Category Archives: Stormwater

Petition seeks to revoke Department of Ecology’s clean-water authority

Citing pollution problems in Puget Sound, an environmental group is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Washington state’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

Northwest Environmental Advocates, based in Portland, says a review of 103 discharge permits issued by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a failure to control nitrogen pollution. Excess nitrogen reduces oxygen levels in the water and triggers algae blooms, resulting in serious problems in Puget Sound, according to a petition submitted to the EPA.

“Ecology determined that over 80 percent of the human sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound comes from cities and towns, but it continues to issue discharge permits as if it were completely ignorant of these facts,” Nina Bell, the group’s executive director, said in a news release.

“It’s just flat out illegal to issue permits that contribute to harmful pollution levels,” she added. “These permits are the walking dead, existing merely to create the impression that the state is doing its job to control water pollution when it is not.”

The 113-page petition filed by NWEA describes the problems that nitrogen can cause and the need to implement nitrogen-removal systems, especially in sewage-treatment plants that discharge into Puget Sound. EPA should either require Ecology to take action on nitrogen or remove Ecology’s authority to issue permits under the Clean Water Act, the petition says.

Asked to respond, Heather Bartlett, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program, offered this statement:

“Washington’s water quality permitting program is a role model in the nation. EPA and other states follow our lead when building their programs. We are surprised that Northwest Environmental Advocates has chosen to file this petition rather to appeal the permits they cite.”

In December, the environmental group filed a lawsuit against the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for continuing to fully fund the Department of Ecology at $5 million a year to control polluted runoff under the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments.

“In 1998, the federal agencies told Washington that it was failing to control pollution from farming and logging, dairy operations, urban runoff, on-site septic systems, pesticides . . . you name it,” said Bell in a December news release.

“There is no evidence that at any point in the last 18 years Washington has improved its control of polluted runoff,” she said. “Certainly Puget Sound is as polluted as ever. The passage of time demonstrates that the agencies’ decision to continue unlawful federal funding has not produced results.”

The lawsuit asserts that federal law requires that the EPA and NOAA withhold at least one-third of the federal funds from states that fail to obtain approval for their plans to control nonpoint source runoff, such as stormwater. Since 1998, the state has been on notice that its plan was not acceptable.

NWEA filed a similar lawsuit in Oregon in 2009 and settled out of court a year later, according to Bell. But the state’s proposed pollution plan was disapproved in 2015, and Oregon’s annual funding was subsequently cut by $1.2 million. For documents in the Oregon case, see NWEA’s document library.

The lawsuit challenging Ecology’s actions was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, where legal proceedings are moving forward.

Stream ‘bugs’ will help guide funding for future stream restoration

One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region, as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: C. Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works. Here’s the basic idea:

“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species. Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the worst conditions.”

Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams — as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.

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Stormwater projects in Silverdale offer hope for a degraded Clear Creek

Detailed planning and design, followed by thoughtful construction projects, have begun to tame the stormwater menace in Clear Creek, an important salmon stream that runs through Silverdale in Central Kitsap.

A renovated stormwater pond at Quail Hollow near Silverdale includes a walking trail and enhanced wildlife habitat. Photo: C. Dunagan
A renovated stormwater pond at Quail Hollow near Silverdale includes a walking trail and enhanced wildlife habitat. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Stormwater has been identified as the greatest pollution threat to Puget Sound. In Kitsap County, many folks believed that the dense development pattern in and around Silverdale has doomed Clear Creek to functioning as a large drainage ditch for runoff into Dyes Inlet.

But reducing stormwater pollution is not beyond the reach of human innovation, as I learned this week on a tour of new and planned stormwater facilities in the Clear Creek drainage area. The trick is to filter the stormwater by any means practical, according to Chris May, director of Kitsap County’s Stormwater Division and a key player in the multi-agency Clean Water Kitsap program.

Projects in and around Silverdale range from large regional ponds of several acres to small filtration devices fitted into confined spaces around homes and along roadways.

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What comes next under water-quality standards imposed by the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency approved new water-quality standards for Washington state this week, overriding a plan approved by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology.

It was a rare posture for the EPA. Now the state will be pressured to appeal the EPA standards to federal court. Cities and counties as well as some industrial organizations are clearly unhappy with the EPA’s action, while environmental and tribal representatives got most of what they wanted.

The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.
The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.

The EPA action is especially unusual, given that this state is known for some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country. After much dispute, Ecology finally agreed to much higher fish-consumption rates without increasing the cancer-risk rate, leading to more stringent standards for many of the chemicals. But Ecology had its own ideas for the most troublesome compounds with implications for human health. They include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and mercury. For background, see Water Ways, Oct. 18, 2015.

Some news reports I saw this week said EPA’s action will lead to salmon that are safer to eat. But that’s not at all certain, and opponents say it is unlikely that the revised limits on chemical pollution will have any practical effect on compounds that affect human health.

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Understanding how rogue chemicals affect people and marine life

Scientists are just beginning to understand the profound impact that synthetic chemicals are having on humans and other animals in the Puget Sound region.

As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing levels in their tissues. Photo: hj_west, www.flickr.com/photos/hjwest/
As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing average levels in their tissues.
Photo: hj_west

My latest story for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound addresses so-called chemicals of emerging concern. Please check out “Concerns rise over rogue chemicals in the environment.”

While talking to researchers and investigating a variety of biologically active compounds, I began to realize the complexity of the body’s internal chemistry. I thought I knew something about the endocrine system, but I never fully considered how one hormone can trigger responses in multiple organs, including the release of additional hormones, even creating feedback loops.

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Annual salmon watching is now on the fall agenda

Early and continuing rains in October have increased streamflows and brought coho and chum salmon into their spawning territories ahead of schedule this year.

Dickerson Creek
Dickerson Creek is undergoing restoration at the new bridge on Taylor Road. // Photo: Dunagan

I was out and about today, taking a look at some of the streams in Central Kitsap. I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy the sunny and warm weather, and I was pleased to encounter a lot of other folks doing the same thing. Adults of all ages, some with children, were out looking for the elusive salmon. That’s not something I ever saw 10 years ago while making my rounds to public salmon-viewing spots.

I believe the growing interest in salmon may result from ongoing promotions of salmon watching by governmental and volunteer organizations, as well as the news media. Why shouldn’t we go out to watch salmon swimming upstream and possibly, if one is lucky, catch a glimpse of spawning behaviors? After all, we live in one of the best areas for this enjoyable pastime.

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Amusing Monday: The evolution and danger of packaging drinks by six

When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone history.)

At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the 1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of potential revenge.

Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have started the phase. The Coke company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers as early as 1923.

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Extensive floodplain restoration brings new hope to Clear Creek

A giant piece of a cedar log stands erect in a barren landscape north of Silverdale, where a new channel for Clear Creek stands ready to receive water.

An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek. Photo: Dunagan
An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Well, maybe this channel won’t be entirely new. Designers working to restore this portion of Clear Creek studied old maps. They tried to align the new man-made channel to the meandering stream that existed 150 years ago, before farmers diverted the creek around their fields.

During excavation, workers uncovered buried gravel — remnants of the old streambed — along with chunks of cedar that had lain along the edge of the stream. Buried and cut off from oxygen, these pieces of wood survived for decades underground, while cattle grazed in the fields above.

Workers excavating for the new channel used their heavy equipment to pull out what remained of a great cedar log. They stood the log vertical and buried one end in the ground — a monument to the past and future of Clear Creek.

A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Chris May, manager of Kitsap County’s stormwater program, showed me the new channel this week. He said it was rewarding to uncover some buried history and realize that the stream would be restored in roughly the same place.

“We found the old channel,” Chris told me, pointing to a deposit of gravel. “We are pretty confident that we got it right.”

This $3-million project has been conceived and designed as much more than a stream-restoration project. The elevations of the land around the stream have been carefully planned so that high flows will spill into side channels and backwater pools. That should reduce flooding in Silverdale and help stabilize the high and low flows seen in Clear Creek.

Before photo: This was the farmers field as it appeared before restoration. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Before photo: This was the farm field as it appeared before restoration. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

The engineers did not calculate the reduced frequency of flooding, but floodwater storage is calculated to be 18.4 acre-feet, the equivalent of a foot of water spread over 18.4 acres or 29,700 cubic yards or 6 million gallons.

In all, about 30,000 cubic yards of material have been removed across 21 acres, including the former Schold Farm on the west side of Silverdale Way and the Markwick property on the east side. Native wetland vegetation will be planted along the stream and in low areas throughout the property. Upland areas will be planted with natural forest vegetation.

The topsoil, which contained invasive plants such as reed canarygrass, was hauled away and buried beneath other excavated soils to form a big mound between the new floodplain and Highway 3. That area will be planted with a mixture of native trees.

Graphic showing area before restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area before restoration.
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

Plans call for removal of 1,500 feet of an existing road with upgrades to two aging culverts. Adding meanders to the straightened channel will create 500 feet of new streambed that should be suitable for salmon spawning.

Plans call for adding 334 pieces large woody debris, such as logs and root wads to the stream. Some of that wood will be formed into structures and engineered logjams to help form pools and gravel bars.

Graphic showing area after restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area after restoration. Notice stream meanders near beaver pond habitat
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

“This will be one of the first streams to meet the Fox and Bolton numbers,” Chris told me, referring to studies by Martin Fox and Susan Bolton of the University of Washington. The two researchers studied natural streams and calculated the amount of woody debris of various kinds needed to simulate natural conditions, all based on the size of a stream. (Review North American Journal of Fisheries Management.)

The elevations on the property were also designed so that high areas on opposite sides of the stream would be in close proximity in several locations.

“Beaver will pick that spot,” Chris said, pointing to one location where the stream channel was squeezed by elevated banks on each side. “We want to encourage beaver to come in here.”

Beaver ponds will increase the floodwater storage capacity of the new floodplain and provide important habitat for coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater and need places to withstand both high and low flows. Because the county owns the flooded property, there won’t be any complaints about damage from beavers, Chris noted.

Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Clear Creek Trail (PDF 390 kb), which begins on the shore of Dyes Inlet, will be routed along the higher elevations as the trail winds through the property. Three new bridges will provide vantage points to watch salmon after vegetation obscures other viewing areas from the trail. Viewing platforms, as seen along other parts of Clear Creek Trail, were not included in this project but could be subject to further discussions.

Count me among the many people — experts, volunteers and users of Clear Creek Trail — who are eager to see how nature responds when water (now diverted) returns to the new stream channel. For decades, the lack of good habitat has constrained the salmon population in Clear Creek. The stream still has problems related to its highly developed watershed. But now a series of restoration projects is providing hope for increased coho and chum salmon and possibly steelhead trout as well as numerous other aquatic species.

In a story in the Kitsap Sun, Reporter Tristan Baurick described work this week on the Markwick property, where fish were removed in preparation for final channel excavation.

Here are some details (including photos) of various Clear Creek projects, as described in the state’s Habitat Work Schedule for restoration projects:

Washington Department of Ecology provided $2 million for the project. Kitsap County’s stormwater and roads programs each provided $500,000.

A difference between chum and coho salmon may be in their blood

On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that different from one another, not when you consider the variety of fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of other odd-looking creatures (EoPS).

But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours. But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will barely notice the difference.

In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die. (Kitsap Sun, June 10, 2006)

Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies, exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish embryos during their early stages of development.

Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.

Jen’s findings and related stormwater issues were described in a story I wrote two years ago for the Kitsap Sun, “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.” The story is part of a two-year project we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues about where to look for problems.

“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we understand that there is variability among species. But we would expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the same.”

Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs. Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin, oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this investigation, she said.

From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH (acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs and other chemicals.

Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage. That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater — could be causing these deadly effects on fish.

If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult, researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources, perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their embryonic development.

Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are listed as endangered.

Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum compared to coho salmon:

Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

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

chinook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sailing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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