from the Asarco smelter in Tacoma.

For information:

Hospitality for salmon coming with restoration of Big Beef Creek

Big Beef Creek, which flows into Hood Canal near Seabeck, will soon undergo a major wetland renovation that should improve the survival of coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Other work, which started last year, involves placing large woody debris in the stream to create deep pools for salmon to cool off and rest before continuing their migration. The wood also will help to form new spawning areas for coho, fall chum and the threatened summer chum of Hood Canal.

Large woody debris placed in Big Beef Creek last summer has begun to form pools where salmon can escape the strong current. Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group
Large woody debris placed in Big Beef Creek last summer has begun to form pools where salmon can escape the strong current.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

Big Beef Creek is an unusual stream, one with a personal connection for me. In the late 1970s, I lived at Lake Symington, a man-made lake built years before by impounding Big Beef Creek. A few years ago, my wife and I bought a home with a tiny tributary of Big Beef Creek running through the property.

To get a lay of the land, I ventured along the stream and through the watershed in 1999, meeting many people along the way and gaining a new respect for Big Beef Creek — known as the longest stream contained entirely within Kitsap County. Check out my story for the Kitsap Sun called “The Watershed.” Much later, I wrote a Water Ways blog post about the creek beginning with, “It is the best of streams; it is the worst of streams,” with apologies to Charles Dickens.

Today, the $1.2 million habitat transformation is taking place in the lower portion of the stream, just upstream from the estuary where people go to watch bald eagles soar. (Check out this week’s “Amusing Monday.”) The project is on property owned by the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. Work is under the direction of Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, a division of Pacific Northwest Salmon Center.

Site work will expand an 11-acre wetlands by five acres and reconnect the wetland complex to the stream channel. Coho, which remain in freshwater for the first year of life, will find a safe place to stay during the low flows of summer and the fierce floods of winter.

Officials agreed to close the well, so a relocated road will not be needed. Note the off-stream channels and the ability for the stream to change course. Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group
Officials have agreed to close the well, so a relocated road will not be needed. Note the off-stream channels and ability of the stream to change course within the floodplain.
Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

“Coho rely on streams with complex habitat, including pools and shade with good water quality,” said Mendy Harlow, executive director of the salmon center. “In this project, we are focusing on the lower one mile of stream.”

Removing an access road along with 1,600 cubic yards of fill will restore two of the five acres of wetlands and open up the floodplain. The other two acres come from excavating some 4,500 cubic yards of fill from an elevated area where old storage buildings were removed last year.

In last year’s work, 10 man-made logjams were created where excavators could reach the creek. At the end of this month, helicopters will be used to place another 13 logjams in sections of the stream that could not be reached by land.

In a coordinated fashion, the helicopters also will be used to place logjams in Little Anderson Creek, which drains into Hood Canal just north of Big Beef. Little Anderson Creek, which originates near Newberry Hill Heritage Park, previously received several loads of wood in 2006 and again in 2009.

Both Big Beef and Little Anderson are part of an “intensively monitored watershed” program, in which experts are attempting to measure the extent to which habitat improvements increase salmon populations. It is not an easy thing to figure out, since salmon runs vary naturally from year to year. Still, over time, the improved spawning and rearing conditions should be measurable.

Other restoration work is planned on Seabeck Creek, while Stavis Creek will remain unchanged as the “control stream” for the Hood Canal complex of intensively monitored streams.

Fish traps placed in the streams monitor the out-migration of young salmon smolts, while a permanent fish trap at Big Beef Creek is used to count both smolts and returning adults. For each stream, biologists also count the number of redds — mounds of gravel where salmon have laid their eggs — to determine if conditions are improving.

Big Beef Creek logjams
Adding wood to Big Beef Creek results in greater stream complexity, offering salmon options for food, spawning and other needs.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

The improved wetlands and floodplain on Big Beef Creek will allow the stream to move among several historical stream channels as sediment loads build and decline over time. Strategically placed wood will provide complexity wherever the stream chooses to go, according to Mendy, who has been working toward this project since 2007.

“I’m really excited about it and look forward to the changes,” she said. “The phase of work going forward this summer is the important phase.”

Sarah Heerhartz, habitat program manager for Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, said improving the wetlands will not only help fish but also birds that favor wetlands. The stream will have room to move and spread out, she said, and some of the sediment from upstream sources will drop out before reaching the estuary.

“The floodplain is going to be a big boost for coho fry to smolt survival, because that will open up a lot of rearing habitat for juvenile coho,” Sarah told reporter Ed Friedrich in a story written for the Kitsap Sun.

The stream restoration is not expected to affect work at the UW research station, which continues to play a role in salmon studies, including efforts to improve hatchery conditions. In 1999, I wrote about the efforts to restore a run of summer chum on Big Beef Creek. Take a look at “Reviving a salmon run.” Unfortunately, the resuscitation effort has not been entirely successful, but there are new hopes that this summer’s stream repairs will give a boost to the summer chum as well as the coho.

Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

The long-running controversy over Washington state’s water quality standards for toxic chemicals is nearly over. We will soon know just how pure the water must be to get a clean bill of health.

chinook

We still don’t know whether the Environmental Protection Agency will approve the new state standards adopted this week or impose more stringent standards that EPA developed for several key pollutants. The EPA has already taken public comments on its proposed standards.

“We believe our new rule is strong, yet reasonable,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, in a news release. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable. With this rule now complete, we will continue to press forward to reduce and eliminate toxics from every-day sources.”

For more than two years, much of the controversy focused on the fish-consumption rate — an assumption about how much fish that people eat. The FCR is a major factor in the equation used to set the concentration of chemicals allowed in water before the waterway is declared impaired. (See early discussions in Water Ways, Nov. 11, 2010.)

Initially, after plenty of debate, the state proposed increasing the FCR from 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day — a 27-fold increase. The initial proposal counter-balanced the effect somewhat by increasing the cancer-risk rate from one in a million to one in 100,000 — a 10-fold shift. Eventually, the state agreed to retain the one-in-a-million rate.

As I described in Water Ways last October, some key differences remain between the state and EPA proposals. Factors used by the EPA result in more stringent standards. The state also proposes a different approach for PCBs, mercury and arsenic, which are not easily controlled by regulating industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants — the primary point sources of pollution.

PCB standards proposed by the EPA make representatives of industry and sewage-treatment systems very nervous. Water-quality standards are the starting points for placing legal limits on discharges, and EPA’s standard of 7.6 picograms per liter cannot be attained in many cases without much higher levels of treatment, experts say.

“Available data indicate that most state waters would not meet the EPA proposed criteria and that most (federally permitted) wastewater treatment plants will have to apply membrane filtration treatment and additional treatment technologies to address PCBs,” according to a letter from five industrial organizations and a dozen major businesses (PDF 3 mb).

Entities in Eastern Washington are in the midst of planning efforts to control pollution in the Spokane River, and major sewer upgrades are under consideration, the letter says.

“If Ecology were to follow the same approach on Puget Sound that it has on the Spokane River, this would amount to a range of compliance costs from nearly $6 billion to over $11 billion for just the major permits identified by EPA,” the letter continues. “A more stringent PCB criterion is also likely to impact how stormwater is managed, as PCB concentrations have been detected in stormwater throughout the state.”

For pulp and paper mills using recycled paper, the primary source of PCBs is the ink containing the toxic compounds at EPA-allowed concentrations, the letter says. Other major sources are neighborhoods, where PCBs are used in construction materials, and fish hatcheries, where PCBs come from fishmeal.

sailing

The letter points out similar problems for EPA’s proposed mercury standard, calling the level “overly conservative and unattainable in Washington (and the rest of the United States), as the levels of mercury in fish are consistently higher than the proposed criterion.”

When water-quality criteria cannot be attained for certain chemicals using existing water-treatment technology, facilities may be granted a variance or placed under a compliance schedule. Both environmentalists and facility owners have expressed concern over uncertainties about how the agencies might use these approaches.

Despite the uncertainties, environmentalists and Indian tribes in Washington state generally support the more stringent standards proposed by the EPA.

“Tribes concur that water quality discharge standards are only a part of the toxic chemical problem in the state of Washington and that more efforts toward source control and toxic cleanup are needed,” writes Lorraine Loomis of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “However, the standards are an essential anchor for determining where and how to deploy toxic reduction efforts and monitor enforcement.”

When I said this controversy is nearly over, I was referring to a time schedule imposed this week by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who ruled that the EPA missed its own deadlines for updating water quality criteria.

Rothstein, responding to claims from five environmental groups, imposed a new deadline based on EPA’s own suggested dates. Because the state has finalized its rule, the EPA now has until Nov. 15 to either approve the state’s criteria or sign a notice imposing its own standards. Checkout the judge’s ruling (PDF 494 kb).

The new criteria won’t have any practical effect until applied to federal discharge permits for specific facilities or in developing cleanup plans for specific bodies of water — although state inspectors could use the new state criteria for enforcing state laws if they discover illegal discharges.

If you want to dig a little deeper, view the full list of comments about Ecology’s proposal, many of which refer to the alternate EPA proposal as well. Ecology posts its information on its “Water Quality Rulemaking” page. EPA posts its information on the “Washington Water Quality Standards” page.

New Bucklin Hill Bridge helps restore habitat in Clear Creek estuary

Tidal waters in Silverdale flow smoothly in and out of Clear Creek estuary, passing under a new 240-foot-long bridge — a massive structure that has replaced a pair of six-foot culverts.

New Bucklin Hill Bridge Photo: C. Dunagan
New Bucklin Hill Bridge // Photo: C. Dunagan

I visited the site this afternoon, walking over to the bridge from Old Mill Park, and I found the changes startling. Flows of freshwater from Clear Creek joins saltwater that trickles through tidal channels from Dyes Inlet. Tidal shifts are reshaping the estuary, flushing out trapped sediment and leaving deposits of gravel of varying size. When the fall rains come, salmon will be able to linger in the estuary upstream or downstream of the bridge before moving up into the watershed.

Twin culverts before construction begins. Photo: Kitsap County
Twin culverts before construction
Photo: Kitsap County

Traffic across the estuary was shut off for construction a little more than a year ago. Now county officials are planning to celebrate the opening of the new bridge on Friday of next week (July 22). The ceremony, led by Kitsap County Commissioner Ed Wolfe, will begin at 10 a.m. on the east end of the bridge. A Marine Corps honor guard will present the colors, and the Central Kitsap High School marching band will perform.

“We encourage the community to join us in celebrating this special occasion,” Ed stated in a news release. “The new bridge not only addresses traffic needs, but provides additional non-motorized enhancements as well as restoring Clear Creek estuary with the removal of culverts.”

Parking will be available at the former Albertson’s/Haggen grocery store parking lot near the intersection of Bucklin Hill and Mickelberry roads.

The $19.4 million construction project is said to be the largest project of its kind ever undertaken by the county. The bridge allows the roadway to be widened from two to four lanes with a new left-turn lane at Levin Road and a center two-way turn lane elsewhere in the area. The project adds new bike lanes, sidewalks and pedestrian overlooks.

Looking upstream from under the new bridge. Photo: C. Dunagan
Looking upstream from under the new bridge
Photo: C. Dunagan

Kitsap County Public Works has posted a large number of photos showing the progress of construction on its Bucklin Hill Bridge project page.

After the bridge opens, the contractor, Granite Construction, will continue to finish various aspects of the project. Occasional traffic delays can be expected, according to county officials.

Chris Butler-Minor, a master’s degree candidate at Portland State University, is studying the ecological changes resulting from the project with the help of volunteers. They are collecting water samples and monitoring sediments, vegetation and invertebrates.

“It’s a yearlong inconvenience but the outcome will be improved transportation, improved bike and pedestrian access, and the salmon are going to love it,” Chris was quoted as saying in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Ed Friedrich.

The new Bucklin Hill Bridge opens up the estuary. Photo: C. Dunagan
The new Bucklin Hill Bridge opens up the estuary. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Engineers find new location for boat facility in Harper Estuary

At a community meeting in March, many residents of Harper in South Kitsap expressed profound disappointment that the latest plan to restore Harper Estuary would remove a low-key boat launch used by many people in the area. See Kitsap Sun story, March 31.

The makeshift boat launch, built on fill, provides the only access to the beach in that area, community members noted. Many expressed their belief that county and state officials had failed in their commitment to maintain beach access.

Not yet approved, this rough drawing shows how a trail alongside Olympiad Drive could be used to reach Harper Estuary. Drawing: Kitsap County Public Works
Not yet approved, this rough drawing shows a trail alongside Olympiad Drive to Harper Estuary.
Drawing: Kitsap County Public Works

After the meeting, five representatives of the community met onsite with officials involved in the project. Several ideas were discussed, and it appears that a new access to the estuary is gaining approval, though it won’t allow vehicles with trailers to reach the water. The new access would be an earthen ramp on the opposite side of Olympiad Drive.

An addendum to the planning documents (PDF 1.1 mb) makes it clear that the old boat launch basically prevents the $4-million restoration project from being done right.

“Retaining the boat landing in its current location will:

  • “Block the ability to replace the undersized culvert with a large bridge in order to restore estuary function and tidal exchange,
  • “Reduce sediment contaminant removal associated with the excavation project,
  • “Retain compacted gravel substrate that does not support aquatic plants or benthic organisms at the existing boat launch, and
  • “Impede restoration of filled estuarine habitat and functional channel geometry.”

The proposal now under consideration is to grade the slope alongside Olympiad Drive at a gentle 5:1 angle. Cars and trucks could pull off the side of the road long enough to unload their boats, which would be carried down the slope. For people who just want to walk down to the water, the ramp would provide the needed access and perhaps the beginning of a proposed trail system around the estuary.

Harper Estuary Contributed photo
Harper Estuary // Contributed photo

A plan to build stairs down to the water from Southworth Drive raised objections during the March meeting, because it would be difficult and unsafe to carry boats across the busy roadway and down concrete steps, which could become slippery. If the stairs are built, which remains undecided, they could be designed to contain gravel, making them less slippery.

Jim Heytvelt, a community leader in Harper, said the new access to the beach would meet the needs of most, but not all, people in the community. Most people in support of the restoration never wanted a major boat launch like the one at Manchester, he said. People are beginning to come around to the reality of the situation, given conditions needed to restore the estuary, he said.

During surveys of the property, officials discovered another problem that could have thrown a monkey wrench into the boat launch at its current location. The county learned that it does not own the property where the boat launch was built, as had been widely assumed. The property is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources — and nobody has ever been given approval to use the site.

Even if the restoration could be done without removing the launch site, nobody knows if the DNR would grant a lease for the use to continue. Someone might need to assume liability at the site. The proposed ramp to the estuary seems to eliminate that problem, as the property is almost entirely owned by the county.

Delays in preparing the plans, getting permits and putting the project out to bid has caused the schedule to slip from early summer into late summer and fall, said Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That assumes the project can be advertised for bids by the end of this month — something that is still not certain.

Any further delays could put the funding in jeopardy and might require new approvals from the Washington Department of Ecology and possibly the Legislature. The restoration money comes from a fund set up to mitigate for damages from the ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, which emitted toxic pollution for decades, some of which reached South Kitsap.

The first phase of the project involves excavation to remove most of the fill dumped into the estuary, allowing the shorelines to return to a natural condition. To complete the restoration, additional funding is being sought to build a bridge, which will replace the culvert under Olympiad Drive. If funding is approved, the bridge could be built as early as next summer.

Another community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church, 2881 Harvey St. SE. Officials will provide an update on the restoration efforts. County Commission Charlotte Garrido said she would like to continue discussions about what the community would like to see in the future, hoping to build a stronger relationship between the county and the community.

Upper Skokomish designated as ‘properly functioning’ watershed

More than 20 years of removing and reconstructing old logging roads in the Skokomish River watershed has finally paid off with measurable improvement to water quality and habitat, according to experts with Olympic National Forest where millions of dollars have been spent on restoration.

In a U.S. Forest Service project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” contract crews removed nearly 100 vertical feet of road in the South Fork of the Skokomish watershed to remove an eight-foot culvert. The work allowed a mountain stream to flow freely into the Skokomish River. Photo: Kitsap Sun, Steve Zugschwerdt.
In a U.S. Forest Service project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” contract crews removed nearly 100 vertical feet of road in the South Fork of the Skokomish watershed to remove an eight-foot culvert.
Photo: Kitsap Sun, Steve Zugschwerdt

The U.S. Forest Service this week declared that the upper South Fork of the Skokomish is now a “properly functioning” watershed, and the major road-restoration projects are complete.

After writing for years about horrendous problems with sediment washing out of the upper watershed, this news comes as a nice surprise. I’ve been hearing experts talk about water-quality improvements, but this new declaration is a major milestone in the restoration of the entire Skokomish River ecosystem.

“This is a proud and historic occasion for the Forest Service and our many partners who have worked very hard for over two decades to restore this once badly degraded watershed,” Reta Laford, supervisor for Olympic National Forest, said in a news release.

In 2010, the Forest Service classified the South Fork Skokomish as an “at-risk” watershed during a nationwide effort called the Watershed Condition Framework. Several other watersheds in Olympic National Forest also received this designation. See the map at the bottom of this page or download (PDF 5.3 mb) from the Forest Service website.

In 2012, Olympic National Forest designated the upper and middle South Fork Skokomish sub-watersheds as “priority watersheds.“ Forest Service officials pushed forward with action plans containing a list of restoration projects designed to put the watersheds on a path to ecological health.

For your review:

Completion of the key restoration projects in the upper South Fork allowed for the new designation as a “properly functioning” watershed. This marks the first time that any watershed in Olympic National Forest has been upgraded due to completion of all essential restoration projects. Watershed conditions and aquatic habitat will continue to improve as natural processes roll on.

Restoration in the South Fork actually began in the early 1990s, when the Forest Service acknowledged that the region was criss-crossed by a damaging network of logging roads. At nearly four miles of road for every four one square mile of forest, it was one of the densest tangles of roads in any national forest.

In 1994, the Forest Service designated the South Fork Skokomish as a “key watershed” in the Northwest Forest Plan, which called for major cutbacks in logging and received support from President Bill Clinton. Between the early 1990s and 2005, Olympic National Forest completed $10.6 million in restoration work, including $7.9 million for road decommissioning, road stabilization and drainage improvements.

In 2005, the Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT) was formed among a coalition of more than 20 government agencies, environmental organizations and business groups with diverse interests. The SWAT developed a unified front for promoting restoration projects and seeking funds. Members agreed that the focus on roads should begin with the upstream segments, later moving downstream, while other work was coordinated on the estuary near Hood Canal. Much of the lower area was owned or acquired by the Skokomish Tribe, a critical partner in the SWAT.

Between 2006 and 2015, the Forest Service continued with $13.2 million in restoration projects in the South Fork, including $10.9 million on road problems. In all, 91 miles of roads were decommissioned, closed or converted to trails, and 85 miles of roads were stabilized or improved with new culverts and drainage features.

In 2008, I wrote about the problems and response of the SWAT in a Kitsap Sun story: “Taking (Out) the High Roads to Save the Skokomish.”

Much of the road restoration work was funded by Congress through the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program. Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks was instrumental in creating that program, and congressional support has continued under the leadership of Norm’s successor, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Key funding for restoration also has come from the Forest Stewardship program, which uses receipts from commercial timber thinning on forest lands. Other financial support — especially in the lower watershed — has come from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2009, I wrote a story for “Wilderness” magazine about how these programs were bringing “green jobs” to the region.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed an in-depth study of the river’s ecosystem last year and is now seeking funding from Congress for a series of projects in the watershed. Check out Water Ways, April 28, 2016.

To celebrate this milestone for Olympic National Forest, the SWAT will recognize the work at its general meeting Friday at the Skokomish Grange Hall, 2202 W. Skokomish Valley Road. The meeting begins at 9 a.m., and the public is invited.

Map

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.

Elwha River:
a continuing march
on the way to renewal

It has always been a question to ponder: Will the most significant changes to the Elwha River ecosystem occur upstream of where two dams have been removed or downstream where the river enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca?

Photo: Olympic National Park
Photo: Olympic National Park

Soon after each dam was torn down in succession — the lower one first — salmon began migrating upstream, while more than 30 million cubic yards of sediment began moving downstream.

It could take a number of years to rebuild the extensive runs of salmon, including the prized chinook for which the Elwha was famous among salmon fishermen across the country. Will we ever see the legendary 100-pound chinook return to the Elwha, assuming they ever existed? That was a question I explored in a story for the Kitsap Sun in September 2010.

On the other hand, massive amounts of sediment have already spilled out of the Elwha River, building an extensive delta of sand and gravel, including about 80 acres of new habitat and two miles of sandy beach.

Reporter Tristan Baurick focused on the dramatic shoreline changes already taking place at the mouth of the Elwha in a well-written story published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The Coastal Watershed Institute, which is monitoring the shoreline near the mouth of the Elwha has documented increases in critical forage fish populations, including surf smelt, sand lance, eulachon (candlefish) and longfin smelt. See CWI Blog. These fish feed a host of larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

Tristan describes the changes offshore, where an area starved of sediment is turning into prime habitat for starry flounder, Dungeness crab and many other animals. Rocky outcroppings that once provided attachment for bull kelp is giving way to fine sand, which allows for colonization by eelgrass and a host of connected species. I described some of the early changes in the flora in a Kitsap Sun story in March of 2013.

For people to view the restoration first-hand, I described a day trip to the Elwha in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2013. Along the way, you can check out the history, enjoy the vantage points and learn about the changes taking place. Tristan offers a suggestion worth heeding to ensure ongoing beach access.

“Access to the beach is granted by the dike’s owners. They could take that away if the area’s overwhelmed with trash, noise and other nuisances, so keep that in mind when you visit.”

If you’d like to see a video record of dam removal and ecosystem recovery, you may wish to view the film “Return of the River” to be shown at Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre on Friday, March 13. The film will be followed by a panel discussion involving the film’s producers, John Gussman and Jessica Plumb. For details, check the Kitsap Sun website.

Shoreline bulkheads impose changes on
the natural ecosystem

It goes without saying that wood, rock or concrete bulkheads built along the shoreline are not natural. They certainly don’t look like any structure formed by nature. And when the water is pushing up against them, waves bounce around and splash back instead of rolling up on shore.

Bulkhead

I have never had any trouble understanding some of the problems caused by bulkheads. I imagine little juvenile salmon swimming along the shoreline, working their way toward the ocean. In shallow water, these little fish can stay away from the bigger fish that want to eat them. But bulkheads create a stretch of deeper water, where predatory fish can swim in close and devour the little ones.

I’ve been told that bulkheads cause other problems as well, such as blocking shoreline erosion. But isn’t that what they are designed to do? What’s the problem? As I’ve learned — especially over the past few months — natural erosion provides the sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches. Natural beaches also collect driftwood, which provides additional habitat for a variety of creatures.

As many readers know, I now work half-time for the Puget Sound Institute, a University of Washington affiliate that publishes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We’ve been working on a series of articles about bulkheads — formally known as shoreline armoring — and I’m more convinced than ever that bulkheads really do cause problems.

Surf smelt Photo: Wikimedia commons
Surf smelt // Photo: Wikimedia commons

The first story in the series, released this week, describes the effects of bulkheads on spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance, two kinds of small fish that are an important food source for salmon, birds and marine mammals. Check out my story, “Spawning habitat for forage fish being lost to rising tides.”

As sea levels continue to rise, the high-tide and low-tide lines move to higher elevations on the beach — until the high-tide line reaches the bulkhead. For many bulkheads, the high-tide line is already there. At that point, the rising sea level continues to push the low-tide line to higher and higher elevations, reducing the spawning habitat for fish that lay their eggs in the intertidal area.

This shrinking habitat is known as “coastal squeeze” or “beach squeeze.” Recent studies suggest that where bulkheads are located, Puget Sound could lose 80 percent of this spawning habitat by the turn of the century, based on average predictions of sea-level rise.

On beaches without bulkheads, the high-tide line would move steadily inland, helping to maintain the critical habitat for forage fish, according to Timothy Quinn, chief scientist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Everywhere in Puget Sound, there will be beach squeeze when you don’t allow things to equilibrate on the land side,” he told me. “What used to be exposed beach (during the tidal cycle) will no longer be exposed.”

It turns out that many bulkheads constructed through the years were never needed to prevent erosion, because they were built to protect homes in areas where erosion is minimal. Future stories in our series will cover this issue, including the prospect of removing existing bulkheads to improve shoreline habitats. Unfortunately, sea level rise adds a new twist to the discussion. Still, the best advice when building a new house is to keep the structure back from the water’s edge.

In addition to the general story about beach squeeze, I wrote a sidebar about a study that looked at the effects of this phenomenon on 15 different beaches in the San Juan Islands. See “Forage fish are losing places to lay their eggs.”

Meanwhile, this initial installment of the Shoreline Armoring Series includes a nice piece by science writer Eric Scigliano called “Shoreline armoring’s effect on the food web.” In this story, Eric looks at a broad spectrum of effects caused by bulkheads. He reports on an involved study that focused on a series of paired beaches — one with a bulkhead and one without — located in various parts of Puget Sound.

Most of the studies that we will report on during this series were funded by the Environmental Protection Agency through grants coordinated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The plan is to release about two additional stories each week over the next two weeks.

Surf smelt spawning zone below low tide mark Illustration: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Surf smelt spawning zone below high tide mark
Illustration: Dan Penttila, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife