Category Archives: Sediments

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

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.”

Skokomish watershed continues on road
to restoration

It’s turning out to be a good Christmas for the Skokomish watershed in southern Hood Canal, where numerous restoration projects recently received a green light.

Skok watershed

Restoring the Skokomish River ecosystem is often regarded as essential to restoring Hood Canal to a healthy condition. Work over the past 10 years has reduced sediment coming from the Olympic Mountains, improved flow conditions in the river and restored tidal mixing and native vegetation in the vast Skokomish estuary.

Continuing efforts — including a new fish-passage facility in the North Fork of the Skokomish — are contributing to an increase in species diversity and improved salmon habitat.

The latest news involves future restoration efforts, including an award of five grants totaling $1.4 million from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In addition, top officials in the Army Corps of Engineers have endorsed the long-awaited Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration Plan, expected to cost about $20 million.

“We are making solid progress on all fronts,” said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society who serves as coordinator of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. The action team, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, includes representatives of federal, state and local agencies, the Skokomish Tribe, environmental groups, business interests and area residents.

It has been rewarding for me to watch the coordinated efforts — from the U.S. Forest Service working high up in the Olympic Mountains to the Skokomish Tribe and Mason Conservation District working on the tidelands of Hood Canal. For a history of the struggle, please read my 2009 series “Taming the Skokomish.” Part 1, the people; Part 2, farming; Part 3, logging; Part 4, the restoration.

When culverts fail, streams can become inundated with sediment. The Forest Service has been engaged for 20 years in removing unneeded roads. Photo: Kitsap Sun
When culverts fail, streams can become inundated with sediment. The Forest Service has been removing unneeded roads in the Skokomish watershed for 20 years.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

On a related note, the Forest Service recently announced that it has completed its effort to remove unneeded logging roads and make sure they no longer contribute sediment to nearby streams and the Skokomish River. In all, more than 200 miles of roads have been decommissioned over the past 20 years.

The Forest Service is now moving ahead with “vegetation management” on some 4,500 acres of timberland in the Lower North Fork and Lower South Fork of the Skokomish River. The project involves commercial timber harvest and restoration treatments in an effort to accelerate the return to old-growth conditions. See Vegetation Management Project.

A Dec. 14 letter (PDF 818 kb) from the Army’s chief of engineers moves the Skokomish restoration project one step closer to congressional approval.

“The recommended plan provides restoration on a total of 277 acres in the study area and provides substantial benefits to nationally significant resources,” states the letter from Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick. “In addition, the removal of the levee at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Skokomish River provides significant benefits for upstream fish passage to an approximate additional 40 miles of habitat in the South Fork Skokomish River that is periodically inaccessible due to the lack of water in the river channel adjacent to the confluence.”

Although the project names have been modified to stress ecosystem functions, I reported on all five in Water Ways a year ago:

Car body 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.

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.

Setback levee 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.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. 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.

If approved by Congress, the federal government would pay 65 percent of the cost, with 35 percent coming from state and local governments.

The ecosystem investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers also identified other worthy projects that did not qualify for funding through the Corps. Some of those projects are being funneled through other state and federal programs. Projects recently approved by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board:

Weaver Creek
Weaver Creek

Reconnecting Weaver Creek, $200,000: A new 750-foot channel will connect a stagnant portion of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek, and about 25 logs will be installed. In addition to improved flows, the project will boost oxygen levels in the stream. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $153,000 from a separate federal grant.

South Fork Logjams, $225,000: Twenty-two man-made logjams will be added to the Holman Flats area in the South Fork of the Skokomish River to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. This area was once cleared for a reservoir that was never built, resulting in excess sediment that destroys salmon spawning beds. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $469,000 from a separate state grant.

Logjam priorities in Upper South Fork, $305,000: Mason Conservation District will study a 12-mile stretch of the Upper South Fork of the Skokomish to develop a prioritized list of the best places to install future logjams. Logjams are designed to improve fish habitat, reduce sediment movement and stabilize stream banks. The conservation district will contribute $54,000 and labor.

Logjam designs for Skokomish, $265,000: Mason Conservation District will work with landowners to select a design for logjams on a 1.6-mile stretch of the Skokomish River that lacks shoreline structure. The conservation district will contribute $47,000 in donations of equipment.

Concepts for moving Skokomish Valley Road, $363,000: Moving the road away from the South Fork of the Skokomish River would allow for the removal of levees, restoration of the river banks and reconnection of the river to about 60 acres of floodplain. This project would investigate possible locations for a new road as well as the possible addition of a meander to the river channel and the removal or relocation of a bridge over Vance Creek. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $64,000 from a separate federal grant.

The goals of the Skokomish restoration and progress in the watershed are reported in an “effectiveness monitoring” document by the Puget Sound Partnership. Progress on other watersheds and strategic initiatives are reported on the “Effectiveness Monitoring” webpage.

Gov. Inslee yields on cancer risk, pushes new water-quality plan

Gov. Jay Inslee has given in to critics who argued that the state’s updated water-quality standards should not increase the cancer-risk rate for people who eat a lot of fish.

But it appears that a new state proposal, to be made public by early next year, is not likely to satisfy tribal and environmental groups striving for the most stringent water-quality standards, such as those in effect in Oregon.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards that could be imposed on Washington state, but the agency has committed to holding off if the state comes up with acceptable standards.

In a statement issued today, the governor said he has been pressed to develop a state rule and not let the EPA have the final say:

“My goal all along has been to update Washington’s clean water rule with one that assures the health of Washington’s people, fish and economy. The number one thing I hear over and over when talking with people is how critical it is that we maintain control over creation of this rule to ensure that we’re protecting human health while providing businesses and local governments sensible tools to comply with the stricter standards.”

Efforts to update the state’s water-quality standards have been the focus of a confusing debate for the past several years. The goal of protecting human health has sometimes been forgotten, as I tried to point out in a two-part series published in March in the Kitsap Sun.

Anticipating where this issue is headed, I’m watching three key issues:

1. The formula used to establish the water-quality criteria

Numerical concentrations are established in a mathematical formula applied to about 100 priority pollutants. The first debate was over the fish-consumption rate, or the daily amount of fish that a person might eat. It was generally agreed that the current rate of 6 grams (0.21 ounce) a day was ridiculously low and should be raised to 175 grams (6 ounces) a day.

To balance the effect of that 29-fold increase, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer risk rate from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000 — a rate approved by the EPA in some states and allowed by EPA guidance. Inslee also included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that none of the current standards would be relaxed (except for arsenic). The EPA has made it clear that 1 in 100,000 was not acceptable, so Inslee consented to go back to the current rate of 1 in a million.

It is important to understand that the formula includes other factors that affect the allowable chemical concentrations. One is the “relative source contribution,” for non-cancer-causing chemicals. The RSC considers how much chemical exposure a person gets from water and fish consumption versus other exposure pathways, such as through the lungs and skin. EPA’s RSC is generally five times lower than the state’s proposal, which means the state would allow a chemical concentration five times higher than EPA. The state intends to stick to its previously proposed RSC, according to Ecology’s Kelly Susewind, a water policy adviser.

The state also uses a bioconcentration factor, which considers the uptake of a chemical from water, whereas EPA uses a bioaccumulation factor, which considers the uptake from all sources. The EPA method produces a more stringent standard.

The state and EPA now seem consistent on most other factors, including body weight, drinking water consumption and toxicity factors, but those two inconsistent factors will make EPA’s proposed standards more stringent than the state’s.

2. Implementation tools

The water quality standards are used as a starting point for issuing permits for discharges from point sources of pollution, such as industrial and sewage-treatment outfalls. Special consideration can be given when proven technology is not available to meet the approved standards.

When the standards cannot be met with reasonable approaches, the state may approve a variance to either reduce the requirements or allow a long time for compliance. A “compliance schedule” is another tool that allows a more limited time for a facility to meet the standards.

Another implementation tool that could be approved is the intake credit. This could be used when a facility draws water from a specific water body and returns its wastewater to the same location. The idea is that a discharger should not be required to make the wastewater cleaner than the waters it is going back into.

3. The problem chemicals: PCBs, mercury and arsenic

The state proposes keeping the current water-quality standards for polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury, which come from many sources other that discharges from pipes. Mercury, for example, can be released into the air by coal-fired power plants, travel across the ocean and become deposited into local waterways. PCBs, which are widespread through the food web, can come from unregulated stormwater and sediments deposited years ago.

Arsenic, on the other hand, can occur naturally in levels higher than what would be allowed under water-quality standards calculated in the normal way. The state proposes to set the water-quality standard for arsenic at the level allowed for drinking water.

For these problem chemicals, Inslee said dischargers cannot reasonably be held accountable for chemical levels beyond their control.

Cleaning up the rest

Going into this year’s legislative session, Inslee proposed a bill to go after the worst nonpoint pollution in concert with newly proposed cleanup standards. The legislation included a process and funding for conducting chemical investigations and developing chemical action plans, but it failed to pass the Legislature.

Since then, the EPA released its own rule with the proviso that it would consider another state proposal if one is submitted before EPA completes its review process.

Inslee said he is still concerned that the new clean water standards address only limited pollutants, and in many cases not even the right ones.

“The proposed rule only regulates 96 chemicals, yet there are hundreds of toxics that come from everyday products,” he said. “The toxics package we sent to the Legislature would have helped us take a hard run at those to make a much more meaningful difference in making our water safer and healthier.”

Tribal and environmental concerns

Tribal and environmental officials were skeptical of the governor’s latest approach.

“Tribes were pleased to hear today that Gov. Inslee now supports maintaining the current state cancer risk rate to protect us all from toxins in our state’s waters,” said Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Tribes remain concerned, however, that Inslee’s proposed standards will not be as protective as the EPA’s.

“We believe that the EPA’s proposed standards are based on the best available science and offer strong protection in a timely manner,” Loomis said. “We expect state standards to be measured against the bar that EPA has set.”

Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said his concern is that Ecology’s approach won’t result in any meaningful efforts to clean up the state’s waterways.

“Ecology must not return to its earlier failed approach of giving the appearance of protection while riddling the rule with loopholes,” Wilke said in a preopared statement. “Governor Inslee must do everything possible to protect the most vulnerable from the devastating effects of neurotoxins such as mercury and other harmful chemicals.”

Making amends for mistakes that damaged our natural world

Preservation is cheaper than restoration. If you need proof, one place to look is the Beard’s Cove estuary-restoration project on Hood Canal, about a mile outside of Belfair.

The project, nearing completion, is re-establishing 7.3 acres of saltwater wetlands by excavating and removing about 4,000 dumptruck loads of old fill dirt from an area originally built as a private park for the Beard’s Cove community.

Belfair and Lynch Cove as depicted on this map created in 1884 by the U.S. Office of Coast Survey. Colors were added, and the label “1973 fill area” shows the site of the current restoration. Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.
Belfair and Lynch Cove as depicted on a map created in 1884 by the U.S. Office of Coast Survey. Colors were added, and the label “1973 fill area” shows the site of the current restoration.
Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file

It is a rare restoration project, because essentially the same dirt used to fill the wetlands in 1973 is being taken out and put back where it came from — across North Shore Road from the development. The cost is estimated at $1.1 million, as reported by Arla Shephard in a story in the Kitsap Sun.

Filling in the salt marsh was part of the development plan for the Beard’s Cove plat, approved by the Mason County commissioners a few years before construction began. The voter-approved Shoreline Management Act and other environmental regulations were just coming on the scene.

Hood Canal Environmental Council, a fledgling group at the time, testified against the Beard’s Cove project. Phil Best, a young lawyer who would later become Kitsap County commissioner, was a founder of that organization.

“We were concerned that this project would set a precedent,” Phil told me. “If you start filling in all these marsh areas, you would be destroying a lot of salmon habitat throughout Hood Canal.”

Although scientists today know much more about the value of estuaries, Phil said there was plenty of evidence at the time about the damage that would be caused by this kind of project. Much of the scientific information was provided by researchers at the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. That facility, near Seabeck in Kitsap County, is still used for salmon research.

In the end, the Beard’s Cove developer prevailed with the county commissioners and the courts, and the fill was dumped into the estuary to create a park. Today, of course, a project like this would not even get off the drawing board.

Aerial photo from 1973 during construction of the Beard’s Cove development, a portion of which was built on fill going out into Hood Canal. Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.
Aerial photo from 1973 during construction of the Beard’s Cove development, a portion of which was built on fill going out into Hood Canal.
Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.

“We’re finally getting to where things should be,” Phil said, “but it is unfortunate that we have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars, when the permit for this should have been denied in the first place. There is a lesson to be learned here: It is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to environmental issues.”

For every restoration project we know about, someone could have avoided the cost by not doing the damage in the first place. We must recognize that we are paying for many mistakes made by our forefathers.

At the same time, we must face the fact that — despite all we have learned — we are still doing damage to the ecosystem. Some damage is inevitable, as more development is needed to accommodate a growing population. But we should be as careful as we can, so our descendants don’t have to undo what we have done.

The alternative, of course, is far more dreadful. If we cannot turn the tide on our ecological destruction and find a way to live within the natural world, Puget Sound is doomed to ecological collapse. Future generations might live on a large, sterile pond and wonder what it once was like. They might as well live on the moon.

The 540 or more families who live in the Beard’s Cove Community today had nothing to do with the mistakes that were made. Who could blame them for using the park and swimming pool developed for their use? People who grew up in Beard’s Cove cherish the memories of that park. I would suggest that it is of little value to blame anyone for past mistakes, since society as a whole sanctioned all sorts of activities that we would not allow today.

The Beard’s Cove community should be congratulated for breaking with the past and allowing the restoration to take place. It may be true that the decision was easier after the park fell into disrepair. Someone apparently destroyed the old swimming pool by draining it during an extreme high tide, causing it to “float” up out of the ground — or so the story goes, says Louena “Louie” Yelverton, president of the Beard’s Cove Community Organization.

Louie says the community supports the restoration of the marsh and looks forward to seeing a more natural shoreline.

“it is nice to be part of a restoration project, realizing that this is a small part of a 700-acre project that is going to help salmon,” she said. “As a society, we are starting to learn that we need to give forethought to the future. It might not affect us, but it will be there for our grandkids and future generations. I am glad to be part of this.”

Louie credits Kate Kuhlman of Great Peninsula Conservancy for helping to generate goodwill in the community. Her concerns for the people as well as the steadfast promotion of the science helped get the project to construction. GPC coordinated the grants to get the work done with some land left for community use.

“She has been a trooper through everything,” Louie said. “Now we are going to have a park, and the shoreline is going to be good for salmon. I am super-excited that we are toward the end of this and will get to see what all the hard work has accomplished.”

Wetlands along the North Shore of Hood Canal have been undergoing protection and restoration for 30 years. This is where I chose to write the opening chapter of the book “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk.”

The Beard’s Cove project, including a permanent conservation easement, fills in the final gap in a full 1.7 miles of unbroken estuarine habitat to be preserved in perpetuity, thanks to GPC and its North Mason predecessor, Hood Canal Land Trust, along with Pacific Northwest Salmon Center, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the North Mason School District.

The project includes the construction of 2,530 feet of newly formed tide channels, 1,200 feet of graveled beach and large woody debris habitat structures.

Marsh areas like this are among the most productive places on the planet, supporting a rich food web that includes salmon species such as Puget Sound chinook, Puget Sound steelhead and Hood Canal summer chum, all listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List.

Manchester sewer plant leads the pack with another perfect score

A record number of sewage-treatment plants in Washington state fully complied with state water-quality requirements in 2014, with 128 plants winning the coveted Outstanding Performance Award from the Department of Ecology.

The number of sewage-treatment plants recognized for meeting all water-quality requirements grew from 14 to 127 over the past 20 years.
The number of sewage-treatment plants recognized for meeting all water-quality requirements grew from 14 in 1995 to 128 last year.

The awards program has reached its 20th year, and the Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant in South Kitsap remains ahead of the pack. It’s the only plant with a perfect score every year since the program began.

In the first year of Ecology’s awards program, only 14 plants across the state were recognized as doing everything right, but that number has grown nearly every year.

Last year, 128 winning treatment plants — more than a third of all the plants in the state — passed every environmental test, analyzed every required sample, turned in all reports and allowed no permit violations.

“The talents of our professional operators are critical to successful plant operations and protecting the health of Washington’s waters”, said Heather Bartlett, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program, in a news release. “It is an honor to recognize their contributions with these awards.”

Kitsap County officials are rightly proud of the perfect record. Five years ago, in an article in Treatment Plant Operator magazine, lead operator Don Johnson said the success of the Manchester plant could be credited to the dedicated wastewater staff and support from all levels of county government. Don, who retired last year, has been replaced by Ken Young.

The magazine article may tell you more than you want to know about the design and operation of the Manchester plant. The plant was a modern facility when Ecology’s awards program was launched 20 years ago, and it has been kept up to date through the years.

Johnson stressed that treatment-plant operators should always be prepared for new developments.

“My advice is for them to remain adaptable and up to date,” he said. “There are many changes in the industry, and it’s important to pursue energy efficiency and create reusable resources.”

Reaching the 20-year mark deserves some kind of celebration for the Manchester plant. I would suggest organized tours of the facility, public recognition for all the plant workers through the years and maybe a slice of cake. So far, I’m told, no specific plans have been made.

A list of all the treatment plants in the state showing a history of their perfect scores (PDF 464 kb) can be downloaded from Ecology’s website.

Port Townsend’s treatment plant has had a perfect score for 19 of the 20 years, missing only 1997. Meeting the perfect standard for 16 of the past 20 years are two plants owned by the city of Vancouver — Marine Park and Westside.

Kitsap County’s Kingston plant has received the award for nine straight years. The county’s Suquamish plant, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection agency because it is on tribal land, has met all permit requirement for 15 years straight. (EPA does not issue awards.)

Have we turned the corner on Puget Sound bulkhead construction?

It’s hard to describe the surprise I felt when I first glanced at a new graph plotting bulkhead construction and removal along Puget Sound’s shoreline since 2005.

On the graph was a blue line that showed how new bulkhead construction had declined dramatically the past two years. But what really caught my eye was a green line showing an increase in bulkhead removal. Amazingly, these two lines had crossed each other in 2014, meaning that the total length of bulkheads removed had exceeded the total length of bulkheads built last year.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Not only was this the first time this has ever happened, it was totally unexpected. Few people really believed that bulkhead removal could exceed construction anytime soon. I was happy to write up these new findings in the latest newsletter for the Puget Sound Institute, where I’m now employed part-time.

“It was pretty shocking — in a good way,” said Randy Carman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who coordinated the data based on state permits. “It makes me optimistic going forward.”

Randy helped develop the “vitals signs indicator” for shoreline armoring, along with a “target” approved by the Puget Sound Partnership. The target called for the total length of armoring removed to exceed the total length constructed for the 10-year period from 2011 through 2020.

Like many of the vital signs indicators, this one for shoreline armoring was far from a sure thing. In fact, like most of the indicators, the trend was going in the wrong direction. Some people believed that the Puget Sound Partnership was setting itself up for failure.

These were “aspirational” targets, Randy recalled, and meeting them would be a tremendous challenge for many individuals, government agencies and organizations.

As I described in some detail in the article for PSI, the number of new bulkheads has declined, in part because of new government rules. Meanwhile, the number of bulkheads removed has increased, in part because of government funding.

But something else may be afoot, as pointed out by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. A new “culture” may be taking hold in which people realize that bulkheads are neither good for the environment, attractive nor functional when it comes to people enjoying their own beach.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County.
Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

When talking to shoreline property owners who have removed a rock or concrete bulkhead, often the first thing they tell me is how much nicer their beach has become. No more jumping or climbing off a wall. No more rickety stairs. One can walk down a slope and plop down a lawn chair wherever the tide tells you is the right spot.

“The factors are all in place for a paradigm shift,” Sheida told me. “When people see the geotech reports for their own beach, they can see there is a different way. People can take off their shoes and put their toes in the sand.”

Getting contractors and real-estate agents to understand and support new methods of beach protection and restoration is one strategy being considered. Personally, I was impressed with the change in direction by Sealevel Bulkhead Builders. Check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

It takes a little land to create the right slope to dissipate wave energy without any man-made structure. In some cases, large rocks and logs — so-called “soft shore protection” — can help reduce erosion. In some situations where land is limited and wave energy is high, a solid wall may be the only remedy. No matter which option is used, one must consider the initial cost and long-term maintenance — including consideration of sea-level rise caused by global warming.

“The secret,” said Dave Price, “is less about the strong arm of regulation and more about helping people understanding what they are getting.”

Scientific evidence about the damage of bulkheads has been building for several years. Among the impacts:

  • Loss of beach and backshore, which reduces the area used for recreation, shellfish, bird habitat and forage-fish spawning.
  • Loss of slow, natural erosion, which helps maintain the quantity and quality of sand and gravel along the shoreline.
  • Alteration of wave action, which can impede natural movement of sand and gravel and scour the beach of fine sediment, leaving hardpan and scattered rocks.
  • Increased predation of juvenile salmon by larger fish where high tides leave deep water along the bulkhead, plus fewer insects for food caused by loss of shoreline vegetation.

See Washington Department of Ecology’s Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 640 kb)

Bulkheads can cause a coarsening of a beach over time, with harder and harder substrate becoming evident. Damage from one bulkhead may be slow and limited, experts say, but alterations to more than 25 percent of the shoreline, as we see today, has taken a serious toll in some parts of Puget Sound.

Dave told me about the time he stood next to a concrete bulkhead and watched the tide coming in. Large fish, such as sculpins, were able to swim right up to the wall.

“I stood there and watched these fish come right in next to shore,” he said. “These were big fish, and they came up right next to the bulkhead. There was nowhere for the juvenile salmonids to get out of there.”

The cartoon below was part of this week’s “Amusing Monday” feature, and it illustrates the situation that Dave described. I could say much more about changing trends in bulkheads, given new studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that can wait for future blog posts.

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”