Category Archives: Tribes

Looking backward, then forward on actions in Skokomish watershed

Through the years, I’ve written a lot about the Skokomish River, which begins in the Olympic Mountains and flows into the south end of Hood Canal. The wide, productive estuary might be described as the elbow of this long, narrow waterway that bends up toward Belfair.

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I’ve heard it said that Puget Sound cannot be restored to health without a healthy Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored to health without a healthy Skokomish River. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the Skokomish River watershed is coming out of a dark period of abuse with hope of becoming one of the most productive streams in the region.

Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a group of men and women from a variety of agencies, occupations and ways of life who came together with an understanding of the historic value of the Skokomish River and a vision for what the river could become again. This was the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, or SWAT, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

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To be sure, it was basically loads of money that began to transform the abused Skokomish River watershed to a much more productive system. But the people in charge of the federal, state, local and private dollars were able to see the Skokomish as a worthy cause, thanks to the groundwork laid by the SWAT. Disappointments have been few, as one project after another brings this long lost river back to life.

Yes, I have written a lot about the Skokomish River, its history and its future. That’s why I was glad to see the 10-year update to the Skokomish Watershed Action Plan (download, PDF 113 mb). The document contains an extensive account of the projects completed and the milestones passed through the years. Whether you are intimately involved in the watershed or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about, take a look at the report released this week.

Logjam soon after installation in 2010. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Logjam soon after installation in 2010.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Since 2005, nearly 50 restoration projects were completed — from removal of old logging roads high in the mountains to the re-establishment of tidal channels in the lower estuary. Salmon are being reintroduced to the North Fork of the Skokomish River, including the dammed-up Lake Cushman, thanks to a legal settlement between Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe.

After establishment, a deep pool forms behind the logjam. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Later, a deep pool forms behind the jam.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

About 12 miles upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish, a series of 30 logjams were installed and almost immediately began to restore the channel to a more natural habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. This area was part of a four-mile stretch that was heavily logged in the 1950s for a reservoir that never happened.

Once the logjams were in place, the area began to store massive loads of sediment, which always created problems as they washed downstream into the lower river. The river’s characteristic problem of spreading out and slowing down was reversed, as width-to-depth ratios decreased and the average depth in the middle of the river increased by two feet. The number of pools deeper than five feet doubled from three to six, and the piles of wood grew larger by capturing logs floating downstream.

The new report also lays out plans for the watershed in the coming years, including projects identified in a major study by the Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps proposal to fund $20 million in restoration projects is now before Congress, as I described in Water Ways in April and June. Other projects have been proposed for separate funding, as outlined in the new report.

The proper use of crab pots means extra crabs for the dinner plate

“Catch more crab!”

This is a campaign slogan going out to Puget Sound crabbers. It is a positive message, built upon the goals of:

  • Helping people avoid losing their crab pots,
  • Reducing the number of crabs that go to waste, and
  • Increasing the number of crabs available for harvest.

Crab

We’ve talked about the problems of lost crab pots that keep on catching crabs on the bottom of Puget Sound. About 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in Puget Sound, killing an estimated 178,000 legal-sized Dungeness crabs that would otherwise be served up for dinner. In January, I described some simple alterations to crab pots that allow crabs to escape when a pot gets lost. See Water Ways, Jan. 28.

Even more basic, however, are proven techniques that help people select equipment and place their crab pots so they don’t get damaged or lost in the first place.

The Northwest Straits Initiative, authorized by Congress in 1998, has been working on the problem of derelict gear for years, including the retrieval of thousands of lost nets and crab pots from Puget Sound. When it came to enlisting the public’s help in prevention, campaign organizers realized that everyone was on the same side, said Jason Morgan of the nonprofit Northwest Straits Foundation.

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“We previously focused on the doom and gloom of it, talking about so many crabs killed each year,” Jason told me.

Working with sociologists, campaign organizers realized that “the better way to reach people is not to talk about dead crabs but to say we want you to catch more crabs and keep your crab pots.”

The Northwest Straits Foundation has developed a three-year plan of action, including education for the public; improved communication among crabbers, vessel operators and government officials; and recommendations for improving regulations.

The plan was put together by a working group of 35 people involved in various aspects of crab harvesting, boat traffic and resource protection.

“It was a great collaborative process,” Jason said. “There was no butting of heads or anything like that.”

The “Puget Sound Lost Crab Pot Prevention Plan” (PDF 996 kb) states:

“Crab pots are lost for a variety of reasons. Causes for loss generally fall into three categories:

  • Vessel interaction (both recreational and commercial vessels);
  • Improperly configured gear, including improperly tied knots; and
  • Improperly placed gear.

“All these categories usually include a degree of user error, either on the part of the crabber, or on the part of the boater or vessel operator.”

The plan includes at least 25 strategies for reducing conflicts between vessel traffic and crab pots, reducing tampering and sabotage, improving crabbing equipment and pot configuration, and removing abandoned crab pots during non-crabbing days.

One of the interesting ideas is to require online registration for recreational crab endorsements on fishing licenses. Applicants would take a short quiz to make sure they know the rules.

Rich Childers, shellfish manager for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the various regulatory proposals in the plan are under advisement. One idea, which has proven effective, is to reduce the size of allowable escape cord (“rot cord”) that opens an escape hatch for the crabs to get out. Studies have shown that approved escape cord takes between 30 and 148 days to disintegrate, and most people use larger cord to last longer.

The time that crabs are trapped and dying on the bottom could be reduced if the rules were changed to require smaller cord. Any rule changes would include a grace period, Childers said, and it would be nice if crabbers could obtain the smaller cord for free.

With crab season underway, a series of videos on the theme “Catch more crab!” couldn’t come at a better time:

A longer video shows how to modify a crab pot to make sure that crabs can escape when a crab pot is lost:

“Modify your crab pot: adding bungee cord & modifying escape ring”

The video below provides basic information for first-time crabbers. Meanwhile, outdoors writer Mark Yuasa offered a nice instructional story last week in the Seattle Times.

To check on crab seasons and legal requirements, visits the Recreational Crab Fishing webpage of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Experts agree: Coho fishing must be reduced this year to save species

Fishing seasons for coho salmon in Puget Sound are expected to be cut back severely this year, as the latest forecasts of salmon returns predict that coho runs will be less than a third of what was forecast for 2015.

Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of various fishing scenarios. After they plugged in last year’s fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaguamish River in northern Puget Sound. Things were hardly better for the Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.

Coho forecast

“With last year’s fisheries, you will catch every fish out there,” said Doug Milward, who manages salmon data for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All the fisheries will have to change to protect the Stillaguamish (coho) — from the ocean fisheries to inside (Puget Sound).”

Last year’s fishing seasons are not even a good starting point, as negotiations begin between salmon managers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Washington tribes. Under federal court rulings, the two sides must agree on fishing seasons, and the goal remains a 50-50 split of the various stocks that can be safely harvested. NOAA Fisheries plays a role in setting seasons for chinook, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not listed, although some people argue that they should be.

2015 coho returns

By April 14, if things go as planned, the two parties will reach agreement on when and where salmon fishing will take place — for tribal and nontribal, sport and commercial fishers.

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

It seems the tribes have a slightly different take on the situation.

2016 coho forecasts

“There likely will be no coho fisheries in Western Washington this year, as returns are expected to plummet even further than last year because of poor ocean survival,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, stated in a column published online.

She said that when last year’s coho returns are finally tallied, they may be as much as 80 percent below preseason forecasts. The Nisqually Tribe last year canceled its coho fishery when less than 4,000 of the anticipated 23,000 fish returned to the area, she said.

Tribes fish at the end of the line, after all the other fisheries — from up the West Coast to the inside of Puget Sound. Because the treaties require tribes to fish within their “usual and accustomed areas,” agreements on fishing seasons must allow for salmon to return to their natal streams with numbers large enough for tribes to take their share, Lorraine said.

“Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to feed our families and culture,” she said. “Faced with low catch rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state, however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to attempt to catch fish that weren’t there. That’s not right. The last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the responsibility for conserving the resource.”

Chinook forecast

The annual negotiations between the state and the tribes were kicked off Tuesday at a public meeting where the salmon forecasts were discussed with sport and commercial fishers.

In addition to a poor return of coho to Puget Sound, the forecast for Puget Sound chinook also shows somewhat lower numbers than last year.

One bright spot is for people who like to fish in the ocean. About 951,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River. That’s higher than the 10-year average but lower than last year’s modern record of 1.3 million. About 223,000 hatchery chinook are expected to return to the lower Columbia River. These fish, known as “tules,” make up the bulk of the recreational harvest.

2015 chinook returns

Another bright spot is the prediction of a fair number of sockeye returning to Baker Lake on the Skagit River, possibly allowing a fishing season in the lake and river.

Norm Reinhardt, who heads up the Kitsap Poggie Club, has been involved in advisory groups on salmon fishing and participates in discussions about the seasons.

“This year, we have a significant challenge in the coho fishery, and we will have to base decisions on conservation needs,” Norm told me following Tuesday’s meeting.

Despite lower chinook numbers, there could be ways to work out some opportunities to fish for hatchery chinook, he said. Catch-and-release is one option on the table, but it is not popular among sport fishers.

2016 chinook forecast

Anglers are still smarting from last year’s sport-fishing closure in Area 10, a designated fishing area between Bremerton and Seattle. Fishing for chinook was prohibited in that area at the insistence of the Muckleshoot Tribe to protect hatchery chinook returning to the Issaquah Creek hatchery.

Fishing should have been allowed at some level — with the release of wild chinook — under an agreed management plan, Norm says, but state managers yielded to the tribe at the last minute in order to hasten a final agreement. On Tuesday, Norm told state salmon managers that he doesn’t want to see that happen again.

“In area 10, our argument is going to be that if we have adequate chinook, we should be allowed to fish on our fish — unlike last year,” he said.

sockeye forecasts

The reduced number of coho returning to Puget Sound has been blamed on ocean conditions, including higher water temperatures off the coast and a mass of warm water called “the blob,” which stayed around for two years. Studies have shown that warmer water alters the species of plankton available for fish to eat. The result is that the fish are consuming a plankton lower in fat content, causing coho to be thinner and fewer.

The 2016 forecast of about 256,000 Puget Sound coho is about 40 percent of the average return over the past 10 years and 29 percent of the number predicted for 2015 — a prediction that turned out to be too optimistic. Because of the failed coho forecast last year, everyone is expected to be more cautious about aspects of the computer modeling this year.

Charts on this page were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. The new charts make the presentation easier to understand, compared to the tables of data discussed at previous meetings. The data tables are still available when one needs to dig into the finer details. The new maps use colors to describe how streams are doing. Poor (red) is if the run or forecast for a stream is less than 75 percent of the 10-year average. Good (green) is if the run or forecast for a stream is more than 125 percent of the 10-year-average. Neutral (blue) is if the run or forecast falls between 75 percent and 125 percent.

Anyone may attend the meetings where the ongoing negotiations and possible tradeoffs are discussed. Allowing more fishing in one place often results in less fishing somewhere else, and there’s always the question about whether enough salmon are being left for spawning in the streams.

“We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide fisheries in some areas this year,” John Long said. “We would appreciate input from the public to help us establish priorities.”

Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon website.

On March 14, various parameters for ocean fishing will be set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group empowered by the federal government to manage fish in the ocean. The PFMC will adopt ocean fishing schedules and harvest levels during its April 8-14 meeting, at which time state and tribal salmon managers are expected to approve fishing seasons for the inland waters.

EPA’s ‘virtual hearing’ will address proposed water quality standards

Five years ago, I could not have predicted that Washington state would end up in a serious conflict with the federal government over water-quality standards to protect people’s health. But it has happened, and there’s no clear resolution in sight.

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The federal Environmental Protection Agency will hold a “virtual hearing” on this issue in December. Read on for details, but let me first provide some recent history.

In November 2010, I wrote about the Department of Ecology’s newest undertaking, as the agency embarked on an effort to define “how clean is clean” in protecting public health in state waters. See Water Ways Nov. 4, 2010, and also Kitsap Sun Nov. 2, 2010.

It was obvious at the time that the state would need to increase its existing fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day — a key factor in the formula used to calculate the allowable concentration of toxic chemicals in the water. After much discussion and delay, the state eventually proposed a rate of 175 grams per day — 27 times higher than the existing rate.

The controversy arrived when the state proposed a cancer risk rate of one in 100,000 — a risk 10 times higher than the existing rate of one in a million. The higher cancer risk rate would somewhat offset the effect of the much higher fish-consumption rate. Other factors were changed as well, as I described in the second of a two-part series in the Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2015.

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s newly proposed standards, he also proposed new legislation to study and reduce the sources of toxic chemicals of greatest concern. The Legislation failed to gain enough support for passage during the past legislative session.

The governor has since pulled back from the original proposal and agreed to return to a cancer risk rate of one in a million. A new proposal is expected to be announced after the first of the year, Meanwhile, the EPA is moving forward with its own proposal, probably more stringent than what we’ll see from the state. I outlined the likely differences in Water Ways on Oct. 8.

On Dec. 15 and 16, the EPA will hold what it’s calling a “virtual hearing” on the proposed water-quality criteria that the agency developed for Washington state. The web-based call-in format is designed to save considerable money, according to Erica Slicy, contact for the event. Given interest across the state, multiple in-person hearings in numerous locations would be needed to accomplish what two phone-in hearings can do, she said.

People will be able to watch the virtual hearing and/or testify by registering on EPA’s website. The event will be recorded and transcribed so that people will be able to review the comments later. Written comments will be taken until Dec. 28.

If the state comes up with proposed water-quality standards, as expected, the EPA could put the federal proposal on hold while the state’s proposal undergoes considerable scrutiny. Meanwhile, I’m sure supporters of the more stringent standards — such as Indian tribes and environmental groups — will continue to be frustrated by more delays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Implementation tools

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

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

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

3. The problem chemicals: PCBs, mercury and arsenic

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

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

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

Cleaning up the rest

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

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

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

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

Tribal and environmental concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Safina explores animal culture plus
orca-salmon links

Carl Safina — scientist, teacher, author and documentary filmmaker — will speak Wednesday on a topic of interest to many killer whale observers, “Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection in the Pacific Northwest.”

The talk, sponsored by the group Orca Salmon Alliance, will be held at the Seattle Aquarium, but it appears the event has been sold out. (Brown Paper Tickets)

Following his speech, Safina will join a panel of experts on salmon and killer whales to discuss the connections between these two iconic species and what it will take for the survival of the species. The experts are Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, Howard Schaller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Safina’s newest book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” is winning acclaim for its description of animal culture and even emotions in creatures such as elephants, wolves and killer whales.

“We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe, but clearly we are not alone on earth,” wrote Tim Flannery in his review of “Beyond Words” in the New York Review of Books. “The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of ‘Beyond Words’ we need to reevaluate how, and why.”

“Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion,” Flannery continues. “Prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this?”

Previously, in a PBS series “Saving the Ocean,” Safina explored the effort to restore chinook salmon to the Nisqually River. During a two-part segment, he interviewed numerous biologists and talked to tribal leader Billy Frank before Billy’s untimely death.

The newly formed Orca Salmon Alliance is a consortium of environmental groups focused on supporting the recovery of orcas and salmon. Proceeds from Wednesday’s event will support the organization.

“We can’t recover the highly endangered population of orca living off the Northwest coast without also restoring their primary food source, the chinook salmon,” said Deborah Giles, Science Advisor for OSA.

Inslee backs off water-quality standards; his next move is unclear

With a key deadline approaching next week, Gov. Jay Inslee decided today that he will not move forward on new water-quality standards at this time.

The governor had hoped that the Legislature would approve his plan to track down and eliminate sources of nonpoint pollution, the kind that often gets into our waterways via stormwater. The Democratic-controlled House approved a revised proposal for chemical action plans (HB 1472), which Inslee said he could support. But, in the end, the Republican-controlled Senate failed to act on the bill.

Inslee

“Without this legislation, we lack the necessary broad approach to protecting our water in a way that advances human, environmental and economic health,” Inslee said in a news release issued today. “The lack of legislative action is disappointing and forces us to reassess our approach.”

Environmental advocates and tribal officials have called for stronger water-quality standards. Such standards, if approved, could require industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants to extensively upgrade their systems to remove more pollutants from their effluent.

Inslee and his supporters have argued that many of the pollutants of greatest concern don’t come from industrial and municipal discharges. Rather they come from “the small-but-steady release of chemicals in everyday products – brakes on vehicles, flame retardants in furniture, softeners in plastics, and metals in roofing materials,” according to the news release.

That’s why Inslee has pushed for the more comprehensive approach of dealing with the most troublesome chemicals, many of which are not even regulated under the federal Clean Water Act. (Inslee news release, July 9, 2014.)

Water-quality standards actually apply to streams and bodies of water. Comparing results from water samples with numerical standards tells us whether the waters are polluted or clean enough to protect public health. The numerical standards become a starting point for permitting any discharge through pipes, although stormwater pipes are generally not regulated.

I have followed this story now for quite some time. The latest related post two weeks ago in Water Ways covers the overall issue and includes links to previous stories.

It isn’t clear what the next move will be. The news release says the governor has “directed the state Department of Ecology to reconsider its draft clean water rules while he and the agency assess options on how best to assure protection for the health of Washington’s people, fish and economy.”

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing new standards for Washington state. If the state fails to act or fails to protect public health, as determined by the EPA, then the federal agency could impose its standards on the state. Proposed EPA standards, like state standards, must undergo a rigorous review, including public comments and probably public hearings.

Mark MacIntyre, EPA spokesman, issued a statement today in response to Inslee’s decision:

“We believe it’s important to have human health criteria in place that are protective for everybody in Washington, including high consumers of fish such as members of tribal communities. In terms of who writes the standards, EPA continues to prefer and support Washington’s development of revised water quality standards that we can approve. In the meantime, we are proceeding consistent with our commitment to work on a federal proposal for Washington, but will pause that work to review and act upon a state submittal, should we receive one.”

Washington Department of Ecology, which enforces the Clean Water Act for Washington state, was planning to approve the new standards by next Thursday. But under Inslee’s latest order that will not happen. If the rule is revised, it must undergo a new public review process.

More than 1,600 comments were received on the proposed standards, which are not likely to be approved in their current form. Most of the comments related to the higher cancer risk level chosen by Ecology and the governor. Cancer risk is one factor in calculating the water-quality standards, along with a fish-consumption rate, chemical-toxicity factor and others.

Inslee to decide whether to revise water-pollution standards for the state

Identifying and eliminating sources of water pollution — a process involving “chemical action plans” — is a common-sense idea that never faced much opposition among legislators.

Capitol

But the Legislature’s failure to act on the idea this year cut the legs out from under Gov. Jay Inslee’s anti-pollution plan, which included updated water-quality standards along with authority to study and ban harmful chemicals when alternatives are available.

Although chemical action plans make a lot of sense, the idea of coupling such planning to water-quality standards never quite gelled. Inslee argued that water-quality standards alone would not solve the pollution problem, because the standards address only a limited number of chemicals.

Furthermore, while the water-quality standards define an acceptable level of pollution for a body of water, they are limited in their regulatory control. The standards generally limit discharges only from industrial processes and sewage-treatment plants. In today’s world, stormwater delivers most of the pollution. Legal limits for stormwater discharges are nonexistent, except in rare cases where a toxic-cleanup plan has been established.

Environmentalists and tribal leaders were disappointed with the governor’s proposed water-quality standards. They believed he should be calling for much more stringent standards. While most people liked the idea of an ongoing program of chemical action planning, the governor received limited support for his legislation, House Bill 1472, among environmental and tribal communities.

Inslee

We can’t forget that Inslee had publicly stated that if the Legislature failed to act on his full pollution-cleanup program, he would revisit the water-quality standards — presumably to make them stronger. So the governor kind of boxed himself in, and that’s where we stand today.

Republican legislators acknowledged the value of chemical action plans. Their concerns seemed to center around a distrust of the Department of Ecology, reflecting the views of the chemical industry and others who could find themselves under greater regulatory control.

The House stripped out a provision in the bill that would allow Ecology to ban chemicals without legislative approval. And the key committee in the Senate — the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee — went further by limiting Ecology’s ability to study safer chemicals when a ban is under consideration.

The governor ultimately shifted his support away from the bill that emerged from the committee, as I described in a story I wrote in April for InvestigateWest. The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate, and it ultimately died, along with funding for a wider range of chemical action plans.

“Not only did we not get additional policy help, but we also didn’t get funding to implement the chemical action plans that were already done,” noted Rob Duff, the governor’s environmental policy adviser.

In all, about $3.8 million for toxic cleanup efforts was cancelled along with the legislation.

Plans have been developed to reduce toxic releases of five classes of persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs, including polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. But carrying through on cleanup ideas spelled out in those plans has been slow without targeted funding, and many toxic chemicals of concern, such as pharmaceuticals, are not considered PBTs.

“We aren’t going to throw up our hands,” Rob told me. “Under the PBT rule, we can do PBTs. We will continue to push toward source reduction, although we did not get additional authority from the Legislature.”

Educational programs and voluntary efforts by industry remain in play, pending a further try at legislation next session. Meanwhile, the governor will review the proposed water quality standards, according to Duff.

Rule note

“We will put everything on the table and see what is the best path forward,” he said. “We will have the governor briefed and the necessary discussions over the next two weeks.”

The governor’s proposed water-quality standards have gone through public hearings and must be approved by Aug. 3, or else the process must start over.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing its own water-quality rule, which could impose stronger standards upon the state. Water-quality standards, which are a concentration of chemicals in the water, are based on a formula that accounts for how each chemical is assimilated through the food web and into the human body.

One factor involves how much contaminated fish a person is likely to eat. For years, states across the country have used the same fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams a day, which is less than a quarter of an ounce. This number was long recognized as grossly underestimating the amount of fish that people eat, especially for Northwest residents and even more so for Native Americans who generally consume large quantities of fish.

If adopted, the new water-quality standards would raise the daily fish-consumption rate to 175 grams, or about 6 ounces. If all other factors stayed the same, the new fish consumption rate would raise the safety factor by 27 times. But, as the update moved along, several other factors were amended as well.

Inslee’s proposal was to raise the allowable risk of getting cancer after a lifetime of eating 175 grams of fish each day. The proposal was to increase the risk factor from one case of cancer in a million people to one case among 100,000 people. Inslee included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that the allowable concentration of chemicals would not be increased, no matter what the formula came up with.

Environmental advocates and tribal leaders cried foul over the cancer risk, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA, said he did not want the cancer risk to be increased for any state under his authority.

I covered these issues in a two-part series for the Kitsap Sun:

The EPA expects to have its proposed standards for Washington state ready this fall, possibly November. EPA officials will review the state’s proposal when it is final, but that won’t stop the agency from completing its work, according to a written statement from the EPA regional office.

“We continue to work closely with Governor Inslee’s office and the Washington Department of Ecology to see water quality standards adopted and implemented that protect all residents of the state, as well as tribal members, who regularly and often consume fish as part of a healthy diet,” according to the statement.

Industry officials and sewage-treatment-plant operators have argued that the technology does not exist to meet some of the water-quality standards that would result from a cancer-risk rate of one in a million if the other factors stayed the same. PCBs is one example of a pollutant difficult to control. Besides, they argue, stormwater — not their facilities — is the primary source of PCBs in most cases. That’s why eliminating the original sources of PCBs is so important.

McLerran, who seems to support the more stringent standards, has mentioned that facilities can apply for variances, relaxed compliance schedules or other “implementation tools,” to get around strict numerical standards impossible to meet with today’s technology.

Environmental groups are calling on the governor to tighten up the proposed water-quality standards, rather than let them go into effect, given the Legislature’s failure to approve his overall plan.

“Gov. Inslee must do everything in his power to protect the most vulnerable — babies and children — from the devastating health effects of potent neurotoxins like mercury and carcinogens like PCBs,” stated Chris Wilke, executive director for Puget Soundkeeper.

“Ecology’s draft rule provides only the appearance of new protection while manipulating the math, leaving the actual water quality standards largely unchanged,” he said. “This is simply unacceptable. Without the veil of a new source control package from the Legislature, the Governor’s plan clearly has no clothes.”

Others maintain that the governor has been on the right track all along, and they warn that the state could face lawsuits if it imposes standards that are too strict.

Bruce Hope, a retired toxicologist, wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle Times that included these statements:

“Taking an achievable approach like the one in the Department of Ecology’s draft rule would reduce the risk that municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities are subject to standards that couldn’t be met…

“Developing the right approach to water-quality protection for Washington will thus require various interests continuing to work together to find common ground.

“Washington’s rules for protecting our waters need to be established by the people elected by Washington voters. The EPA’s Region 10 office should simply not be threatening to circumvent or supersede the standard-setting authority granted to the state under the Clean Water Act.”

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.”

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.