Category Archives: Stormwater

Eating fish from Puget Sound may be safe — within prescribed limits

For the past few years, I’ve been hearing that Washington’s water-quality standards are grossly out of date, especially when it comes to assumptions about how much fish people eat. Water-quality standards are a set of criteria used to determine when a body of water is “impaired” and to establish limits for discharges from industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.

Fish

It was hard to understand how the Department of Ecology could assume that an average person was eating just 6.5 grams of fish a day. That’s less than a quarter-ounce. A typical meal of fish is commonly considered to be eight ounces (226.8 grams). So the assumption was that people were eating one meal of fish every 35 days.

The water quality standards come from an equation established to ensure that if you consumed a certain amount of fish, then your health would be protected. So it would seem logical that if you ate more than that amount, your health might be at risk.

That’s what got me started looking into the nuances of this discussion about water-quality standards and eating fish, especially fish from Puget Sound. The result was a two-part series published Sunday and Monday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) — Part 1 and Part 2 — and reprinted with permission on the website of Investigate West — Part 1 and Part 2.

I’ll talk about my new relationship with InvestigateWest at the bottom of this page, where I’ll also report on a new study about the protective effects of eating fish even when mercury levels are high.

The first thing to understand about water-quality standards is that the state has been relying on an equation created by the Environmental Protection Agency. That equation resulted in water quality standards used since 1992 across the nation and still in effect for some states (PDF 429 kb). The problem was that the EPA has not updated the nationwide standards, known as the National Toxics Rule, even while the federal agency has been pushing for states to come up with their own standards.

Obviously, the fish consumption rate was no longer valid, if it ever was. State and federal guidelines call for people to eat at least two or three meals of fish each week for health reasons. It is not uncommon for Native Americans to eat a meal of fish or more each day. Protecting the treaty rights of tribal members, which includes safely eating fish from their “usual and accustomed areas,” is a responsibility of the state and federal governments, I’m told.

Fish consumption is not the only issue, however. Other factors in the equation are also out of date. The EPA has updated estimates of toxicity for many of the 100 or so chemicals for which water-quality standards are listed. The weight of a person’s body in the equation also was changed.

Perhaps the most controversial change in the formula, as proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is to increase the cancer risk rate for human health from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.

I won’t go deeper into the calculation here, since you can read my story for more details, or look into the state’s “Overview of key decisions in rule amendment” (PDF 6.4 mb). But understand that all the assumptions taken together changed the final number for each of the 96 chemicals under review for Washington state. Also note that the vast majority of these chemicals are not even detectible in fish down to parts per billion.

Under Inslee’s proposal, the final number generated by the equation would be the new water-quality standard for a chemical if the number were lower (more protective) than the existing standard. For chemicals in which the number was higher (less protective), the old standard would remain.

The result was that 70 percent of the standards would become more stringent under Inslee’s proposal and 30 percent would stay the same, according to Ecology officials. To see the proposed changes between the old and new standards and whether the change in cancer risk would make a significant difference, check out “Human Health Criteria Review Documents” (PDF 2.9 mb).

Out of the 96 chemicals on the list, two create the greatest concerns for human health in Puget Sound waters. They are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. For these chemicals, Inslee’s proposal would keep the water-quality standards the same. This is controversial, but his thinking is that these chemicals are widespread in the environment, and reducing their concentrations in effluent would have little effect on improving the safety of fish.

The governor has proposed a separate planning process with funding from the Legislature to track down and reduce the sources of pollution that cause the greatest health concerns — including some chemicals not on the EPA’s list.

Eating fish is especially important for pregnant mothers and young children, as I described in the first part of the series. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish tissue are considered essential for the proper development of the brain and neurological system, including memory and performance, as well as other health effects.

Health advisories tend to balance the beneficial effects of eating fish with the risks of getting too much PCBs, mercury and other harmful chemicals. The goal is to choose fish that are relatively low in toxic chemicals, knowing that practically all fish, meats and dairy products contain some contaminants.

New study on protective effects of fish

A new study in the Seychelles, an island country where people eat a lot of fish, suggests that polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may provide some protection against the health risks of mercury, including neurological problems.

The study was published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” The report’s co-author, Edwin van Wijngaarden, associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of Public Health Sciences, had this to say in a news release:

“These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially adverse effects of mercury.”

Because the findings are so new, I chose to stick to the standard health advisories in my Sunday story.

Laura Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the advice to limit fish intake may not be warranted after all. But she is not ready to drop the cautionary approach, according to a story by Dennis Thompson of HealthDay magazine.

“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the data.”

Legislative coverage

As most of you know, I have retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun, but I’m still writing this blog and occasional stories for the newspaper, including the two-part series this week.

I was recently asked by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group, to cover some environmental issues being debated in the Washington Legislature. I started this new assignment this week and expect to continue coverage to the end of the legislative session. My work is being funded through a crowd-sourcing website called Beacon. All contributions are appreciated.

Kitsap to receive major funding for stormwater, sewer construction

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

Grants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change disrupts steady streamflows, adds problems for chinook

Climate change appears to be altering the flow characteristics of Puget Sound salmon streams, and the outcome could be an increased risk of extinction for chinook salmon, according to a new study.

I’ve long been interested in how new housing and commercial development brings more impervious surfaces, such as roads, driveways and roofs. The effect is to decrease the amount of water that infiltrates into the ground and to increase surface flows into streams.

Chinook salmon Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Chinook salmon
Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Stormwater experts talk about how streams become “flashy,” as flows rise quickly when it rains then drop back to low levels, because less groundwater is available to filter into the streams.

The new study, reported in the journal “Global Change Biology,” suggests that something similar may be happening with climate change but for somewhat different reasons.

Climate models predict that rains in the Puget Sound region will become more intense, thus causing streams to rise rapidly even in areas where stormwater is not an issue. That seems to be among the recent findings by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

“Over the last half century, river flows included in our analysis have become more variable — particularly in winter — and these changes are a stronger predictor of chinook population growth than changes in average winter flows or climate signals in the marine environment.

“While other impacts to this ecosystem, such as habitat degradation, may be hypothesized as responsible for these trends in flow variation, we found support for increasing flow variation in high-altitude rivers with relatively low human impacts.”

Joseph Anderson of WDFW, an author of the report, told me that chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, may be particularly vulnerable to dramatic changes in streamflows. That’s because spawning chinook tend to show up before winter storms arrive — when the rivers at their lowest levels. The fish are forced to lay their eggs in a portion of the river that will undergo the most forceful flows once the rains begin to fall.

High flows can scour eggs out of the gravel and create serious problems for emerging fry, Joe said. Other factors may come into play, but the researchers found a strong correlation between the sudden variation in streamflows and salmon survival.

In the lower elevations, where development is focused, flow variability could result from both impervious surfaces on the land and more intense rainstorms. Efforts to infiltrate stormwater into the ground will become even more important as changes in climate bring more intense storms.

Stormwater management is an issue I’ve written about for years, including parts of last year’s series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” See Kitsap Sun, July 16, 2014. Rain gardens, pervious pavement and infiltration ponds are all part of a growing strategy to increase groundwater while reducing the “flashiness” of streams.

Other strategies involve restoring rivers to a more natural condition by rebuilding side channels and flood plains to divert excess water when streams are running high.

According to the report’s findings, the variability of winter flows has increased for 16 of the 20 rivers studied, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The only rivers showing less variability were the Cedar, Duwamish, Upper Skagit and Nisqually.

The effect of this streamflow variability was shown to be a more critical factor for chinook survival and growth than peak, total or average streamflow. Also less of a factor were ocean conditions, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and related ocean temperature.

Eric Ward, of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author on the study, said many researchers have focused attention on how higher water temperatures will affect salmon as climate change progresses. High-temperature and drought conditions in California, for example, could damage the organs of salmon, such as their hearts.

Salmon swimming up the Columbia River and its tributaries could encounter dangerously warm waters as they move east into areas growing more arid. Some salmon species are more vulnerable to temperature, while streamflow may be more important for others. Coho salmon, for example, spend their first summer in freshwater, which makes extreme low levels a critical factor.

Eric told me that further studies are looking into how various conditions can affect each stage of a salmon’s life, conditions that vary by species. One goal is to build complex life-cycle models for threatened species, such as chinook and steelhead, to determine their needs under the more extreme conditions we can expect in the future.

Culvert replacement costs loom as a budget problem for lawmakers

While funding for Washington’s “basic education” remains a potential budget-buster, some legislators are beginning to worry about a $2.4-billion financial pitfall involving culverts and salmon streams.

Culverts that block significant habitat are represented by dots on the map. Washington State Department of Transportation
Culverts blocking significant habitat are represented by dots on the map of Western Washington.
Washington State Department of Transportation

In 2013, a federal judge ordered Washington state to replace nearly 1,000 culverts that block or impede fish passage along Western Washington streams. The $2.4-billion cost, as estimated by the Washington State Department of Transportation, amounts to about $310 million per biennium until the deadline of 2030.

Nobody has even begun to figure out how to come up with that much money, although the WSDOT has pretty well spelled out the problem for lawmakers.

In the current two-year budget, the state is spending about $36 million to replace fish-passage barriers, according to Paul Wagner, manager of the department’s Biology Branch. That’s not including work on major highway projects.

WSDOT is asking to shift priorities around in its budget to provide $80 million per biennium for fixing culverts.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee’s 12-year transportation plan calls for increasing revenues to provide money for various improvements throughout the state, including $360 million for culverts spread over the 12-year period.

BEFORE, where a 5-foot round culvert carried Twanoh Falls Creek under Highway 106. Washington Department of Transportation
BEFORE, a 5-foot round culvert carried Twanoh Falls Creek under Highway 106 into Hood Canal.
Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

Even if all that funding comes to pass, the state would only make it about halfway to the goal set by the court when the 2030 deadline passes.

Although funding is a serious matter, the effect of fixing the culverts sooner rather than later could boost salmon habitat and help with salmon recovery, transportation officials acknowledge.

Out of 1,982 fish barriers identified in the state highway system, more than three-quarters are blocking “significant” habitat — defined as more than 200 meters (656 feet). That’s from a fact sheet called “Accelerating Fish Barrier Correction: New Requirements for WSDOT culverts” (PDF 4.6 mb).

AFTER, a 20-foot bottomless culvert allows stream to flow more naturally Washington State Department of Transportation
AFTER, a 20-foot bottomless culvert allows the stream to flow more naturally.
Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

As of 2013, the agency had completed 282 fish-passage projects, improving access to nearly 1,000 miles of upstream habitat. Another 10 projects were added in 2014.

Because the lawsuit was brought by 21 Western Washington tribes, the court order applies to 989 Western Washington culverts, of which 825 involve significant habitat. The case is related to the Boldt decision (U.S. v Washington), which determined that tribes have a right to take fish, as defined by the treaties, and that the state must not undermine the resource.

The court adopted a design standard for culverts known as the “stream simulation” model, which requires that the culvert or bridge be wider than the stream under most conditions and be sloped like the natural channel.

In an effort to gear up for culvert work, the Department of Transportation established four design teams to prepare plans for 34 fish-passage projects for the next biennium and scope out another 75 projects. State officials hope that by having teams to focus on culverts and bridges, design work will become more efficient. Agencies also are working together to streamline the permitting process.

In Kitsap County, the Highway 3 culvert over Chico Creek presents a real challenge for the department, Paul Wagner told me. Everyone recognizes the importance of Chico Creek, the most productive salmon stream on the Kitsap Peninsula. But replacing the undersized culvert with a new bridge would cost more than $40 million — more than the entire budget for culverts in the current biennium.

A culvert under Kittyhawk Drive was removed last summer next to the Highway 3 culvert. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
A culvert on Kittyhawk Drive was removed last summer next to the Highway 3 culvert, which continues to affect the flow of Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

“There are a lot of culverts,” Wagner said, “and our challenge is that those on the state highway system are more complicated and involved.”

Not only are the state highways the largest, he said, but they usually cannot be shut down during construction. State highways typically have more complicated utilities and drainage systems, and work may require buying new right of way.

Those are all issues for Chico Creek, which was rerouted when the highway was built in the 1960s. The stream was directed into a new channel parallel to the highway, crossing under the roadway at a 90-degree angle.

The new design would restore the original channel, crossing under the road at a steep angle that makes for a longer bridge. The new route also could involve changing the interchange at Chico Way.

“That project is definitely one we need to get at,” Wagner said, “but it eats up a lot of the money we need for other projects.”

Removal of a county culvert under Kittyhawk Drive has increased interest in removal of the state highway culvert, which lies immediately upstream of the newly opened channel where the county culvert was removed. See Kitsap Sun (subscription), Aug. 26, 2014.

The Legislature will determine how much money will be allocated to culverts and to some extent which ones get replaced first. New taxes could be part of the equation for the entire transportation budget, a major subject of debate this session.

Overall, last year was very warm in Washington state

Last year, Washington state experienced its fifth-hottest year in 120 years of records maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, records for average temperatures were broken in California, Arizona and Nevada, which lived through the highest averages in 120 years. Oregon had just one hotter year on record, while Idaho had three years with higher averages.

Temps

In Washington, the average temperature for the year was 48.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2.3 degrees above the long-term average. Hotter years were 1934 with 49.1 degrees; 1958, 49.0 degrees; 1992, 48.7 degrees; and 1998, 48.6 degrees. In 2004, the average temperature was 48.4, the same as this year.

California’s record high was based on an average temperature of 61.5 degrees, with Arizona at 62.3 and Nevada at 53.1. Oregon’s average of 49.5 degrees was exceeded only in 1934, when the annual average was 49.9 degrees.

For the nation as a whole, the average temperature in 2014 was tempered by some fairly extreme low temperatures in the Midwest, stretching into the Mississippi Valley. For the contiguous United States, the average temperature was 52.6 degrees — 0.5 degrees higher than the long-term average and tied with 1977 as the 34th warmest year on record, according to information from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Despite several months of record and near-record lows across the middle of the country, no state had an annual average that set a record for cold or even ranked among their five coolest years.

For the contiguous U.S. as a whole, last year was the 18th year in a row with an average temperature above the 120-year average. The last year with a below-average temperature was 1996. Since 1895, the temperature has risen an average of 0.13 degrees F per decade.

Precipitation across the contiguous U.S. was 30.76 inches last year, or 0.82 inch above the 120-year average. That makes it the 40th wettest year on record. On average, precipitation has increased by 0.14 inch per decade.

Precip

For Washington state, 2014 was the 16th wettest year on record. The average across the state was 48.73 inches, some 6.7 inches above the 120-year average.

Above-average precipitation occurred across the northern states last year, while the Southern Plains and Central Appalachians experienced below-average conditions.

Drought conditions continue in California, despite near-average annual precipitation. Exacerbating the problem is a three-year rainfall deficit combined with record-high temperatures this past year.

Meanwhile, drought conditions improved across the Midwest and Central Plains, though both improvements and declines were observed in various parts of the Southern Plains, Southwest and Southeast.

Washington state had its fourth-wettest spring on record, while Kansas had its third-driest spring. Other seasonal conditions can be found on the NCDC’s “National Overview” for 2014. The “Climate at a Glance” page can help you break down the data by state and time period.

Global data and analyses from NCDC are scheduled to be released tomorrow.

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward on a $40-million restoration program along the Skokomish River, as I mentioned in Water Ways last week.

According to Rachel Mesko of the Army Corps of Engineers, two major projects have been dropped from the “tentatively selected plan” for the Skokomish, which flows into the south end of Hood Canal. That leaves five major projects to advance forward for a likely recommendation to Congress.

Skok watershed

Rachel presented a status report on the program during a recent meeting of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team.

It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been writing about the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Skokomish. So I looked it up. The agency completed a flood analysis in 1988, considered dredging options in 1995 and began work on the current “general investigation” in 2000.

Before I talk about the projects being proposed, I’d like to recall what is at stake in the Skokomish, often cited as the most frequently flooded river in Washington state. Many people believe that the restoration of Hood Canal, a gem of an ecosystem, cannot be successful without first fixing the Skokomish, where individual restoration projects have been underway for years.

Here’s a brief description of the problems from the feasibility report on the Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 5.3 mb).

“High sediment load, reduced flows and encroachment on the floodplain by man-made structures are causing continued degradation of natural ecosystem structures, functions, and processes necessary to support critical fish and wildlife habitat throughout the basin.

“The decline in populations has resulted in the listing of four anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act — chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout — that use the river as their primary habitat.

“The impaired ecosystem has adversely affected riverine, wetland, and estuarine habitats that are critical to these and other important fish and wildlife species such as bears, bald eagles and river otters to name a few.”

Let me list some of the specific problems:

  • Historical removal of large woody debris has simplified the stream, wiping out pools, eliminating places for young fish to hide and reducing nutrients, which feed aquatic insects and support an entire food web.
  • Logging along the river has eliminated the supply of large woody debris, the shade to cool the stream and the overhanging vegetation, a key part of the food web. Logging also has increased erosion which prevents new vegetation from taking hold, smothers salmon eggs and fills in pools, where salmon can rest.
  • Levees built to protect farmland from flooding halted the natural movement of the river, known as channel migration, and prevented the formation of new habitats.
  • Logging upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish River and Vance Creek increased erosion and movement of sediment into the lower river, cutting off fish access to side channels, wetlands and other aquatic habitats.
  • The Cushman Dam Project blocked 25 percent of the mainstem habitat and 18 percent of tributary habitat available for salmon in the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Reduced flows below the dam increased sedimentation in the lower Skokomish. As a result, about a mile of the river dries up about two months each summer, blocking salmon migration.
  • Highways 101 and 106 disrupted natural floodplains that can be used by fish to find food and to escape high flows and then find their way back to the river.

Five projects designed to reduce these problems are being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers:

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.

The costs above were taken from the feasibility study and do not include design, planning and related costs.

You might note that the River Mile 9 levee and the Grange levee fit the concept of “Floodplains by Design,” an idea supported by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Washington Legislature with $44 million. Check out the Associated Press story.

After discussions with nearby property owners, two projects were removed from the preliminary list. They involve excavation work on both Hunter and Weaver creeks to restore the tributaries to more nature flows.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, said the Skokomish restoration program seems to have wide support among landowners in the Skokomish Valley as well as among interest groups, including the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. As a result, he expects that the project will maintain momentum all the way to Congress.

“It is fairly rare to have a watershed working together,” Rich said at the SWAT meeting. “The ones that are difficult are when you have two parties, one saying ‘yes’ and other saying, ‘Don’t you dare.’

“There is support (for the Skok project) through the Corps chain of command and all the way up to the national level,” he added.

If things go well, a final plan for the Skokomish could be ready by late next summer, according to Rachel Mesko.

By the way, I would like to publicly thank the SWAT for the “certificate of appreciation” I was given for my reporting on Skokomish River through the years. It’s an honor to be associated with this group of men and women who are fully committed to seeing the Skokomish River restored to a healthy ecosystem.

Coho show off their jumping skills, but they can’t swim up a pipe

Prompted by stream biologist Jon Oleyar. my grandson, Kevin Jeffries, and I visited Gorst Creek today during a break in the heavy rains.

As I reported in Water Ways yesterday, Jon, who counts salmon for the Suquamish Tribe, had observed an unusual number of coho salmon swimming upstream in Gorst Creek.

Because of heavy rains, the creek was running high and very fast this afternoon, and the waters were a muddy brown. In fact, the sediment load was so heavy that we spotted only a few fish swimming upstream. We suspected that a lot of them were hunkered down in deep pools, waiting for the flows to decline and the stream to become more passable.

Although we did not see a lot of fish, it was exciting to watch coho salmon trying to jump up into an outlet pipe that discharges water from the salmon-rearing raceways in the park. Coho, wearing their spawning colors of red, are known as jumping fish, but these guys were going nowhere fast. Check out the video on this page.

I’m looking forward to returning to the stream after the rains decline and the waters clear up a little bit. The coho may or may not be gone by then, but Jon expects that we should be able to see chum salmon in Gorst Creek at least until Christmas.

Kitsap rains: not too much, not too little for salmon and aquifers

The on-and-off rains over the past two weeks are nearly perfect for both spawning salmon and for recharging shallow groundwater supplies, experts say.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek. Kitsap Sun photo
Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo

For October, total rainfall ranges from about 5 inches at Hansville to 12 inches at Holly, according to rain gauges managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District. Fortunately, those rains have not been delivered to us in only a few days.

The intermittent nature of October rains has allowed the streams to maintain their flows without flooding. They’ve also allowed infiltration into the ground without excessive runoff.

“It is the good kind of rain,” said Bob Hunter, interim manager of Kitsap PUD. “We’ve had a couple of days when we’ve had 2-plus inches, but we haven’t seen the streams flash.”

In other words, the streams have not risen excessively fast. Bob attributes that to how dry the ground was before the rains began. Soils were able to absorb much of the early rainfall before stormwater runoff began to increase. Pauses between the rainstorms allowed more of the water to soak into the ground.

“It just goes to show you the variability that we have around here,” Bob told me.

October marks the beginning of the 2015 “water year.” Although we are just a month into the start of the year, the rainfall has been closely tracking all-time highs at some rain gauges — including Holly, which has been monitored since 1999. (See charts below.)

Meanwhile, the rain pattern in October was nearly perfect for salmon, said Jon Oleyar of the Suquamish Tribe, who walks the East Kitsap streams to count migrating salmon as they arrive.

“It seems like we’ve had storms coming in every couple of days, so they are not right on top of each other,” Jon said. “That gives the streams some time to recede.”

When there is not adequate flow, the salmon often wait for the streams to rise. On the other hand, too much flow can wash salmon eggs out of the streambed.

Last week’s rains got the chum salmon moving into most of the East Kitsap streams, Jon told me.

“I checked Chico Creek on Wednesday, and there were almost 11,000 fish in there and going up about as far as they can get,” he said.

A good escapement for the Chico Creek system is between 12,000 and 15,000 chum, and there is still more than a month left — assuming a typical timing of the run, he said. But things are looking a little different this year, he noted, and the bulk of the run may have arrived already.

One indication that timing could be different this year is that Gorst Creek already has a fair number of chum salmon — perhaps 500 — yet the Gorst Creek run usually comes in later and continues well into December.

Is it possible that all or most of the salmon runs are coming in early? It’s a question that only time will answer.

Jon told me that he’s a bit water-logged at the moment, trying to count fish in the rain with the streams running high.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Jon said. “I have my fish up where they need to be, but it’s just hard to count them right now. If you’re a fish, this is really working for you.”

In the charts below, found on the Kitsap PUD’s website, you can see that October’s rainfall has been tracking the record high rainfall at these stations. Of course, the “water year” has barely begun, so anything can happen. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Rain-Holly

Rain-CK

Rain-Hansville

Can we escape water fights in Puget Sound?

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

This quote kept running through my mind as I completed the eighth part of our series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The latest installment, published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, is about water resources.

Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

It seems from my interviews that we should have enough water in the Puget Sound region to serve the needs of people while maintaining streamflows for fish and other aquatic organisms. It’s all about managing the resource, as I describe in the story.

What isn’t so clear to me is what we need to do about water rights, and this is where the real hangup can come in. People, governments and developers are allowed to reserve vast amounts of water for various uses, then they simply need to “use it or lose it.” That does not encourage conservation.

Water rights are considered a property right. Even if the Legislature had a plan for clearing up all the conflicts, it would not be easy. So far, the courts have been fairly strong in upholding individual water rights, even when the needs of society call for a new direction.

We’ve all encountered belligerent people who speak out loudly about their property rights. They’ll say, “This is my property, and I’ll be damned if I will have the government telling me what I can and cannot do with my property.”

Well, I’m sorry. But that battle is over. Zoning laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the use of property to protect the rights of the neighbors and the entire community.

But water rights are fairly entrenched and inflexible. It may be in the best interest of a community if a farmer could find ways to grow his crops with less water and share the surplus with a growing population. But is it fair to expect the farmer to give away his water rights for free, or should he be paid a sizable amount of money to set free the water he is holding hostage? Maybe he will need that water in the future, given the uncertainties of climate change.

And then there is the groundwater-permit exemptions for single family homes, allowing withdrawal of up to 5,000 gallons per day of water from a well — even though most families use only a few hundred gallons a day. In addition, the courts have ruled that farmers may use an unlimited amount of groundwater for watering livestock. All these water rights are recorded on the books, competing with other water rights — including instream flows to protect water in the streams for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Such water rights can be issued until there is no water left to appropriate or until there is a real water shortage and people generally agree that an adjudication is necessary. That’s when the courts begin to sort out who is using what water and for how long, trying to resolve the tangled claims and conflicts. While it may seem like the most reasonable solution, the adjudication process involves historical evidence and legal rulings that never seem to end. Such an adjudication has been underway in the Yakima basin for 40 years, according to the Department of Ecology website.

While water supplies in the Puget Sound region seem to be generally adequate for years to come, it is unlikely that people and governments will find a way to share this precious resource, setting the stage for ongoing legal battles.

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

While this quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, there is no evidence he ever said it. See the blog entry by Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers. Trying to prove that Twain never said it, however, is virtually impossible. It reminds me of the effort it may take to prove that one of our ancestors put his water rights to “beneficial use,” thus guaranteeing a quantity of water for all time.

Click on image to download the complete graphic
Click on image to download the complete graphic (PDF 2.8 mb).

Three videos take us upstream, where it all begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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