Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Amusing Monday: Students relate to water with art

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Each year, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection holds a student art and poetry contest on the theme of water resources, including water conservation and wastewater treatment.

Betty Jin, grade 6-7, Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School, Bayside, N.Y.

By Betty Jin, grade 6-7, Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School, Bayside, N.Y. / NYC Department of Environmental Protection

This year’s contest attracted 580 entries among students from 68 schools in the region. All participants received a “Water Ambassadors” certificate, and 39 were named as this year’s “Water Champions.”

“The Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest is an engaging way to teach students about the infrastructure that supplies more than half the state’s population with clean drinking water and has helped dramatically improve the health of our waterways,” said DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd in a news release, which includes a list of the 39 winners.

I’ve chosen three of my favorites to show you on this page, but you can see all the entries on the Department of Environmental Protection Flickr page.

From the news release:

“DEP manages New York City’s water supply, providing more than one billion gallons of water each day to more than nine million residents, including eight million in New York City.

By Tasnim Ahmed, grades 10-12, Newcomers High School, Long Island City, N.Y.

By Tasnim Ahmed, grades 10-12, Newcomers High School, Long Island City, N.Y.

“The water is delivered from a watershed that extends more than 125 miles from the city, comprising 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes. Approximately 7,000 miles of water mains, tunnels and aqueducts bring water to homes and businesses throughout the five boroughs, and 7,500 miles of sewer lines and 96 pump stations take wastewater to 14 in-city treatment plants.

“DEP has nearly 6,000 employees, including almost 1,000 in the upstate watershed.

“In addition, DEP has a robust capital program, with nearly $14 billion in investments planned over the next 10 years that will create up to 3,000 construction-related jobs per year. This capital program is responsible for critical projects like City Water Tunnel No. 3; the Staten Island Bluebelt program, an ecologically sound and cost-effective stormwater management system; the city’s Watershed Protection Program, which protects sensitive lands upstate near the city’s reservoirs in order to maintain their high water quality; and the installation of more than 820,000 Automated Meter Reading devices, which will allow customers to track their daily water use, more easily manage their accounts and be alerted to potential leaks on their properties.”

Miranda Torn, grades 4-5 , Blue School, downtown New York City

Miranda Torn, grades 4-5 , Blue School, downtown New York City


Three videos take us upstream, where it all begins

Friday, August 1st, 2014

John F. Williams of Suquamish, known for his brilliant underwater videos, has worked his way upstream from Puget Sound and into the freshwater streams of the Kitsap Peninsula.

His latest video project began somewhat haphazardly, John told me. But the end result is nothing less than an entertaining and educational series that anyone can enjoy. It helps that each video is just a little over four minutes. In such a short time, John was able to tell a story while packing in a lot of information.

“It all started,” John said, “when Ron (Hirschi) invited me to come film him taking some preschool kids down to the South Fork of Dogfish Creek. He thought that would be fun.”

Ron Hirschi, who grew up around Port Gamble, worked as a biologist for years before becoming a successful children’s author. He tells stories of nature in simple and endearing ways. In the first video on this page, you’ll see Ron reading from one of his books.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ron and I have known each other for more than 30 years. He was an early mentor for me as I was learning about streams and shorelines in Western Washington, and I still rely on him for advice from time to time. He was an important voice in the book “Hood Canal: Splendor At Risk.”

Anyway, it was nice to see the two storytellers — John and Ron — link up on a project together.

“At the time, we had no idea where this was going,” John said.

A member of the Kitsap Environmental Education Program, John learned that some money was available for education projects through the “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign.

“It occurred to me that what I was doing with the streams fit into what they wanted,” he said, “so I pitched the idea of doing several movies about streams and people’s interactions with them. I wanted people to understand that these streams, which are hidden behind the trees, are part of their lives.”

John completed the video with Ron Hirschi, showing a visit to a forgotten stream, Poulsbo Creek, as well as the well-known Dogfish Creek, both in North Kitsap. John also obtained leads for stories about Olalla Creek in South Kitsap and Chico Creek in Central Kitsap.

His contact in South Kitsap was teacher Lisa Wickens at Ollalla Elementary School. It so happens that I had worked with Lisa on a story about elementary school children building a rain garden to prevent dirty water from getting into Olalla Creek. Check out “Olalla students learn science with a rain garden,” Kitsap Sun, Dec. 13, 2013 (subscription).

John was blown away by the intellectual and scientific skills of this younger generation.

“I was sitting in Lisa’s classroom one day, and she was giving her second-graders an assignment to write a persuasion piece,” John noted. “She wanted them to persuade someone to take care of the Earth. I said I would love to come and film the kids reading their papers… It was so amazing.”

You’ll get a feeling for their abilities in the second video.

For the third video, John connected with Maureen McNulty, a teacher at Klahowya Secondary School who was organizing the students to build a rain garden. It turned out that older students were teamed up with younger ones on the project, so that everyone learned something.

John also traced the path of a stream from the school wetlands into the adjoining forest and encountered Frank Sticklin, the chief guru for Newberry Hill Heritage Park. Frank educated John about beaver dams.

“I had never seen beaver ponds, and he showed me these incredible things,” John said.

In reality, John probably had seen beaver ponds and beaver dams without knowing that beavers were responsible. After Frank’s tour, he went for a walk south of Port Gamble and encountered something that he immediately recognized as a beaver dam. Once you’ve seen one, you know what to look for.

“I think of this as a metaphor of what I do with my movies,” John told me. “I help people see things that they haven’t seen before and to look at the world in a new way.”

John’s videos have been recorded onto DVDs and distributed to nearly 200 schools and environmental organizations throughout the area.

He’s now working on some projects involving the Puget Sound shoreline. I’ll let you when they are done. Meanwhile, you may wish to check out his websites, Still Hope Productions and Sea-Media.org.


Map points toward safe — and hazardous — shellfish

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

A highly informative map, just released by state shellfish officials, can show you at a glance where it is safe to harvest shellfish in Western Washington.

Shellfish_map

Besides pointing out the locations of public beaches where recreational harvesters may safely gather clams and oysters, the new map provides links to information about the approved seasons and limits, with photographs of each beach. One can choose “map” or “satellite” views, as well as enhanced images to simplify the search.

If you wish, you can track down locations by searching for the name of a beach, nearby landmarks or the address. You can obtain the latest information about entire shorelines as well as specific beaches.

The map was created by the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, a division within the Washington State Department of Health.

Jim Zimny, recreational shellfish specialist at Kitsap Public Health District, said he expects the map to be updated immediately when new health advisories are issued.

“It’s a great resource, very easy to use,” Jim said.

Jim works with state shellfish officials to collect shellfish samples and report results, including findings of paralytic shellfish poison, a biotoxin. Closures are announced when high levels of PSP or dangerous bacteria are found. Hood Canal, for example, is covered with the letter “V,” meaning one should cook shellfish thoroughly to kill Vibrio bacteria, which can lead to intestinal illness.

Since I generally write the geographic descriptions of shellfish closure areas, I can assure you that looking at a map will be a better way to see what is going on.

A news release about the new map points out that the risk of eating shellfish increases in summer. That’s why it especially important in summer to follow the three C’s of shellfish safety: “check, chill and cook.”

Those three C’s refer to checking the map for health closures and looking on the beach for warning signs; chilling the shellfish to avoid a buildup of bacteria; and cooking to 145 degrees to kill pathogens. (Cooking does not destroy PSP and other biotoxins, so it’s important to avoid closed areas.)

For additional information about recreational shellfish harvesting, including a “Shellfish Harvest Checklist,” visit the Department of Health website.


Amusing Monday: Baby turtles race for the sea

Monday, July 28th, 2014

The sand was smooth and still. Waves lapped at the distant shoreline. A sign, stuck in the sand, stated, “Do not disturb. Sea turtle nest.”

That was the scene on a beach in the Florida Keys for the past few weeks, as it was in June, when I posted a blog entry listing cameras that were capturing live action in bird nests as well as other wildlife locations. A quiet patch of sand was not much to look at, so I didn’t mention it.

On Friday, that patch of sand came to life, as you can see in the first video on this page. I thought it was time to share the brief action, as about 100 loggerhead turtles emerged from the sand and headed out to sea about 9 p.m. Check out the action in full-screen.

The camera on the beach uses infrared lights to capture the images, thus avoiding visible light that could confuse the young turtles. The project is supported by Save-A-Turtle, a volunteer non-profit group dedicated to the protection of rare and endangered sea turtles and their habitats in the Florida Keys.

Meanwhile, some of the young ospreys shown in their nests back in June have fledged, but there is still plenty of action in the nest at Missoula’s Riverside Health Care Center, where the camera is operated by the University of Montana. Check out the images in full-screen, high-definition while you can, because these growing chicks will soon be gone.

Another still-active osprey nest is operated by Chesapeake Conservancy on Maryland’s eastern shoreline.

The Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine is picking up some excited feeding activity at the nesting area, where experts are establishing a new colony of puffins after hunters wiped them out in the 1800s.

Brown bears are now feeding on salmon along Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park, according to bloggers on the site. Check out the live video below to see if you can spot a bear, including a subadult mentioned by observers.

You may wish to go back to the June 23 “Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam” to see what other cameras are picking up activity. You can generally count on Pete’s Pond on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa, for some exotic animals coming to the watering hole.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream


Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.


Amusing Monday: Flushing out a Macklemore tune

Monday, July 14th, 2014

It’s a serious message, but now King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division hopes their humorous approach will get people thinking about the “F word.”

The word, of course, is “flushing,” and the county was given permission to borrow Macklemore’s catchy tune from “Thrift Shop” (warning: language) to bring the message home to people: Don’t flush anything down the toilet except human waste and toilet paper. Check out the first video player to see what the creative folks came up with.

The campaign, called “Flushing Awesome,” uses music and simple cartoon videos. King County officials hope it will get the message across better than previous warnings, which seem to have had little effect.

Another video, also shown on this page, is built around the song “One (Singular Sensation)” from the long-running Broadway play “Chorus Line.”

I understand the urge to flush things and get them out of sight, but I was not fully aware of this enormous problem until 1998. That’s when Bremerton City Councilman Carlos Montgomery talked about a giant “rag ball,” 2 to 3 feet wide and 30 feet long caught in Bremerton’s sewer system. Read the full story in the Kitsap Sun, April 1, 1998.

For other great toilet tunes, including “Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes)” and “Dope in the Water,” check out the music of Steve Anderson of Portland’s Clean Water Services. You can listen to five of his sewer songs on my “Water Ways” entry from Dec. 19, 2011, which also features the holiday favorite, “O Christmas Grease.”

I’m pleased that King County is taking a light-hearted approach to the subject of flushing, but I have to hand it to Heather Graf of King 5 News, who went behind the scenes at the county’s West Point Treatment Plant to show us some stark video of why this is so important.

Says Graf: “The sign out front says nothing about this place being a landfill, but one look inside King County’s wastewater treatment plant and you’ll see most people act like it is… It’s not just gross, it’s expensive — $120,000 a year in ratepayer money just to haul all this trash to the landfill.”

Only time will tell if Macklemore and his music will help in a roundabout way to solve a messy problem for King County and other sewer operators in the region.


Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

Monday, July 7th, 2014

This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past half-century.

The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.

Read “The Once & Future Alvin,” Oceanus Summer 2014.

What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature called “Alvin’s Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking creature to the next.

One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and mussels thriving without sunlight.

These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and not photosynthesis.

Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species examined and named.

The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities. The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are interviewed in this special edition.

The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.


What we know and don’t know about killer whales

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

It seems kind of strange that we can spy on wildlife in a very personal way, thanks to modern technology.

The animals never notice the hundreds of humans peering over their shoulders via webcam. If they could know what is going on, I actually think they’d prefer the camera to the disturbance that even one person would create by crowding in that close.

It’s the time of year when many birds are active on their nests, so I thought I’d bring you some of the best videos on the web, weeding out those that are inactive or don’t have much going on right now.

The University of Montana operates two live osprey cams at part of its Montana Osprey Project. I believe the nest at Riverside Health Care Center in Missoula (shown in first video player) contains two chicks, while the nest at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo contains three chicks.The high-quality video and sound make you feel you are right there with the birds.

Alberta Conservation Association and its sponsors have set up cameras to observe three prime nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in Edmonton, Alberta. Chicks have hatched in each nest, and we can watch (in real time) the mothers taking care of their little bundles of fluff. Each bird has a story listed with the video.

Chesapeake Conservancy is in charge of an osprey cam on Maryland’s eastern shore. The live video features Tom and Audrey, who have returned to the nest after spending the winter in South America. I have seen two chicks in that nest.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, where Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station. The puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887, but they were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland. More than 50 pairs nest there. (Three live videos are set up to show the puffins.)

If you are interested in watching brown bears feeding on salmon, stay tuned for live videos from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The action should begin in July, according to information on the website. Meanwhile, you can watch recorded videos from previous times.

One of my favorite live cams is still Pete’s Pond (video player at right), a watering hole on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa. It began as a National Geographic project and is now operated by WildEarth, which features several other wildlife cams. Operators, working remotely, turn the camera to find the best action at any moment.

The Vancouver Aquarium has live cams showing:

If you’d like to see blacktip reef sharks and other fish, check out the video below from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.


Become a raindrop and learn how water travels

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

I’ve been meaning to visit and tell you about an interesting exhibit at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

The exhibit, called Water’s Extreme Journey, involves visitors in a walk through a maze. People become a raindrop and travel through time and space, changing forms and becoming parts of streams, lakes and wetlands.

The traveling exhibit, created by marine-life artist Robert Wyland, will be at the museum until July 20. The video on this page was created three years ago when the exhibit was in Edmonton, Alberta. I’m not sure how well the video represents the experience of the exhibit, since I haven’t been there, but it looks like a great educational event for kids and their parents.

In a description on the Harbor History Museum website, Casey Demory, program and exhibit manager, said “Water’s Extreme Journey” conforms to the museum’s goal of making education relevant to local conditions:

“The Harbor History Museum is always striving to develop ways to connect people with their community and to help educate them on the significance of living on the peninsula. The maze structure that ‘Water’s Extreme Journey’ utilizes is a fun and powerful learning opportunity that encourages guests of every age to think outside the box and interact with their environment in a new way.”

If you’ve seen this exhibit, please provide a few comments. Did you find it fun and educational? Should I take the time to visit before it’s too late?


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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