Category Archives: Land use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rainfall records are beginning to fall across the Kitsap Peninsula

Water Year 2017, which began on Oct. 1, got off to a rip-roaring start this month in terms of rainfall, and now records are falling for October rainfall totals across the Kitsap Peninsula.

holly

As shown in the three charts on this page, the graph started climbing steeply above the lines shown — including the green lines, which denote the highest annual precipitation recorded for the past 25 to 33 years.

So far this month, 19.5 inches of rain have fallen at Holly, which has averaged about 7 inches in October for the past 24 years. As you can see in the annual rainfall map at the bottom of this page, Holly lies in the rain zone on the Kitsap Peninsula — the area with the greatest amount of rainfall in most years. With four days left in the month, Holly has about an inch to go to break the record of 20.5 inches going back to 1991.

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Foot by foot, shoreline bulkhead removal outpaces construction

It’s always nice when I can report a little good news for Puget Sound recovery. For the second year in row, we’ve seen more shoreline bulkheads ripped out than new ones put in.

Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute
Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute / Data: WDFW

After officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife completed their compilation of permit data for 2015, I can say that 3,097 feet of old armoring were removed, while 2,231 feet were added.

Scientific evidence is mounting that bulkheads cause considerable harm to the shoreline environment, affecting salmon and many other species integral to the Puget Sound food web.

As I pointed out in a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, we cannot say whether the armoring removed has restored more valuable habitat than what was destroyed by new structures. But we can hope that’s the case, since state and federal governments have targeted restoration funding toward high priority habitats. They include shorelines used by forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, as well as feeder bluffs, which deliver sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches.

One problem with the data, which officials hope to improve in the future, is that we don’t know whether the new bulkheads being built are the standard concrete or rock bulkheads or the less-damaging “soft-shore” projects. Unlike hard armor, soft-shore projects are designed to absorb wave energy by sloping the beach and placing large rocks and logs in strategic locations. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a reasonable compromise where armoring is truly needed.

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New protections planned for Devils Lake and Dabob Bay natural areas

In 1991, accompanied by botanist Jerry Gorsline, I visited Devils Lake for the first time. I remember being awestruck — in part by the beauty of the place but also because of the many unusual native plants that Jerry raved about. Not one invasive species had reached this place.

“Visiting Devils Lake,” I wrote, “is like stepping back in time, perhaps 200-300 years, to a period when civilization had not yet carried the seeds of foreign plants to the Pacific Northwest. At one end of the lake lies an enchanted world — a rare bog, where the sound of distant bubbles accompanies each footstep in the spongy moss.”

Proposed expansion of Devils Lake Natural Resources Conservation Area Map: DNR
Proposed expansion of Devils Lake Natural Resources Conservation Area // Map: DNR

Jerry worried that telling the story of Devils Lake would bring irresponsible people to the lake, people who could destroy the fragile ecosystem. But he also worried that not telling the story would lead to a massive clearcut on this state-owned land and that this wonderland would slip away. You can read this story online in Chapter 10 of the book “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk” (PDF 5.2 mb).

Jerry and others were successful in limiting the logging, in part because of increasing environmental awareness and a new program called the Timber, Fish and Wildlife Agreement. In 2002, 80 acres containing the lake were permanently set aside as a natural resource conservation area.

Now Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark wants to add another 415 acres to the NRCA before he leaves office. The added property, now held in trust for state school construction, would extend the protected habitat to the western shore of Quilcene Bay. To gain special protections, the land would need to go through a process to compensate the trust for the loss of land and timber values.

Proposed expansion of Dabob Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area. Map: DNR
Proposed expansion of Dabob Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area. // Map: DNR

Nearby, the 2,771-acre Dabob Bay natural area — which includes the highly valued natural area preserve and the surrounding NRCA — would increase by 3,640 acres under the expansion plan. About 940 acres is held by the state in trust status. Private lands, totaling 2,700 acres, could be purchased by the state but only from willing sellers.

Basic details are provided in a fact sheet from DNR (PDF 318 kb). Peter Bahls, executive director of Northwest Watershed Institute, wrote an article about the plan for Olympic Forest Coalition.

Two public meetings have been scheduled at Quilcene High School to discuss the plan:

  • Informational discussion: Wednesday, Sept. 28, from 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Public hearing for comments: Thursday, Oct. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Written comments: Information available at the link above.

Information on the previous Dabob Bay NRCA expansion and request for related funding can be found in the DNR publication “Dabob Bay Coastal Conservation” (PDF 12.3 mb).

Extensive floodplain restoration brings new hope to Clear Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culverts: Lawmakers face dilemma to fund improved fish passage

I’m certainly no highway engineer, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between building roads in Kansas, where I was born, and building roads in the Puget Sound region.

Kansas has its streams and wetlands to be sure, but nothing like the density of natural features that we find in the Puget Sound watershed, where land elevations change constantly and roadways must cross streams and wetlands at every turn.

For many years, road construction in the Puget Sound region involved filling wetlands and burying pipes just big enough to pass the water. It was assumed that salmon would make it through. But based on our current knowledge of salmon migration, we realize that these shortcuts took a major toll on the populations of salmon and other fish.

This week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling requiring state agencies to correct decades of road-building mistakes that impaired salmon passage on state highways and on state forest roads. Check out Monday’s story in the Kitsap Sun.

Priority watersheds chosen by the Fish Barrier Removal Board. Puget Sound: Pilchuck Creek, Pysht River, Goldsborough Creek; Coast: Newaukum; Lower Columbia: Lower Cowlitz; Yakima River: Wilson/Cherry; Snake River: Grande Ronde Tribs, Snake River Tribs; Upper Columbia: Okanogan.
Priority watersheds chosen by the Fish Barrier Removal Board. Puget Sound: Pilchuck Creek, Pysht River, Goldsborough Creek; Coast: Newaukum; Lower Columbia: Lower Cowlitz; Yakima River: Wilson/Cherry; Snake River: Grande Ronde Tribs, Snake River Tribs; Upper Columbia: Okanogan.

The lawsuit, filed by 21 Indian tribes, was based on the idea that undersized and poorly functioning culverts severely affected the total salmon runs in violation of treaties signed in the 1850s, which promised Native Americans the right to fish forever in traditional locations.

The lawsuit did not address culverts owned by the federal government, local governments or private property owners, but the same principles apply. Steps are now being taken to improve salmon passage based on standards developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Meanwhile, a state advisory committee, known as the Fish Barrier Removal Board, has been working to establish priorities with top-ranked projects providing the greatest improvement in salmon habitat.

Kitsap County Engineer Jon Brand, who serves on the board, described a two-pronged approach to set the priorities. One is to focus on priority watersheds, with the idea of making major improvements in a variety of streams in a given area. (See map above and board materials (PDF 50.4 mb), Oct. 20, 2015.) The second approach is to coordinate planning for top-priority streams, with the idea of working on entire stream systems at once. Obviously, it does not make sense to replace a culvert upstream if a downstream culvert continues to block salmon passage. Check out the list of top-30 ranked projects (PDF 57 kb).

The Fish Barrier Removal Board is putting together a funding package to be submitted to the Legislature. As Jon pointed out, some of the most effective projects for salmon passage are not in the Puget Sound region nor subject to the federal court ruling. The list also goes beyond state roadways and includes a mix of ownerships based on the watershed and stream priorities mentioned above.

State lawmakers face some difficult funding decisions. With the court order hanging over their heads, along with a 2030 deadline, they may choose to do only culvert-removal projects in the Puget Sound region, even though projects in other areas could get a greater bang for the buck. And will there be money left over to support local governments trying to improve salmon passage in their areas?

I asked Jon about the expediency of early road-builders who must have given little consideration to salmon when they filled wetlands, carved out drainage ditches and installed pipes to carry the flow of water. It was not always that way, Jon told me.

That method of road-building arrived with the invention of large earth-moving equipment, he said. In the 1800s and early 1900s, filling a stream and inserting a culvert was more difficult than building a bridge of logs, given the vast quantities of timber on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Those early log bridges no doubt caused fewer problems for salmon, but they did not last. Eventually, nearly every bridge was replaced, often by dumping fill across the stream and allowing a small culvert to carry the water.

As for my misguided notion that Kansas can ignore stream crossings because the state has no serious environmental problems, I found this language in “Kansas Fish Passage Guide” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document written for road-builders:

“In Kansas, fish passage issues caused by culverts were not recognized by road officials until about 2010, when … research indicated that culverts and low-water crossings were a significant cause of habitat fragmentation in the Kansas Flint Hills.

“Many of the threatened and endangered fish in Kansas are a type of minnow or minnow-size fish. Small fish typically are not strong swimmers, so waterfalls, water velocity and turbulence can be a barrier to passage upstream. Culverts are dark and have an atypical channel bottom that may also discourage fish passage. Lack of water depth through the culvert can restrict passage during low-flow seasons…

“Stream barriers reduce habitat range and can adversely affect fish populations upstream and downstream of the stream crossing. A severe event like a drought or oil spill in a stream segment can wipe out a species, and the species cannot repopulate the stream because of the barrier.”

Kansas has begun to prohibit blocking culverts and to address existing fish-passage issues. As the above-referenced publication states, “On the Great Plains, it’s usually easy to design and construct a stream crossing for a two-lane road to provide fish passage.”

If only that were the case in Western Washington.

Engineers find new location for boat facility in Harper Estuary

At a community meeting in March, many residents of Harper in South Kitsap expressed profound disappointment that the latest plan to restore Harper Estuary would remove a low-key boat launch used by many people in the area. See Kitsap Sun story, March 31.

The makeshift boat launch, built on fill, provides the only access to the beach in that area, community members noted. Many expressed their belief that county and state officials had failed in their commitment to maintain beach access.

Not yet approved, this rough drawing shows how a trail alongside Olympiad Drive could be used to reach Harper Estuary. Drawing: Kitsap County Public Works
Not yet approved, this rough drawing shows a trail alongside Olympiad Drive to Harper Estuary.
Drawing: Kitsap County Public Works

After the meeting, five representatives of the community met onsite with officials involved in the project. Several ideas were discussed, and it appears that a new access to the estuary is gaining approval, though it won’t allow vehicles with trailers to reach the water. The new access would be an earthen ramp on the opposite side of Olympiad Drive.

An addendum to the planning documents (PDF 1.1 mb) makes it clear that the old boat launch basically prevents the $4-million restoration project from being done right.

“Retaining the boat landing in its current location will:

  • “Block the ability to replace the undersized culvert with a large bridge in order to restore estuary function and tidal exchange,
  • “Reduce sediment contaminant removal associated with the excavation project,
  • “Retain compacted gravel substrate that does not support aquatic plants or benthic organisms at the existing boat launch, and
  • “Impede restoration of filled estuarine habitat and functional channel geometry.”

The proposal now under consideration is to grade the slope alongside Olympiad Drive at a gentle 5:1 angle. Cars and trucks could pull off the side of the road long enough to unload their boats, which would be carried down the slope. For people who just want to walk down to the water, the ramp would provide the needed access and perhaps the beginning of a proposed trail system around the estuary.

Harper Estuary Contributed photo
Harper Estuary // Contributed photo

A plan to build stairs down to the water from Southworth Drive raised objections during the March meeting, because it would be difficult and unsafe to carry boats across the busy roadway and down concrete steps, which could become slippery. If the stairs are built, which remains undecided, they could be designed to contain gravel, making them less slippery.

Jim Heytvelt, a community leader in Harper, said the new access to the beach would meet the needs of most, but not all, people in the community. Most people in support of the restoration never wanted a major boat launch like the one at Manchester, he said. People are beginning to come around to the reality of the situation, given conditions needed to restore the estuary, he said.

During surveys of the property, officials discovered another problem that could have thrown a monkey wrench into the boat launch at its current location. The county learned that it does not own the property where the boat launch was built, as had been widely assumed. The property is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources — and nobody has ever been given approval to use the site.

Even if the restoration could be done without removing the launch site, nobody knows if the DNR would grant a lease for the use to continue. Someone might need to assume liability at the site. The proposed ramp to the estuary seems to eliminate that problem, as the property is almost entirely owned by the county.

Delays in preparing the plans, getting permits and putting the project out to bid has caused the schedule to slip from early summer into late summer and fall, said Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That assumes the project can be advertised for bids by the end of this month — something that is still not certain.

Any further delays could put the funding in jeopardy and might require new approvals from the Washington Department of Ecology and possibly the Legislature. The restoration money comes from a fund set up to mitigate for damages from the ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, which emitted toxic pollution for decades, some of which reached South Kitsap.

The first phase of the project involves excavation to remove most of the fill dumped into the estuary, allowing the shorelines to return to a natural condition. To complete the restoration, additional funding is being sought to build a bridge, which will replace the culvert under Olympiad Drive. If funding is approved, the bridge could be built as early as next summer.

Another community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church, 2881 Harvey St. SE. Officials will provide an update on the restoration efforts. County Commission Charlotte Garrido said she would like to continue discussions about what the community would like to see in the future, hoping to build a stronger relationship between the county and the community.

Upper Skokomish designated as ‘properly functioning’ watershed

More than 20 years of removing and reconstructing old logging roads in the Skokomish River watershed has finally paid off with measurable improvement to water quality and habitat, according to experts with Olympic National Forest where millions of dollars have been spent on restoration.

In a U.S. Forest Service project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” contract crews removed nearly 100 vertical feet of road in the South Fork of the Skokomish watershed to remove an eight-foot culvert. The work allowed a mountain stream to flow freely into the Skokomish River. Photo: Kitsap Sun, Steve Zugschwerdt.
In a U.S. Forest Service project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” contract crews removed nearly 100 vertical feet of road in the South Fork of the Skokomish watershed to remove an eight-foot culvert.
Photo: Kitsap Sun, Steve Zugschwerdt

The U.S. Forest Service this week declared that the upper South Fork of the Skokomish is now a “properly functioning” watershed, and the major road-restoration projects are complete.

After writing for years about horrendous problems with sediment washing out of the upper watershed, this news comes as a nice surprise. I’ve been hearing experts talk about water-quality improvements, but this new declaration is a major milestone in the restoration of the entire Skokomish River ecosystem.

“This is a proud and historic occasion for the Forest Service and our many partners who have worked very hard for over two decades to restore this once badly degraded watershed,” Reta Laford, supervisor for Olympic National Forest, said in a news release.

In 2010, the Forest Service classified the South Fork Skokomish as an “at-risk” watershed during a nationwide effort called the Watershed Condition Framework. Several other watersheds in Olympic National Forest also received this designation. See the map at the bottom of this page or download (PDF 5.3 mb) from the Forest Service website.

In 2012, Olympic National Forest designated the upper and middle South Fork Skokomish sub-watersheds as “priority watersheds.“ Forest Service officials pushed forward with action plans containing a list of restoration projects designed to put the watersheds on a path to ecological health.

For your review:

Completion of the key restoration projects in the upper South Fork allowed for the new designation as a “properly functioning” watershed. This marks the first time that any watershed in Olympic National Forest has been upgraded due to completion of all essential restoration projects. Watershed conditions and aquatic habitat will continue to improve as natural processes roll on.

Restoration in the South Fork actually began in the early 1990s, when the Forest Service acknowledged that the region was criss-crossed by a damaging network of logging roads. At nearly four miles of road for every four one square mile of forest, it was one of the densest tangles of roads in any national forest.

In 1994, the Forest Service designated the South Fork Skokomish as a “key watershed” in the Northwest Forest Plan, which called for major cutbacks in logging and received support from President Bill Clinton. Between the early 1990s and 2005, Olympic National Forest completed $10.6 million in restoration work, including $7.9 million for road decommissioning, road stabilization and drainage improvements.

In 2005, the Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT) was formed among a coalition of more than 20 government agencies, environmental organizations and business groups with diverse interests. The SWAT developed a unified front for promoting restoration projects and seeking funds. Members agreed that the focus on roads should begin with the upstream segments, later moving downstream, while other work was coordinated on the estuary near Hood Canal. Much of the lower area was owned or acquired by the Skokomish Tribe, a critical partner in the SWAT.

Between 2006 and 2015, the Forest Service continued with $13.2 million in restoration projects in the South Fork, including $10.9 million on road problems. In all, 91 miles of roads were decommissioned, closed or converted to trails, and 85 miles of roads were stabilized or improved with new culverts and drainage features.

In 2008, I wrote about the problems and response of the SWAT in a Kitsap Sun story: “Taking (Out) the High Roads to Save the Skokomish.”

Much of the road restoration work was funded by Congress through the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program. Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks was instrumental in creating that program, and congressional support has continued under the leadership of Norm’s successor, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Key funding for restoration also has come from the Forest Stewardship program, which uses receipts from commercial timber thinning on forest lands. Other financial support — especially in the lower watershed — has come from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2009, I wrote a story for “Wilderness” magazine about how these programs were bringing “green jobs” to the region.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed an in-depth study of the river’s ecosystem last year and is now seeking funding from Congress for a series of projects in the watershed. Check out Water Ways, April 28, 2016.

To celebrate this milestone for Olympic National Forest, the SWAT will recognize the work at its general meeting Friday at the Skokomish Grange Hall, 2202 W. Skokomish Valley Road. The meeting begins at 9 a.m., and the public is invited.

Map

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

Skokomish restoration makes progress in federal funding arena

UPDATE: June 12, 2016
The Skokomish River ecosystem restoration project, as proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, remains on track. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on May 25 unanimously endorsed the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize the project. The legislation must still be approved by the full House and Senate.
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After decades of in-depth studies and anxious waiting, restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem took a major step forward today, when a committee of the U.S. Senate endorsed the $20-million effort as part of a larger legislative package.

Skok watershed

The Skokomish restoration was one of many projects that sailed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it passed a $9-billion authorization bill on a 19-1 vote. The bill must still be approved by the full Senate and House, but supporters of the Skokomish restoration were thrilled with the light at the end of the tunnel.

Rich Geiger, project engineer for the Mason Conservation District, has been shepherding the Skokomish effort for as long as I can remember. I asked him how it feels to finally see some action in Congress.

“It feels really really good,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word.

The restoration program consists of five separate projects along the Skokomish River. Although not designed for flood control, these projects for improving ecological health are expected to reduce flooding along one of the most frequently flooded rivers in the state.

The restoration effort has received support from far and wide. As Rich likes to point out, experts generally agree that Puget Sound cannot be restored without restoring Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored without restoring the Skokomish River.

Sen. Patty Murray has been a strong advocate for the project.

“The waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound are essential to the Washington state environment, economy, and our way of life,” the senator said in an email, “so I am proud to fight for investments in the restoration of the Skokomish River. This critical work will restore habitat and wetlands and improve fish passage, which in turn supports salmon recovery — all necessary to maintain our precious natural resources.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said improving the health of the Skokomish River would be a boon for Mason County and the entire region. He said he applauded the efforts of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, the Skokomish Tribe and area residents who worked together to shape the restoration program.

“This project ensures we can better protect critical species like salmon … while restoring more natural areas for folks to explore,” Kilmer said in an email. “That will help bring more visitors to recreate in this watershed while protecting it for future generations.”

The $9-billion authorization bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (PDF 4.1 mb), includes money requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for water-related projects across the country. In additional to restoration efforts, the bill includes authorization of projects related to flood control, dredging, drinking water emergencies, water treatment and pipelines. For a summary of the bill see the report to the committee (PDF 284 kb).

The bipartisan endorsement and near-unanimous support offers hope that the needed money will be approved in a future appropriations bill tied to the budget, Rich Geiger told me. He is also optimistic that the 35-percent state/local match will be made available through state grants or a legislative appropriation.

“Now that have an approved plan, we are coming to Washington state with a funding request that is much larger than normal,” Geiger said. “This is a little unprecedented.”

The federal share for the project would be about $13 million and the state share nearly $7 million.

Some money has already been provided for engineering work, Rich said. If things go well, the final designs can be ready for the start of construction in October of 2019.

These four projects would come first:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The fifth project would be constructed over two years in 2020-21:

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

The original plan for the Skokomish, as developed in an early report by the Army Corps of Engineers, called for more projects and would have cost closer to $40 million.

Some of those other projects are being funded through other programs, such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. For example, the reconnection of a stagnant section of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek is scheduled for this summer using SRF Board money.

In addition, numerous man-made logjams are being planned to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. Also, preliminary designs and discussions are underway to relocate Skokomish Valley Road, a main route into the Olympic Mountains. Moving the road would allow for the removal of levees, river bank restoration and a reconnection to about 60 acres of floodplain.