Category Archives: Drinking water

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.


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.

Amusing Monday: Lawn Dude kicks some grass
for water conservation

Lawn Dude, a cartoon character invented to convey a water-conservation message, has appeared on billboards in Southern California, where he has become known for his frank but witty messages.


When first introduced in the summer of 2014, Lawn Dude had this to say: “I’d be the first to admit that I love using lots of water, but I’m cutting back on my drinking because, take it from me, nobody likes a drunk lawn.” Read the press release issued on July 31, 2014.


Lawn Dude was launched as a cooperative effort between the Southern California Water Committee, a nonprofit educational partnership, and Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, one of the world’s largest outdoor advertising companies.

Appearing as a personified lawn, this unique cartoon character can offer a unique perspective that might incite human action. He can encourage people by saying things in ways that governments, utilities and even conservation groups cannot.

“I’m fresh off a water cleanse and have never looked better, thanks to that H2O diet Governor Brown put me on,” Lawn Dude said upon his return in 2015. “I know people thought I might be all dried up, but I’m back and ready to kick some grass.”

In addition to appearing on billboards the past two summers, Lawn Dude continues to provide comments on his Twitter feed, and I would not be surprised if he came back next year.


California remains in a serious drought. Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Water Resources Control Board have imposed a series of water conservation measures to protect the remaining water supplies. For specifics, check out this fact sheet (PDF 507 kb).

Charles Wilson, chairman of the nonregulatory Southern California Water Committee, said the donation of billboards by Clear Channel has made it possible to reach many people with a reminder about water conservation.


“The Lawn Dude campaign has been a valuable way for the Southern California Water Committee to grab the public’s attention when it comes to outdoor water conservation, going beyond the limitations typically placed on what public agencies and water districts can say,” Wilson noted in a news release.

One aspect of the campaign has been to encourage Californians to remove their lawns. That’s when Lawn Dude got a new hairdo featuring succulent plants, and he discussed it on Twitter:


“It’s time to take it all off, California!”

“Lawn Dude stripped nude. Now won’t you take it off?”

“Keeping me thirsty isn’t enough. I need a new look and I’m loving the succulent style.”

“My trainer has been kicking my grass. It’s a good thing I lost that water weight.”

The following video from KCAL-TV in Los Angeles is a news story posted last year when the Lawn Dude campaign was launched.

Amusing Monday: Help ‘hydrate’ Ashanti’s video to make it come to life

Ashanti, the singer, songwriter and record producer, has come up with an interesting way to release her latest single while urging people to drink water instead of sweet drinks.

The single, called “Let’s Go,” was released in a “dehydrated” form, stripped of lively elements, clear images, colorful lighting and dynamic sound. Ashanti has asked her fans to “hydrate” the music and video by using the hashtag “#DrinkUpAshanti” on social media, such as Twitter and Instgram.

As of this morning, I believe the “Let’s Go” video has reached the third of four levels and should soon reach its full entertainment potential. At that point, the song will be for sale on iTunes and other music outlets. The first video on this page describes the making of the video and demonstrates the four phases of “hydration.”

To see the current version of the video, go to:

I’ve never heard of a promotion like this, but Ashanti is using this approach to support First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign called Partnership for a Healthier America and its Drink Up effort, which encourages people to drink more water to support their health.

The video player at is clever, because one can pause it when graphic elements, such as flowers and stars, come into view. Click on the white circles that appear, and you’ll see the Twitter handles that helped to “hydrate” it. Add your own Twitter handle, and you will be assigned a flower and can see who is sharing that graphic element with you.

The website shows the four levels of hydration and provides lyrics to the new song for anyone who wants them.

“I love that my song is being used to encourage people to make a really easy choice: drinking more water every day,” Ashanti said in a news release. “It’s even more rewarding when it’s being done in a creative, positive way.

“Drinking water is in … it’s just cool and sexy. You are what you drink, so drink up. It’s also a pleasure to work with the First Lady again to help make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Ashanti explains her involvement in the campaign in an interview shown on the Valder Beebe Show, an Internet video blog. See the second video above.

Amusing Monday: Enjoying the many sounds of water

I’ve always enjoyed listening to sounds, whether it be easily identified natural sounds or mysterious sounds that are hard to figure out.


When I was kid, I was given a tape recorder, which I used to collect all sorts of natural and unnatural sounds. I would play back the sounds and ask people if they could identify the source. Even as an aging adult, I enjoy listening to the sound of a flowing stream, breaking waves or falling rain. I also like to listen to bird calls, and I keep telling myself that I need to learn how to identify more of them — but that’s another story.

For this blog, I would like to return again to this idea of natural sound and share some websites where you can listen to your heart’s content and sometimes shape the sound itself. Since this is a blog about water, I’ve tended to focus on rain, streams, oceans and such things, but these links can be just a starting point.

Soundsnap is a website that boasts of having 200,000 sounds in its catalog, including 6,000 sounds of nature. Included are 249 sounds of rain, 117 sounds of the sea, 1,065 sounds of water and 298 sounds of ice. These sounds can be downloaded for a fee, but it costs nothing to explore Sound Snap’s website.

At the other end of the spectrum is a single 11-hour YouTube video featuring the sound and images of ocean waves. I have not listened to more than a few minutes of this video at a time, so I don’t know what happens if you turn on this video to go to sleep and then leave it on all night. But the sound coming from the video is certainly more pleasant than the nightly sounds that some people learn to tolerate. The video, embedded on this page, was posted by YogaYak, which has several videos of a similar vein.

If you would like to download a sound to save it or use it in a video project, Sound Bible is a royalty-free site with a large collection of sounds. I downloaded the files below from collections called “Sea Sounds” and “Water Sounds.”

      1. Babbling brook.
      2. Rain.

I also found a sound generator that one can play with or simply leave on as background noise. Called “My Noise,” the website features an ocean waves noise generator.

If you would like to share your favorite sound website, please add it to the comments section below.

Robert Tiso still enchants by creating water music

Robert Tiso, a master musician who plays classical music on water glasses, has released several new videos of his music, which is nothing less than mesmerizing.

I first encountered Robert six years ago and featured his “glass harp” in Water Ways Nov. 9, 2009, after corresponding with him by email. His biography is fairly well outlined in that blog post. I believe he was in Italy at the time.

It is worth mentioning again that Robert performed in a DVD documentary “Bach and Friends” by filmaker Michael Lawrence. View the Robert Tiso performance on the film’s trailer.

At the beginning of last year, Tiso moved to the United States, where he performed in Las Vegas as part of an eclectic production called “Vegas Nocturne.” The production was featured at Rose.Rabbit.Lie, a venue at the Cosmopolitan hotel and casino. He has since returned to Toscana, Italy, but still performs all over the world.

New videos released this year include:

The first two of these videos can be found on this page. The Water Adagio is from Bach’s violin concerto 2 in E Major. The first phase of the piece was used in a movie by Pierpaolo Pasolini for scenes in which Jesus Chris performed miracles, according to notes on the YouTube page. In this performance, the tone oscillations are created by tilting the table to make water move inside the glasses.

A whole series of videos by Robert Tiso can be found on his YouTube Channel, including an intriguing duet with Felice Pantone, who plays the mysterious musical saw. I remain as intrigued by Robert’s music as when I first heard it.

Later, I learned that Benjamin Franklin loved the sound created by crystalline glass. As an inventor, Franklin believed it was a waste of time to fill and tune each water glass when they could be made to play just as beautifully without water, provided they were made to the proper size. Read about his amazing invention in Water Ways from June 3, 2013.

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.”

Kitsap precipitation nearly normal during
the past water year

Despite concerns about drought in much of Washington state, Kitsap County came through the water year (ending Sept. 30) with precipitation just about normal.

Precipitation at Hansville over the past water year.
Precipitation at Hansville over the past water year. (Click to enlarge) // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

As you can see from the graphs on this page, precipitation in 2015 (blue line) fairly well tracked the average (pink line). The previous water year (orange line) was more concerning, although both 2014 and 2015 water years ended in fairly decent shape.

Areas in North Kitsap ended the year somewhat above average. In Hansville, the annual total was 34.3 inches, compared to an average of 30.2 inches. In Central and South Kitsap, many areas were slightly below normal. In Holly, the annual rainfall was 69.4 inches, compared to an average of 76.6 inches.

Hansville precipitation over the past water year.
Precipitation at Bremerton National Airport over the past water year. (Click to enlarge) // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

The Kitsap Peninsula largely relies on groundwater for its water supplies, and we have gotten enough rains to keep the aquifers in fairly decent shape, according to Mark Morgan of Kitsap Public Utility District.

“Aquifers experienced their typical summer drawdown, driven more by demand than by drought, but (it was) nothing exceptional,” Mark said in a summary of the water year.

Concerns about drought in other parts of the state were largely based on a lack of snowpack coming out of last winter.

Precipitation at Bremerton National Airport over the past water year.
Precipitation at Holly over the past water year. (Click to enlarge) // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

Meanwhile, flows in many streams hit low-flow conditions a month earlier than normal this past summer, but some maintained their typical flow, Mark said. Adequate streamflows are critical for coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater, as well as for year-round residents, such as trout.

The forecast for the winter is based on strong El Nino conditions (see map below), which means that sea surface temperatures off the coast of South America will be significantly higher than usual — up to 3.4 degrees F (2 degrees C). Above-normal temperatures are expected across the western U.S. as well as the northern tier states and Eastern Seaboard, with the greatest chance of above-normal temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.

Sea surface temperatures are above average across most of the Pacific Ocean. NOAA map
Sea surface temperatures today are above average across most of the Pacific Ocean. (Click to enlarge) // NOAA map

Below-average temperatures are expected in New Mexico and West Texas. For details, see the prediction maps at the bottom of this page or check out NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

While much of the country will benefit from greater rainfall, below normal precipitation is expected for the Northwest and areas in the Eastern Great Lakes, New York and northern New England.

Climatologists predict with 95 percent certainty that the El Nino will continue through the winter in the Northern Hemisphere before gradually weakening in the spring.

Temperatures are predicted to be warmer this winter across the northern states. NOAA graphic
Temperatures this fall are predicted to be above average across the northern states. // NOAA graphic
Precipitation is predicted to be less than normal in the Pacific Northwest. NOAA graphic
Precipitation is predicted to be less than normal in the Pacific Northwest. // NOAA graphic

Manchester sewer plant leads the pack with another perfect score

A record number of sewage-treatment plants in Washington state fully complied with state water-quality requirements in 2014, with 128 plants winning the coveted Outstanding Performance Award from the Department of Ecology.

The number of sewage-treatment plants recognized for meeting all water-quality requirements grew from 14 to 127 over the past 20 years.
The number of sewage-treatment plants recognized for meeting all water-quality requirements grew from 14 in 1995 to 128 last year.

The awards program has reached its 20th year, and the Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant in South Kitsap remains ahead of the pack. It’s the only plant with a perfect score every year since the program began.

In the first year of Ecology’s awards program, only 14 plants across the state were recognized as doing everything right, but that number has grown nearly every year.

Last year, 128 winning treatment plants — more than a third of all the plants in the state — passed every environmental test, analyzed every required sample, turned in all reports and allowed no permit violations.

“The talents of our professional operators are critical to successful plant operations and protecting the health of Washington’s waters”, said Heather Bartlett, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program, in a news release. “It is an honor to recognize their contributions with these awards.”

Kitsap County officials are rightly proud of the perfect record. Five years ago, in an article in Treatment Plant Operator magazine, lead operator Don Johnson said the success of the Manchester plant could be credited to the dedicated wastewater staff and support from all levels of county government. Don, who retired last year, has been replaced by Ken Young.

The magazine article may tell you more than you want to know about the design and operation of the Manchester plant. The plant was a modern facility when Ecology’s awards program was launched 20 years ago, and it has been kept up to date through the years.

Johnson stressed that treatment-plant operators should always be prepared for new developments.

“My advice is for them to remain adaptable and up to date,” he said. “There are many changes in the industry, and it’s important to pursue energy efficiency and create reusable resources.”

Reaching the 20-year mark deserves some kind of celebration for the Manchester plant. I would suggest organized tours of the facility, public recognition for all the plant workers through the years and maybe a slice of cake. So far, I’m told, no specific plans have been made.

A list of all the treatment plants in the state showing a history of their perfect scores (PDF 464 kb) can be downloaded from Ecology’s website.

Port Townsend’s treatment plant has had a perfect score for 19 of the 20 years, missing only 1997. Meeting the perfect standard for 16 of the past 20 years are two plants owned by the city of Vancouver — Marine Park and Westside.

Kitsap County’s Kingston plant has received the award for nine straight years. The county’s Suquamish plant, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection agency because it is on tribal land, has met all permit requirement for 15 years straight. (EPA does not issue awards.)

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.


“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.

Vital sign indicators revised to reflect human values for Puget Sound

When it comes to restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, human beings really do matter — in some ways that are obvious and in some ways that are fairly subtle.

The Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the restoration of Puget Sound, acknowledged this fact yesterday when adopting a new set of ecosystem indicators to measure how Puget Sound influences the health and well-being of humans.

It’s often said that people have damaged the Puget Sound ecosystem through years of abuse. They say it will take years of restoration — by people — to return things to a healthy condition. But why do we care? Are we spending millions of dollars on restoration just to benefit fish and wildlife, or are we doing it for ourselves?

The answer, which comes from studies of economics and human behavior, appears to be that helping fish and wildlife — by putting the ecosystem back together — also benefits humans in a variety of ways.

When the Washington Legislature told the Puget Sound Partnership to go forth and lead the way toward restoring Puget Sound to health, our lawmakers understood that people would be the primary beneficiaries. The first two goals assigned to the partnership, as articulated by RCW 90.71.300:

  • A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem;
  • A quality of human life that is sustained by a functioning Puget Sound ecosystem;

The other three goals are related to native species, habitats and water supplies.

Sometimes goals related to human values conflict with goals to restore ecological functions. For example, one cannot build a house on undeveloped land without altering the ecosystem in some negative ways. Sometimes human values are aligned with ecological values, such when we reduce pollution to clean up streams and drinking water. In any case, these new ecosystem indicators will help people understand the tradeoffs and opportunities of various actions.

As I pointed out last month in Water Ways, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council has completed a plan and associated website that highlights connections between human well-being and natural resources in the Hood Canal region. Hood Canal became a pilot project for the indicators approved yesterday for all of Puget Sound. Some of the same folks — including social scientist Kelly Biedenweg of the Puget Sound Institute — were involved in creating nine new “vital signs” with indicators to track human-related changes in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Unlike the original human health and human well-being indicators adopted in 2010, these new indicators have undergone an extensive review by scientists and other experts to ensure their validity and reliability. That is, these new indicators have real meaning in connecting human beings to the ecological functions of Puget Sound.

In yesterday’s meeting, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Leadership Council, said the human dimension is often ignored in favor of empirical science.

“This is a hard thing to do,” she said about developing the new indicators. “This is sort of a brave new world, and I think it is true that we live in this world whether we call it out like this or not.”

Council member Stephanie Solien said she would like to see more discussions about human health and well-being issues — not because they are more important than species and habitats, but because they make connections to average people.

“People are self-interested,” she said. “They care about their health, their family’s health, the health of their communities. The more we can draw those connections to Puget Sound and healthy watersheds, I think we will be more successful in our work around ecosystems and saving species.”

Hear the full discussion on TVW in the video player on this page, and download the resolution and backup documents (PDF 2.9 mb) from the Puget Sound Partnership’s website.

Here are the four new vital signs and associated indicators related to human health:

1. OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Measured by 1) Percent of swimming beaches meeting bacterial standards (one of the existing indicators), 2) Average hours people spend having fun outdoors, 3) Average hours people spend working outdoors.

2. AIR QUALITY: Indicators to be determined from existing data.

3. LOCAL FOODS: Availability of wild foods, such the ability to catch fish, collect shellfish, harvest plants and hunt for game.

4. DRINKING WATER: Indicators to be determined from information about water systems.

Here are the five new vital signs and associated indicators related to human well-being:

5. ECONOMIC VITALITY: Measured by 1) Value of natural resources produced by industry, including commercial fishing, shellfish harvesting, timber production, agriculture, mining and tourism; 2) Value produced by natural-resource industries compared to gross domestic product of all other industries in the region; 3) Number of jobs in natural-resource industries.

6. CULTURAL WELL-BEING: Percent of residents who feel they are able to maintain traditions associated with the natural environment.

7. GOOD GOVERNANCE: Percentage of people who feel they have 1) the opportunity to influence decisions about Puget Sound, 2) the rights and freedom to make decisions about managing natural resources, 3) trust in local and regional governments to make the right decisions about Puget Sound, 4) been well represented by government leaders, 5) access to information about natural-resource issues.

8. SENSE OF PLACE: Percentage of people who feel: 1) a positive connection to the region, 2) a sense of stewardship for the watershed, 3) a sense of pride about being from Puget Sound.

9. PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING INDEX: Percentage of people who experience: 1) inspiration from being in nature, 2) reduced stress, calm or relaxation from being in nature, 3) Overall life satisfaction based on criteria in national studies.

A new vital sign wheel will add indicators for human health and well-being. Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership
A new vital sign wheel will add nine indicators for human health and well-being. Two indicators were moved to another area.
Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

Leadership Council member Jay Manning, former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said he supports the indicators. His only concern is that some are beyond the control of the Puget Sound Partnership, and some may have nothing to do with people’s connection to Puget Sound.

Jay makes a good point, but the social scientists who developed the indicators stressed that there will be no targets or goals associated with human values. What will be interesting to watch is whether people feel better or worse about the restoration effort as time goes on, and how the leaders choose to respond to any changes in public opinion.

Much of the information that will fit into the new indicators will be the result of phone surveys yet to be conducted. Other information will be teased out of ongoing research studies. The partnership has received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to hire a consultant to continue work on the human-related indicators until the numbers are finalized.

None of the new information about human health and well-being will be included in the State of Puget Sound report to be issued later this year, according to Kari Stiles, staff scientist for the partnership. But some information could go into the Vital Signs wheel within the next year.