Category Archives: Stormwater

Rainfall drops below average, but deep wells should be fine this year

Rainfall in most of Kitsap County was fairly normal or slightly above average until April, when the spring rains basically stopped. The lack of rain has led to extreme conditions, as anyone can see by looking at the dry vegetation across Western Washington.

Silverdale

The total rainfall has now fallen below normal in most areas of Kitsap County, as shown by the maps on this page. That below-average condition is unlikely to change without some uncharacteristic rainstorms between now and the end of the “water year” on Oct. 1.

The Kitsap Peninsula, like islands throughout Puget Sound, does not rely on snowpack for its water supplies, so a shortage of drinking water is unlikely. The one exception might be residents who rely on private shallow wells, some of which could start to dry up by the end of summer, according to Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District.

Deeper aquifers used by most major water systems on the peninsula are not affected by a single year’s weather. It takes time for the water to trickle down to the deeper layers, where groundwater levels reflect the pattern of rainfall occurring over several years.

Holly

The soils and topography vary so greatly from one place to another that nobody can say how soon shallow wells will be affected. Some wells depend on springs or surface infiltration, while others tap into aquifers with adequate supply. The rate of withdrawal, including the number of homes in a given area, can have an effect on water supply.

Although the deeper aquifers are not likely to be affected this year, what if we are at the beginning of a dry period that lasts three years or more? I would hate to look back on my current water usage and regret not saving water when I had the chance. To a varying extent, conserving water can protect our water supplies and help the overall ecosystem.

In addition to affecting aquifers, the lack of rain has reduced streamflows in creeks and rivers to below-normal rates throughout the county. The resulting low flows could affect coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater. The fall salmon migration will be mostly affected by whether rains show up to saturate the soils and raise stream levels in September and October.

Hansville

Bob Hunter says the per-capita use of water has been dropping, but he’s not sure how much of the change is a result of personal choices and how much is a result of new kitchen and bathroom fixtures required by plumbing codes. Low-flush toilets and low-flow faucets can really make a difference, he said.

People use large amounts of water on their lawns, so one long-term effort is to reduce the amount of grass and thirsty vegetation that homeowners maintain while improving the soil to increasing its water-holding capacity.

“This year, people are irrigating a lot earlier than they were in the past,” Bob told me. “That has to have an impact, especially if the summer stays dry the whole way.”

The key to protecting future water supplies on the Kitsap Peninsula is for everyone to change their habitats over time by finding ways to use less water. If people understand the trickle-down theory of aquifers, they might be less inclined to take our water for granted.

For more information, see the Kitsap PUD’s webpage on “Groundwater and Aquifers,” including an informative piece from the Environmental Protection Agency called “Build Your Own Aquifer.” The PUD also offers a list of “Frequently Asked Questions.” For details about lawns, see King County’s “Natural Lawn Care.”

Streams in Kitsap County have dropped significantly in their flows (cubic feet per second). ALL GRAPHICS FROM KITSAP PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT
Streams in Kitsap County have dropped significantly in their flows (cubic feet per second).
ALL GRAPHICS FROM KITSAP PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT

New website reveals strategies for improving Hood Canal ecosystem

If you want to know how the Hood Canal Coordinating Council is working to protect and restore Hood Canal, take a look at a new website created by the council. It is called OurHoodCanal.org.

Hood

The website is an attractive and functional companion to the “Hood Canal Integrated Watershed Plan” (PDF 325 kb), a five-year strategic plan focused on programs that can be accomplished by the coordinating council and its members.

Hood Canal Coordinating Council is made up of county commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with leaders from the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

When planning efforts began five years ago, the idea was to create an “integrated” plan that would recognize all the ecological functions taking place in the Hood Canal watershed and create a set of strategies for addressing all the various problems.

The effort got off to a good start by identifying many of the problems, ranging from declining fish populations to fragmented upland habitats. But the complexity of those problems, the variability of conditions and the numerous agencies responsible for data and decisions eventually overwhelmed the planners. It was as if they were trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle containing a million pieces.

The coordinating council decided to refocus the effort on issues that are under its purview while maintaining the long-term vision of a sustainable Hood Canal ecosystem that benefits humans in a variety of ways.

“Ideally, we will eventually get to all the issues,” said Scott Brewer, the council’s executive director. “The board decided it wanted to focus on something that would be the first strategic priorities and then pick up the other things over time.”

In this context, the plan identifies five focal components:

  • Shellfish,
  • Commercial shellfish harvesting,
  • Forests,
  • Forestry, and
  • Salmon.

Also, four major “pressures” are called out for special attention:

  • Commercial and residential development,
  • Transportation and service corridors,
  • Climate change and ocean acidification, and
  • Wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.

These are issues that the county and tribal leaders were already addressing in one way or another, either through local actions or through the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which is recognized under state law.

The new website OurHoodCanal.org highlights the connections between human well-being and natural resources. The first findings focus on three natural resource indicators — one each for shellfish, forests and salmon — plus five indicators for human well being — positive emotions, communication, traditional resource practices, communities, natural resource industries and access to local food.

A survey last year, for example, showed that Hood Canal generates positive emotions (at least most of the time) for the vast majority of respondents, yet most Hood Canal residents say they don’t often work together to manage resources, prepare cultural events or solve community challenges.

The website also includes a section about what people can do to help Hood Canal.

“This is a work in progress,” Scott said about the planning effort and related website. “We can start by telling a really good story about what is happening in Hood Canal, then going on to make connections and asking whether we are doing the right things.”

The first strategies identified in the plan involve:

  • Working together on local land-use planning,
  • Identifying failing septic systems and other sources of bacterial pollution,
  • Continuing projects to restore healthy runs of salmon,
  • Furthering a mitigation program to fully compensate for the effects of development,
  • Finding ways to adapt to climate change, and
  • Developing a regional plan to reduce stormwater problems.

Meanwhile, the coordinating council has developed a new ranking system for setting priorities for salmon restoration. Refinements will come later, Scott said, but the system is currently being used to identify restoration projects to be proposed for funding later this year.

Under the Salmon Recovery Prioritization (see “guidance” document) projects will be given more consideration if they help highly rated salmon stocks, such as fall chinook in the Skokomish River, summer chum in the Big Quilcene and so on. Projects are given points for addressing specific habitat types and restoration actions deemed to be the most important.

If successful, this approach will result in funding the most important restoration projects, as determined through a more precise ranking process than ever used before, although it does leave room for judgment calls.

While the Hood Canal Coordinating Council works on projects in Hood Canal, other groups continue with similar efforts in other watersheds.

“Everyone is prioritizing one way or another,” Scott told me, “but they haven’t looked at it like we have.”

Scott said agencies and organizations that grant money for salmon recovery or ecosystem restoration could call for an improved ranking process throughout Puget Sound.

“A lot of money gets spread everywhere,” he noted, “but there are some key spots throughout Puget Sound that need it more than others.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call it ‘nonpoint’ or ‘stormwater;’ this problem is serious

As far as I know, nobody has come up with a good name for the type of pollution that gets picked up by rainwater that flows across the ground, carrying contaminants into ditches, streams and eventually large waterways, such as Puget Sound.

Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. Kitsap Sun photo
Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. // Kitsap Sun photo

“Stormwater pollution” is a term I have frequently used. But Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, made a good point when I interviewed her last summer about the perils of stormwater.

“I don’t really like calling it ‘stormwater,’” Sheida told me. “It doesn’t have much to do with storms. It has to do with people. We’re talking about our dirt, our detritus, our filth. Everyone has it, and we all dump it into the sound to one degree or another.”

Stormwater is relatively pure when it falls from the sky as rain. It only gets dirty because the runoff picks up dirt, toxic chemicals, bacteria and other wastes, mostly left behind by people.

“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”

To read more about this discussion, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” and the story “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.”

Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology tend to call it “nonpoint source pollution.” It’s a term that tells us what this kind of pollution is not. Specifically, it is not pollution coming from a point source, such as a pipe. But “nonpoint” does not describe what it really is.

Technically, nonpoint pollution is more than stormwater. It includes waterborne sources such as marinas and atmospheric deposition from air pollution. Taken together, this form of pollution remains the most serious threat facing those who would clean up and protect Puget Sound.

We need a new term like “mess-left-behind pollution,” because it generally results from someone leaving some kind of contamination on the ground — such as animal waste or leaking motor oil — or failing to anticipate future problems — such as those caused by toxic flame retardants in furniture or mercury from a multitude of coal-fired power plants.

A new plan by Ecology to deal with this type of pollution is now under review. It is called “Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution” (PDF 10.6 mb).

The general categories described in the plan are:

  • Agriculture, including livestock wastes; fertilizers and pesticides; and erosion from grazing practices and over-cultivation of fields.
  • Atmospheric deposition, including emissions from automobile, industrial and agricultural sources and backyard burning of trash.
  • Forest practices, including turbidity from erosion caused by loss of vegetation and road-building, as well as pesticides and fertilizers from forest applications.
  • Habitat alteration/hydromodification, including increased temperature from loss of vegetation or water impoundment; turbidity from erosion caused by shoreline alteration; and increased bacteria and chemical concentrations from loss of streamside vegetation.
  • Recreation, including sewage, paint and solvents from boats.
  • Urban/suburban areas, including bacteria from failing septic systems, pet wastes and urban wildlife; erosion from construction and landscaping; lawn chemicals; road runoff; chemical spills; and increased stream temperature from loss of vegetation.

The plan lists a variety of objectives and strategies for reducing the impacts of nonpoint pollution. Among them are these ideas:

  • Complete 265 watershed cleanup plans by 2020, focusing on at least eight priority watersheds each year.
  • Respond to all complaints about water quality by confirming or resolving problems.
  • Provide grants and loans for projects designed to bring a waterway into compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.
  • Support local pollution identification and correction programs to track down pollution sources and eliminate the problems. (Kitsap County was identified as a model program.)
  • Support water-quality trading programs that allow water cleanup efforts in lieu of meeting increased requirements for industrial and sewage discharges.
  • Increase education efforts to help people understand how to reduce nonpoint pollution.
  • Coordinate with organized groups and government agencies, including tribes.
  • Continue existing monitoring programs and increase monitoring to measure the effectiveness of water-quality-improvement projects.
  • Develop a statewide tracking program for cleanup efforts with an annual goal of reducing nitrogen by 40,000 pounds, phosphorus by 14,000 pounds and sediment by 8,000 pounds.

Public comments will be taken on the plan until June 5. Three remaining public meetings are scheduled before then. For information, check out Ecology’s webpage, “Washington State’s Plan to Control Nonpoint Pollution.”

Rainfall and aquifers keep drought away from the Kitsap Peninsula

UPDATE: April 24, 2015
Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, says in his blog that it is too early to be predicting severe drought in Western Washington this summer because of possible late-spring rains:

“I believe the media and some local politicians have gotten a bit too worried about our ‘drought.’ We have NOT had a precipitation drought at all….we are in a snow drought due to warm temperatures. The situation is unique and I suspect we will weather this summer far better than expected.”

—–

The word seems to be getting around about the record-low snowpack in the mountains, which could create a shortage of drinking water and even lead to problems for salmon swimming upstream. Read about Gov. Jay Inslee’s expanded drought emergency, issued today, as well as the last update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CK

Kitsap Peninsula and the islands of Puget Sound are in their own worlds, fairly insulated from what is happening in the higher elevations. In these lower elevations, the key to water supplies is rainfall, not snow, and the outlook for the year is normal so far.

As you can see from the charts on this page (click to enlarge), this year’s rainfall has been tracking closely the long-term average. If the rains are light and steady, much of the water will soak into the ground and recharge the aquifers where most area residents get their water. The aquifer levels tend to rise and fall over multiple years, depending on the rainfall.

Hansville

Casad Dam on the Union River, which supplies a majority of Bremerton’s water, filled in January, well ahead of schedule, said Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city. The dam is scheduled for a normal drawdown, and Kathleen said she does not expect any water shortage.

“We filled the reservoir fairly early this year,” she said. “We are looking pretty good for the summer.”

Holly

October, the first month of the water year, was unusually wet, Kathleen said. December precipitation also was high. The other months were fairly normal for precipitation.

Precipitation in the Puget Sound region is expected to be below average for June, July and August, according to models by the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Interestingly, large portions of the Central and Southwest U.S., Alaska and Florida can expect above-average precipitation. See U.S. map.

precip

Streams on the Kitsap Peninsula are fed by surface water flows and shallow aquifers. At the moment, most of the streamflows are near their historical average. That’s not the case for the larger rivers in the Northwest, which rush out of the mountains. Most are well below their normal flows, as shown by the map with the dots.

Low streamflows usually mean higher temperatures and stress for salmon. Low flows also can affect fish passage in some stretches of the rivers while also reducing spawning areas.

Streamflows

While things look fairly good on the Kitsap Peninsula now, things can change quickly. We have different vulnerabilities than elsewhere. Climate-change models predict that rains will grow more intense in the future without changing annual precipitation very much. That means more of the water will run off the land and less will soak in, potentially reducing aquifer levels over time. Managing those underground water supplies will become more and more critical.

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

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.