Category Archives: Stormwater

Upper Skokomish designated as ‘properly functioning’ watershed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For your review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope for Burley Creek rises with help from Army Corps of Engineers

Andy Nelson, who took over as Kitsap County’s public works director two years ago, quickly proved his worth to the local environment when he proposed federal funding for three major ecosystem-restoration efforts.

One project begins with a proposed $350,000 study of South Kitsap’s Burley Creek watershed — an important stream that probably has never received the attention it deserves. The other projects are in Silverdale and Hansville.

Burley Creek Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Burley Creek // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

I stumbled on Kitsap County’s proposal for Burley Creek buried within a U.S. Senate bill to authorize water-related projects across the country — the same bill that would authorize the $20-million Skokomish River ecosystem restoration in Mason County. (See Water Ways, April 28.)

How did a relatively small Kitsap project find its way into a massive public works bill? You could say it was because Andy was aware of a congressional effort to seek out local partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers. That effort, which began in 2014, came about in part as response to the elimination of old-fashioned earmarks, by which members of Congress could promote their favorite local projects.

Andy came to Kitsap County after retiring from the Army Corps of Engineers, where he held the rank of colonel and was deputy commander for the South Pacific Division. That’s the Corps’ regional office for California and the other Southwest states. (See Kitsap County news release.)

“Kitsap County is a great place, and we chose to come here because of Puget Sound and the nearby mountains,” Andy told me. “With the amount of saltwater shorelines, I anticipated there would be ongoing Army Corps work taking place in Kitsap County.”

In fact, there were no projects in Kitsap County proposed in partnership with the Army Corps. The Corps had previously done studies on Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and on Carpenter Creek in North Kitsap, but funding was never available for the actual restoration work.

Andy put his head together with staffers in Kitsap County Public Works (his department) and the Department of Community Development. They came up with three projects to be submitted to the Corps for consideration. In the end — and to Andy’s great surprise — these three Kitsap projects were the only ones submitted from Washington state during the first year of the solicitation.

The Burley Creek project is one that Tim Beachy, an engineer for Kitsap County Public Works, had been considering in a more limited way.

“We were looking at the replacement of a barrier culvert on Bethel-Burley Road,” Tim told me. “It looked like a bridge upstream on Fenton Road could be impacted by the culvert replacement, and there was a private bridge upstream of that.”

Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek. Photo: KC Public Works
Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

A barrier culvert is one identified as blocking or impeding the passage of salmon. Replacing a culvert can alter the grade of the stream channel, affecting bridges and culverts upstream and/or downstream and potentially leading to unanticipated consequences for salmon migration.

It turns out that Burley Creek contains spawning beds used by Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It also contains important spawning and rearing habitat for other salmon species.

At Andy’s direction, a study was proposed to look at salmon passage at four bridges in close proximity on Burley Creek, to consider the effects of flooding and storm damage on the roads and bridges, and to propose further actions that might reduce pollution affecting shellfish downstream in Burley Lagoon.

County officials met with the Corps to discuss the idea. The Corps accepted it as a worthwhile project and proposed it for funding. Congress will have the final word on the study, which would be done by the Corps. If the project moves to construction, local and state funding — probably a 35 percent match — would be needed.

The Burley Creek study requires congressional authorization because it is somewhat unique and does not fit under the “continuing authority” that allows the Corps to investigate issues such as shoreline restoration, shoreline stabilization, ecosystem restoration or navigation, Andy told me. The Corps does not have authority to address water-quality projects per se.

The other two projects are still being evaluated, but they will not need congressional approval since they fall under existing authority of the Corps.

One would be a close look at Silverdale’s waterfront at the head of Dyes Inlet, including Clear Creek and the pocket estuary near Hop Jack’s and Silverdale Beach Hotel. The study would look at ways to restore ecological processes and biological diversity, including shorelines used by forage fish, salmon, resident and migratory waterfowl, and diverse species found in both freshwater and tidal marshes. The project would address stormwater alternatives and consider ways to improve passive recreation.

The last project — which was actually the first in a letter to the Corps — would involve the restoration of freshwater and saltwater marsh habitats in and around Point No Point County Park. The study would look at the longterm effects of sea-level rise, including flood control and potential damage to houses, roads, park facilities and the historic Point No Point Lighthouse. The project could create a more natural setting and enhance intertidal connectivity.

“Nothing prevents two or even all three of these projects from competing for funds and getting funded,” Andy said. “We may determine that the work is not for the Army Corps of Engineers, but we could still use the science and engineering that comes out of these studies. To get a Kitsap County creek in the (Water Resources Development Act) is a big deal.”

Skokomish restoration makes progress in federal funding arena

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

Skok watershed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These four projects would come first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been a wet ride through the first half of the 2016 ‘water year’

With half of our “water year” in the record books, 2016 is already being marked down as one of the wettest years in recent history.

Hansvillej

The water year, as measured by hydrologists, runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 each year, so we will be in WY 2016 for nearly six more months. If things keep going as they are, we will see some new lines plotted on the rainfall charts.

Joel LeCuyer, who keeps track of water data for the Kitsap Public Utility District, points out that the district’s two longest-running weather stations are on their way to record-high totals:

  • Bremerton National Airport, with records going back to 1983, accumulated 66.7 inches of rain at the midway point, compared to an average of 56 inches for the full year.
  • Hansville, with records going back to 1982, has accumulated 36.6 inches, compared to a yearly average of 32 inches.

Looking at the charts, you’ll see that both the airport and Hansville stations are slightly ahead of their maximum water year. It will be interesting to watch this chart as we get closer to June, when rainfall traditionally falls off dramatically. Whatever happens over the next two months will likely foretell whether annual precipitation records will be broken.

Airportj

To access the charts, go to the KPUD website. Under the tab “Water” click “Water Resources Data.” At the bottom of the map, click on the tiny bubble “Rain gauges.” The red ones track precipitation almost in real time.

Looking back, some rather dramatic downpours are already written into the record books this year. For example, when considering the top 10 rainfalls in a 24-hour period, nearly every station has at least one rain event from WY 2016 among the top 10.

At Holly, four of the top 10 rain events recorded over the past 25 years occurred during the past six months. That’s interesting, since Holly is one place where the total accumulation of rainfall is still falling short of the record. Holly has already surpassed the average annual rainfall of nearly 70 inches, according to the chart, but it is unlikely to reach the nearly 130 inches of rainfall recorded in 1999.

Hollyj

Above average precipitation was seen across Western Washington for the first half of the water year, according to the National Weather Service. The range was from 26 percent above average in the Olympic Mountains to 40 percent above average in the Puget Sound lowlands. Snowpack in the Olympic and Cascade mountains is about 10 percent above average.

Ted Buehner of the National Weather Service in Seattle reports that the current warm El Niño is expected to weaken through the spring. And there is a 50 percent chance that La Niña will return next winter. That would typically bring cooler and wetter weather, but rains over the coming winter will have a long way to go to match what we’ve seen during this water year.

As for what we might expect from now through the end of summer, the latest forecast from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says temperatures are likely to be warmer than average in the Northwest with slightly higher than even odds that the summer will be drier than average.

For details on a national scale, check out “ENSO: Recent Evolution, Current Status and Predictions” (PDF 3.5 mb).

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.”

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

Working as an environmental reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve covered hundreds of topics — from sewage-treatment plants to killer whales. I’ve learned a great deal through the years, but I’m always striving to learn more about the environment, and I enjoy sharing new information with others.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Recently, I found myself immersed in a fascinating subject that I knew almost nothing about, at least from a scientific perspective. What I learned in my reporting was enough to alter my thinking about the ecological forces that shape our world.

I’m talking about the role of disease, a force that can decimate populations, affect predator-prey relationships and disrupt social communities. So many animal diseases overlap with human diseases that we can no longer consider ourselves separate.

As Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society told me, “The crazy thing about disease is that it isn’t really on people’s radar. It is a smoldering factor in our environment, but one that can break out at any time.”

My recent stories featured potential diseases in killer whales, herring and salmon, animals that are related to each other through the food web. I wrote the stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which is managed by the Puget Sound Institute, where I work part-time. The stories were reprinted in the Kitsap Sun, where I spent most of my career as an environmental reporter.

I owe a debt to Joe Gaydos and the other folks mentioned in my stories for helping me grasp the significance of disease in all animals, including humans. Scientists who understand the complexities of disease are now coordinating with the Puget Sound Partnership to increase awareness among other scientists and among people who live in the region.

It was only a couple years ago that sea star wasting disease burst into the news with unappealing pictures of melting sea stars that were losing their limbs and turning to mush. Review entries in Water Ways, Jan. 20, 2015, Nov. 22, 2014, and June 17, 2014. It is amazing how quickly the disease decimated the sea star population and altered tidal and subtidal ecosystems in many areas along the West Coast.

Disease does not need to cause death directly to affect individual animals. In my stories, I showed how diseases in herring and steelhead might make them more susceptible to predation, which can have the same end result.

Pollution may be affecting the immune systems of many marine animals and making them more susceptible to disease. Changing water temperatures, influenced by climate change, can have a similar effect.

The field of disease ecology is far from new, but I believe we will be hearing more about it, as growing evidence suggests that disease could be playing a major role in shaping populations. It is a fascinating subject when you learn about how disease organisms spread from one animal to another or cross over into other species.

For example, disease pathogens can be divided into two modes of transmission. “Density-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the host population gets too crowded. If a threshold density is not reached, the disease tends to die out. “Frequency-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the percentage of infected animals is high, regardless of density.

When germs are spread by coughing or sneezing, disease will spread more quickly when the individuals are close together (density-dependent). Sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to spread when more individuals are infected (frequency-dependent). Many diseases are a combination of the two, depending on conditions.

Interestingly, pathogens that are the most dangerous to a population are mostly the ones with intermediate virulence. That’s because highly virulent pathogens are likely to kill the host before the disease can spread to others. Low virulence will result in almost 100 percent survival.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The CDC program is called One Health. Research is rapidly expanding into zoonotic diseases, which are those than can pass from animals to humans.

By thinking of connections between humans and animals, new diseases can sometimes be identified before they create a major outbreak in humans. In other cases, protection of humans can involve treatment in animals.

One example is Rift Valley fever in East Africa, as reported by the CDC. The viral disease, spread by mosquitoes, can kill livestock — including sheep, goats and cattle. It can also cause serious problems in humans, including blindness and brain swelling.

While there is no vaccine against RVF for humans, researchers were able to develop a vaccine for livestock. Treating livestock prevented transmission to mosquitoes and thus reduced disease in humans.

Washington state breaks heat record during 2015

Last year was the warmest year on record for Washington state, as well as Oregon, Montana and Florida, according to climatologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Temps

For the entire contiguous United States, 2015 was the second-warmest in 121 years of temperature records going back to 1895. The average temperature last year was 54.4 degrees, some 2.4 degrees above the long-term average, according to NOAA. Only the year 2012 was hotter.

Those extreme U.S. temperatures will contribute to what is expected to be the highest worldwide temperature average on record. Findings are to be completed later this month.

If 2.4 degrees above average does not seem like much, think about raising your home’s thermostat by 2.4 degrees and leaving it there for the entire year, said Deke Arndt, chief of the NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch.

“You would feel the difference,” Arndt said during a telephone briefing this morning, when scientists reported an increasing number of extreme weather events across the United States — from severe winter storms on the East Coast last February to wildfires in the West during the summer to tornadoes across Texas and the Midwest in December.

Changes in temperatures and precipitation are changing ecosystems for plants and animals across the United States and throughout the world.

For the year 2015, every state in the nation was warmer than the long-term average, although various regions of the country acted quite differently. In the West, the year started out warm but ended up cool. In the East, residents began the year with record cold temperatures but ended with unseasonable warm conditions.

In terms of precipitation, 2015 was the third-wettest year on record in the contiguous United States, with a total average of 34.47 inches. That’s 4.5 inches above the long-term average. It was the wettest year on record for Texas and Oklahoma, but Washington was close to average for annual rainfall.

Precip

Washington state and the entire West returned to normal temperatures for the month of December, but 29 states across the East, Midwest and South recorded all-time-record highs for the month.

Twenty-three states — including Washington, Oregon and Idaho — were much wetter than average in December, which ranked as not only the warmest December on record across the U.S. but also the wettest.

Record flooding was reported along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, with floods coming several months earlier than normal.

“Record crests and overtopped levees were observed along parts of the Mississippi River and its tributaries; deadly tornadoes ripped through the Southern Plains and Mid-South; and heavy snow/ice was observed from the Southern Rockies to Midwest and New England,” state’s a summary report released by NOAA. “This storm system resulted in at least 50 fatalities across the country — the deadliest weather event of 2015 — and caused over $1 billion in losses, according to preliminary estimates.”

Across the country last year, 10 separate weather-related events caused more than $1 billion each in damages — specifically, a major drought, two major floods, five severe storms, a series of wildfires and a major winter storm, each defined by NOAA based on their timing and location.

Across the West, more than 10 million acres of forestland burned, the greatest extent of fire since record keeping began in 1960.

“We live in a warming world, bringing more big heat events and more big rain events,” Arndt said, adding that the pattern is expected to continue in the coming years.

The extremes seen in the U.S. are being experienced across the globe, he added. The U.S., which takes up 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, experienced its second-warmest year on record. Worldwide, however, it appears that 2015 will go down as the warmest year so far. Global findings are due out in about two weeks.

Climate report describes changes coming to the Puget Sound region

How climate change could alter life in the Puget Sound region is the focus of a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned for safety reasons. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns. Kitsap Sun file photo
A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns.
Kitsap Sun file photo

In concert with the report’s release, I’m writing three stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, all focusing on specific aspects of the report, beginning with landslide risks. See “Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides” on the Puget Sound Institute’s blog.

As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with declines in some native species and increases in others. We are likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more forest fires.

The report, “State of the Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound,” pulls together the best predictions from existing studies, while updating and expanding the range of topics last reported for Puget Sound in 2005.

“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said lead author Guillaume Mauger in a news release. “This report provides a single resource for people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”

The report includes examples of communities taking actions to prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other areas.

“In the same way that the science is very different from the last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger said.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for changes that have already begun.

“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing impacts of climate change,” she said in a news release. “This report helps us better understand the very real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native species.”

Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Washington.

The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated with the University of Washington — Tacoma.

For other news stories about the report, check out:

Puget Sound restoration: two steps forward, one back — or vice versa?

Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very difficult thing to do.

Vital signs

Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams, wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated sediments.

At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region. The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown alterations to ecosystems.

In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step forward?

Gov and Leg

Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,” released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is being made in restoring habitat, according to a news release about the report, but “measures for chinook salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”

Community

“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and reopen shellfish beds,”

Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).

Key findings, as reported in the news release:

  • Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
  • All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental progress.
  • None of the indicators for species or food-web health are making progress.
  • While there has been local-level progress in some indicators, the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.

Pulse logo

I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at the series, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution, population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of ecosystem health.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point in North Kitsap early this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Southern Residents in Puget Sound
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook? Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat, spawning habitat, predation, or something else?

It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going. The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions would be far worse than they are today.

Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting better at establishing priorities that will make the most difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their responsibility.

It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington state’s congressional delegation. Check out a summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the story by Tristan Baurick in the Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.

The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and “best-management practices” are important — but the key is to locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage, then use construction techniques that will cause the least disruption of ecological functions.

Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington State University finally published her findings about the effects of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).

I’ve talked about these findings several times in the past, including an expanded story about stormwater in the “Pulse” series in July of last year. For stories written since the report was published, see Tristan Baurick’s piece in the Kitsap Sun or Sandi Doughton’s story in the Seattle Times or the news release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Development regulations by local government have always been a weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn around and blame the state when local residents complain about the higher costs of development.

On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as I described in the “Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local government can do. Another major role of local government is to protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say in the near future. (“Water Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)

Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to save Puget Sound is on the right track.