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.
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
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
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
As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent
landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with
declines in some native species and increases in others. We are
likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while
summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more
“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said
lead author Guillaume Mauger in a
news release. “This report provides a single resource for
people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”
The report includes examples of communities taking actions to
prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management
districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and
designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other
“In the same way that the science is very different from the
last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work
on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger
Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound
Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for
changes that have already begun.
“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing
impacts of climate change,” she said in a
news release. “This report helps us better understand the very
real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of
climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for
a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human
wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native
Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of
The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound,
where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over
the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget
Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated
with the University of Washington — Tacoma.
For other news stories about the report, check out:
Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very
difficult thing to do.
Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams,
wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent
to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated
At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by
commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region.
The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown
alterations to ecosystems.
In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward
and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step
Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,”
released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the
effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is
being made in restoring habitat, according to a
news release about the report, but “measures for chinook
salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native
species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality
still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”
“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex
ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said
Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we
need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work
to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and
reopen shellfish beds,”
Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators
for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories
called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the
latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the
Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).
Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally
identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic
systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing
improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental
None of the indicators for species or food-web health are
While there has been local-level progress in some indicators,
the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while
marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them
safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have
very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.
I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions
of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress
in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year
investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found
in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at
the series, “Taking
the Pulse of Puget Sound.”
At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many
of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution,
population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of
Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than
when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related
to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which
also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook?
Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other
marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt
and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage
fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat,
spawning habitat, predation, or something else?
It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is
damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have
not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going.
The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this
question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t
tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the
investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions
would be far worse than they are today.
Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting
better at establishing priorities that will make the most
difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of
places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all
needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the
Puget Sound ecosystem.
Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working
together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve
federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses
and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the
Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to
me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their
It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by
U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our
Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the
Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of
society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington
state’s congressional delegation. Check out a
summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the
story by Tristan Baurick in the
Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed
piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.
The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot
be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing
development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and
“best-management practices” are important — but the key is to
locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage,
then use construction techniques that will cause the least
disruption of ecological functions.
Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to
old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington
State University finally published her findings about the effects
of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her
colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the
stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material
found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal
of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).
Development regulations by local government have always been a
weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been
discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In
the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local
officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn
around and blame the state when local residents complain about the
higher costs of development.
On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local
officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to
judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the
ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to
swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as
I described in the
“Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local
government can do. Another major role of local government is to
protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say
in the near future. (“Water
Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)
Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the
combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this
waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to
save Puget Sound is on the right track.
Beards Cove Community Organization and Newberry Hill Heritage
Park Stewards are this year’s winners of the Hood Canal
Environmental Achievement Awards.
The awards, sponsored by the Hood Canal Coordinating Council,
recognize people and groups that have taken actions and fostered
relationships to improve the health of the Hood Canal
The 500 property owners in the Beards Cove community were
credited with developing relationships with Great Peninsula
Conservancy and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to
restore an estuary near the Union River on the North Shore of Hood
The Beards Cove Restoration Project completes the final segment
of 1.7 miles of unbroken saltmarsh along the shoreline. The project
removed 45,000 cubic yards of fill, derelict structures and a
septic system. The work included reconfiguring the shoreline and
planting the area with native vegetation, all to enhance salmon
The Beards Cove project was described in a
Kitsap Sun story by Arla Shepherd Bull and in a
Water Ways blog entry I wrote about the history of the Beards
Cove development leading to the need for restoration.
Stewards working to improve Newberry Hill Heritage Park are
protecting fish and wildlife in the area, which includes the
Anderson Creek watershed, which drains to Hood Canal. The group
built a fence to protect a beaver dam, which provides habitat for
coho and other fish, along with a foot bridge that maintains access
to a flooded trail. The group helped develop a forest-management
plan to restore ecological health to the park. Members are known
for expanding their knowledge about forests, streams and
The awards will be presented Friday at a conference that will
celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hood Canal Coordinating
Council. Speakers will include Donna Simmons, one of the council’s
founders who will describe the history of the organization. U.S.
Rep. Derek Kilmer will discuss his Save Our Sound legislation and
how to move forward with ecosystem restoration. I will contribute
to the discussion by talking about my reporting career as it
relates to Hood Canal.
The event will be held at Lucky Dog Casino Event Center. Those
who would like to attend should contact Robin Lawlis at the
coordinating council, (360) 394-0046 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For
information, check the fact
sheet on the HCCC’s website.
The Hood Canal Coordinating
Council was established in 1985 to improve the water quality of
Hood Canal. It has expanded its mission to include improving the
ecological health of the canal. The group is made up of the county
commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with
the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Skokomish tribes.
Individuals with an interest in recreation and protecting the
environment are needed to help determine how millions of dollars in
state and federal grants are spent on projects related to habitat
restoration, farmland preservation, parks and outdoor
It is easy to overlook these various advisory committees that
evaluate projects proposed for grants each year. I often report on
the outcome of the grant decisions without describing the process
of evaluation, recommendation and listing by the Recreation and
Conservation Funding Board.
Volunteers play a vital role in understanding the proposals,
ranking them and making them better. They can also take part in
determining overall board policies used in the approval — such as a
current proposal to change policies related to farmland, trails and
changes to property-acquisition projects. See “Policies and
Rulemaking” on the website of the Recreation and Conservation
Office. For this round, comments are due by tomorrow.
Volunteers with special knowledge and abilities are always
needed, but average citizens also have a role to play in these
decisions. Information about duties and becoming a volunteer can be
found on RCO’s “Advisory
Committees” webpage. These volunteer positions are unpaid
except for travel expenses when money is available.
The RCO is looking to fill positions on nine advisory
committees, which will begin working on the next round of grants in
the spring and summer of next year. Applications are due by Oct. 30
for the following positions, which are four-year appointments.
The first group addresses grants in the Washington
Wildlife and Recreation Program:
Local Parks: One local government official and
two citizen volunteers are needed to focus on grants related to
acquiring, developing and renovating local parks.
Habitat Restoration: One citizen volunteer is
needed to focus on grants relating to buying and restoring
shorelines and state-owned land. The volunteer should be familiar
with the subject.
Trails: A volunteer is needed to address grants
to buy, develop and renovate non-motorized trails. An interest in
regional trails is important.
Water Access: One citizen and two local
government volunteers are needed to discuss grants related to
improving access for nonmotorized, water-related recreation.
Farmland Preservation: Two citizen volunteers
are needed to consider grants related to maintaining working farms.
Volunteers should be farmers who actively manage farms or
State Parks: One local government volunteer is
needed to help prioritize grants for buying and developing state
parks. A statewide perspective on parks and recreation is
State Land Development and Renovation: One
citizen volunteer and three local government volunteers are needed
to address grants for developing or renovating outdoor recreation
facilities on state land. A statewide perspective on parks and
recreation is important.
Other grant programs:
Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account: One citizen
and two local government volunteers are needed to deal with grants
to buy and improve shorelines for public use. The citizen volunteer
should be familiar with aquatic lands restoration or protection,
while the local government volunteers should be familiar with
recreation and public access interests.
Land and Water Conservation Fund: Two citizen
and three local government volunteers are needed to work with this
federal funding program, which provides grants to preserve and
develop parks, trails and wildlife lands. Congress failed to
reinstate this popular program before it expired under federal law,
but there is considerable political pressure to keep it going. The
committee will evaluate proposals in case Congress acts. The money
comes from oil and gas leases on federal lands.
If you have questions not answered on the website, you
can contact Lorinda Anderson by phone at (360) 902-3009 or TTY
(360) 902-1996 or by email.
UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its
final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and
training operations. The document does not consider an option for
avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or
explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California
and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries
Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for
incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is
news release (PDF 548 kb).
A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of
sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern
California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s
protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court
settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have
implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and
throughout the country.
The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over
Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern
California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The
environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and
death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of
whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and
A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups,
saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training
exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling
drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.
“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort
on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself,
represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with
the conservation community. It took litigation to create this
window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with
Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how
marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives.
As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts —
such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can
help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.
Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine
Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine
mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do
whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy
and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can
better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.
“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are
seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael
said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come
to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement
if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their
military readiness objective.”
For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of
this week’s settlement.
“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the
Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop
critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt
Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the
Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months
to reach this agreement.”
In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing
protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases
restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in
place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.
“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea
that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with
equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the
statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically
important testing and training.”
In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might
translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the
Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many
different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat
“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and
appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back.
“The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant
protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not
prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future
The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement
that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in
Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the
draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called
attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large
numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter
signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details
in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:
“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training
and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor
adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in
biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the
mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic
impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel
or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by
onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the
vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar
“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available
science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent
impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most
vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the
most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving
behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a
light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the
direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance
approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s
reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation
plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”
Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental
groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS
until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar,
explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales
and other animals should include restrictions within biologically
important areas, they say.
This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the
use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and
Hawaii. For details, check out the
signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps,
or read the summary in news releases by
Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are
getting special protection under the agreement.
Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises
include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along
with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For
a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean
and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s
release on the subject.
Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s
acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training
exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic
areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine
mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic
exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the
Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific
Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar
issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should
encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same
mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon,
California and Alaska.
“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the
Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management
approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries
Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically
significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing
Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups
are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and
its failure to address the problem:
“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s
NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details
extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources….
Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially
understates the potential effects, the activities would cause
nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals
along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern
Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the
5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take
I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without
significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to
see another lawsuit over routine testing and training
A new worldwide map of sea level rise, plotted with precision
satellite instruments, shows that the Earth’s oceans are rising
faster with no end in sight.
Sea levels have gone up an average of 3 inches since 1992, with
some locations rising as much as 9 inches. Meanwhile, some limited
areas — including the West Coast — have experienced declining sea
levels for various reasons.
Two years ago, climatologists released an international
consensus, which predicted a sea-level rise of between 1 and 3 feet
by the end of this century. It was a conservative estimate, and new
evidence suggests that ocean waters are likely to meet or exceed
the top of that range, possibly going much higher, according to
four leading researchers speaking at a news conference
The implications are huge and growing more important all the
time. At a minimum, waterfront property owners and shoreline
planners need to begin taking this into consideration. It doesn’t
make sense to build close to the shoreline if extreme high tides
will bring seawater to one’s doorstep.
If we hope to avoid local extinctions of key intertidal species,
we must start thinking about how high the waters will be in 50 to
For clues to the future, we can watch Florida, where vast areas
stand at low elevations. Even now, during high tides, Miami is
beginning to see regular flooding in areas that never got wet
before. This is the future of low-lying areas in Puget Sound, such
as estuaries. In the Pacific ocean, the threat of inundating
complete islands is becoming very real.
Along the West Coast, sea levels have actually declined over the
past 20 years, largely because of the cooling effect of the Pacific
Decadal Oscillation, a warming/cooling cycle that can remain in one
phase for decades. The cycle appears to be shifting, with the
likely effect that sea levels on the West Coast will soon rise as
fast or faster than the worldwide average, according to Josh
Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
The cause of sea level rise is attributed to three factors.
Scientists estimate that roughly one-third of the rise is caused by
thermal expansion of ocean waters, which absorb much of the energy
from global warming. Another third comes from the melting of the
massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The remaining third
comes from the melting of mountain glaciers throughout the world.
Researchers at yesterday’s news conference said they expect the
melting to accelerate.
Measuring the change in sea-level rise has become possible
thanks to advanced technology built into altimeters carried aboard
satellites. The instruments can distinguish changes in elevation as
small as one part in 100 million.
“The instruments are so sensitive that if they were mounted on a
commercial jetliner flying at 40,000 feet, they could detect the
bump caused by a dime lying flat on the ground,” said Michael
Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.
While sea level rise can now be measured, predicting the rate of
future rise is difficult, because much of the melting by ice sheets
occurs out of sight under the water.
The Greenland ice sheet covers 660,000 miles — nearly the size
of Alaska. Satellite measurements have shown that an average of 303
gigatons of ice have melted each year over the past decade. The
Antarctic ice sheet has lost an average of 118 gigatons per year,
but some new studies suggest it could begin to melt much
In Greenland, researchers are reporting that one of the largest
chunks of ice ever to break away from land cleaved from the
Jakobshavn glacier in a “calving” event that left researchers
awestruck. More than 4 cubic miles of ice was loosed quickly into
the sea. Check out the news release by the
European Space Agency.
“This is a continuing and evolving story,” glaciologist Eric
Rignot said during yesterday’s news conference. “We are moving into
a set of processes where we have very tall calving cliffs that are
unstable and start fracturing and break up into icebergs …
“We have never seen something like this on that scale before,”
said Rignot, associated with JPL and the University of California
at Irvine. “Personally, I am in awe at seeing how fast the icefall,
the calving part of the glacier, is retreating inland year by
Other new information from NASA, including lots of graphics:
By swimming the entire Green/Duwamish River in King County, Mark
Powell hopes to show that the river’s full length — roughly 85
miles from the mountains to Puget Sound — is a single system worthy
of protection and restoration.
I believe that most people have heard about the Duwamish
Waterway in Seattle, a channelized, industrialized section of the
lower Duwamish River where decades of pollution are being cleaned
up, one step at a time. But how much does anyone know about the
upper end of the river, which begins as a trickle of crystal clear
water in the Cascade Mountains south of Snoqualmie Pass?
“Almost nobody knows the river well, not even the people who
live along the river,” Mark told me.
Mark, the Puget Sound Program director for Washington
Environmental Council. said the idea of swimming the entire river
came to him during the kickoff of a new
Green/Duwamish Watershed Strategy by King County and Seattle.
The plan is to identify all the significant problems in the
PDF 1.1 mb) and to increase restoration efforts where
“I thought this would be an interesting way to connect with
people,” Mark said. “I’m a guy who likes to get outdoors, so this
is a personal commitment I could make.”
Mark swam around Bainbridge Island in the winter of 2008-09.
““By swimming the whole coastline, I’m not just diving to the
pretty spots. I’m forced to look at the gross parts,” he told
reporter Michelle Ma in a story for the
So far, Mark has been swimming the upper and middle portions of
the Green/Duwamish River. He said his biggest surprise is finding
pockets of good habitat everywhere he goes.
Earlier this month, he was accompanied on the river by Sheida
Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and
Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership
Council. A few days before they swam the river near Auburn, the
Leadership Council approved new “vitals signs” indicators for
“human health” and “human well-being” to emphasize the human
connection to the Puget Sound ecosystem. See
“Water Ways” July 30.
The human connection was still on Sheida’s mind when I talked to
her about a week after her trip to the Green River. The most
“eye-opening” part of the swim for her was the condition of “this
incredibly beautiful natural element coursing through a very urban
She saw evidence of people living along the river in
less-than-desirable conditions, she said. There were barbecues and
trailer houses but no suggestion that people had any connection to
the river — except that some individuals apparently were using it
as a toilet, she said.
“I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that, but it feels very
right that we are considering human well-being,” she explained. “On
the one hand is what we have done to the river. On the other hand
is what we have done to ourselves. We need to figure out how it all
Mark’s adventures on the river are chronicled in a blog called
Duwamish.” He hopes to swim every section of the river where he
is allowed to go and be safe. A portion of the Green River
controlled by the city of Tacoma has no public access, because it
is a source of the city’s water supply. Rapids in the Green River
Gorge are said to be dangerous, so Mark will look for a guide to
help him. And because of heavy marine traffic in the Duwamish
Waterway, he may use a boat to escort him on his approach to
Seattle’s Elliott Bay.
The Green/Duwamish River may be the most disjointed river in
Puget Sound, both physically and psychologically. People who have
seen the industrialized lower river find it hard to visualize the
near-pristine salmon stream spilling clean water down from the
mountains. It is the upper part that provides the inspiration to
clean up the lower part, Mark told me.
“If there was a reason for sacrificing a river, you could find
it in the Duwamish,” he said. “But we can’t afford to sacrifice
even one river. To me, this is what protecting Puget Sound is all
about. By the time the pollution gets to Puget Sound it is too
If salmon can make it through the gauntlet in the lower river,
they may have a fighting chance to spawn and produce a new
generation of Green River fish. Improving their migration corridor
is not an impossible dream.
I suggested to Mark that the name of the river be officially
changed to “Green/Duwamish” or “Green-Duwamish” to help people
recognize that this is a single river from the mountains to Puget
Sound. After all, the name “Salish Sea” has helped some people
realize that we share an inland waterway with Canadians. The other
name-change option would be to call it Duwamish all the way.
Until I started reading about the Duwamish, I didn’t realize how
this river once captured water from the Black River and the White
River as well as the Green River and the Cedar River. But the
system has changed drastically over the past century or so.
As you can see in the map on this page, the Green River once
joined the White River and flowed north, picking up waters from the
Black River. The Black River, which took drainage from Lake
Washington, picked up water from the Cedar River.
Where the Black River merged with the White River, it became the
Duwamish all the way to Puget Sound.
Two major events changed the rivers’ flow and subsequently the
nomenclature. In 1906, a flood diverted the White River to the
south into the channel of the Stuck River, which flowed into the
Puyallup River. Shortly after that, the White River was
artificially confined to keep it flowing south. Because the river
flowing north contained water only from the Green River, the name
“White” was changed to “Green” downstream to where the Duwamish
The other big event was the construction of the Lake Washington
Ship Canal in 1917 to connect the lake with Puget Sound. The
construction lowered the lake by more than 8 feet, with the lake
level controlled by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The Black River,
which had taken the discharge flow from Lake Washington before
construction, then dried up. The Cedar River, which had flowed into
the Black River, was diverted into the lake.
Following those changes, the Green River and the Duwamish became
essentially the same river, with the total flow perhaps one-third
as much as it had been before the changes. If you are interested in
this history and other geological forces at work in the area, check
out the 1970 report by the U.S. Geological Survey
(PDF 53.1 mb).
It’s hard to describe the surprise I felt when I first glanced
at a new graph plotting bulkhead construction and removal along
Puget Sound’s shoreline since 2005.
On the graph was a blue line that showed how new bulkhead
construction had declined dramatically the past two years. But what
really caught my eye was a green line showing an increase in
bulkhead removal. Amazingly, these two lines had crossed each other
in 2014, meaning that the total length of bulkheads removed had
exceeded the total length of bulkheads built last year.
Not only was this the first time this has ever happened, it was
totally unexpected. Few people really believed that bulkhead
removal could exceed construction anytime soon. I was happy to
write up these new findings in the latest
newsletter for the Puget Sound Institute, where I’m now
“It was pretty shocking — in a good way,” said Randy Carman of
the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who coordinated the
data based on state permits. “It makes me optimistic going
Randy helped develop the “vitals signs indicator” for shoreline
armoring, along with a “target” approved by the Puget Sound
Partnership. The target called for the total length of armoring
removed to exceed the total length constructed for the 10-year
period from 2011 through 2020.
Like many of the vital signs
indicators, this one for shoreline armoring was far from a sure
thing. In fact, like most of the indicators, the trend was going in
the wrong direction. Some people believed that the Puget Sound
Partnership was setting itself up for failure.
These were “aspirational” targets, Randy recalled, and meeting
them would be a tremendous challenge for many individuals,
government agencies and organizations.
As I described in some detail in the article for PSI, the number
of new bulkheads has declined, in part because of new government
rules. Meanwhile, the number of bulkheads removed has increased, in
part because of government funding.
But something else may be afoot, as pointed out by Sheida
Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and
David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. A new “culture” may
be taking hold in which people realize that bulkheads are neither
good for the environment, attractive nor functional when it comes
to people enjoying their own beach.
When talking to shoreline property owners who have removed a
rock or concrete bulkhead, often the first thing they tell me is
how much nicer their beach has become. No more jumping or climbing
off a wall. No more rickety stairs. One can walk down a slope and
plop down a lawn chair wherever the tide tells you is the right
“The factors are all in place for a paradigm shift,” Sheida told
me. “When people see the geotech reports for their own beach, they
can see there is a different way. People can take off their shoes
and put their toes in the sand.”
Getting contractors and real-estate agents to understand and
support new methods of beach protection and restoration is one
strategy being considered. Personally, I was impressed with the
change in direction by Sealevel Bulkhead Builders. Check out the
story I wrote for the
Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.
It takes a little land to create the right slope to dissipate
wave energy without any man-made structure. In some cases, large
rocks and logs — so-called “soft shore protection” — can help
reduce erosion. In some situations where land is limited and wave
energy is high, a solid wall may be the only remedy. No matter
which option is used, one must consider the initial cost and
long-term maintenance — including consideration of sea-level rise
caused by global warming.
“The secret,” said Dave Price, “is less about the strong arm of
regulation and more about helping people understanding what they
Scientific evidence about the damage of bulkheads has been
building for several years. Among the impacts:
Loss of beach and backshore, which reduces the area used for
recreation, shellfish, bird habitat and forage-fish spawning.
Loss of slow, natural erosion, which helps maintain the
quantity and quality of sand and gravel along the shoreline.
Alteration of wave action, which can impede natural movement of
sand and gravel and scour the beach of fine sediment, leaving
hardpan and scattered rocks.
Increased predation of juvenile salmon by larger fish where
high tides leave deep water along the bulkhead, plus fewer insects
for food caused by loss of shoreline vegetation.
Bulkheads can cause a coarsening of a beach over time, with
harder and harder substrate becoming evident. Damage from one
bulkhead may be slow and limited, experts say, but alterations to
more than 25 percent of the shoreline, as we see today, has taken a
serious toll in some parts of Puget Sound.
Dave told me about the time he stood next to a concrete bulkhead
and watched the tide coming in. Large fish, such as sculpins, were
able to swim right up to the wall.
“I stood there and watched these fish come right in next to
shore,” he said. “These were big fish, and they came up right next
to the bulkhead. There was nowhere for the juvenile salmonids to
get out of there.”
The cartoon below was part of this week’s “Amusing
Monday” feature, and it illustrates the situation that Dave
described. I could say much more about changing trends in
bulkheads, given new studies funded by the Environmental Protection
Agency, but that can wait for future blog posts.
I am still baffled, as are the folks at the University of
Washington’s Seismology Lab, why people freaked out over the
earthquake article, titled “The Really Big One,” published this
month in New
Could it be that Northwest residents were unaware or had
forgotten about the risk of earthquakes in this area until a
national magazine called attention to the problem?
Was it the lack of credible details about earthquake risks in
the original article, which included this quote from an
emergency-management official: “Our operating assumption is that
everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
Or maybe it was the rapid spread of information via social media
and the huge number people living in other parts of the country who
texted, tweeted and inundated Facebook with worries about their
relatives in the Pacific Northwest.
“I don’t really know what it was,” said Bill Steele, my longtime
contact at the UW’s Seismology Lab. “We are a bit baffled by it.
There is nothing really new.”
Although the author, Kathryn Schultz, left out specifics about
which areas might be affected more than others, she did tell a
compelling — and fairly accurate — story about what could happen
when the North America plate breaks free of the Juan de Fuca plate,
which is sliding underneath it.
I was pleased to see that she came back this week with a
follow-up article describing where the greatest shaking would
occur and which areas would be at greatest risk from a tsunami
unleashed by slippage along the Cascadia subduction zone. She also
suggests steps that people can take to protect themselves and their
property — something I have always felt is a mandatory part of any
story I write about earthquakes. Review a webpage put together by the
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked as a news reporter
during a time when many important discoveries were made in
Northwest seismology. I accompanied researchers digging in swamps,
riverbanks and man-made trenches, where they found traces of
ancient earthquakes. That work and much more comprises a body of
evidence across many disciplines that helps us understand how bad
our “big one” could be.
In 1999, I paused from covering individual discoveries about
earthquakes to write a story for the Kitsap Sun focusing on a few
of the researchers and their key findings. We called the story
“Finding Fault: 13 Years of Discoveries.”
I can’t begin to recount all the stories I’ve written about
earthquakes through the years, but I do recall warning people a few
years ago to get prepared after the massive Japanese earthquake
made headlines across the the globe (Kitsap
Sun, March 11, 2011):
“While Japan struggles to recover from one of the greatest
earthquakes in world history, West Coast seismologists are warning
that a quake just like it could occur at any time off the
Washington and Oregon coasts.
“In broad-brush terms, ‘the two earthquakes are very similar,’
said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismograph
Network at the University of Washington. ‘As a first guess, what
might happen here is what happened there.’
Of course, we have had our own earthquakes that should give us
plenty of reason to get prepared. The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually
earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, occurred in the Puget Sound region and
served as a powerful wakeup call for many people.
The Nisqually quake was called the “miracle quake” because
nobody was killed, although one man died from a heart attack that
could have been related to the event. About 400 people were injured
and damage estimates ranged up to $4 billion. (U.S.
In the Puget Sound region, the shaking from the Nisqually quake
could be something like area residents will experience in a
Cascadia subduction-zone quake, though shaking from a subduction
quake is expected to last longer, depending on how much of the
plate breaks free. Things will not be the same in all places, and
communities closest to the Olympic Mountains might experience the
most damage from a subduction quake.
Five years after the Nisqually quake, Phyllis Mann, who was
director of Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management at the
time, was still wondering why many people were not prepared for an
earthquake in Kitsap County.
“Kitsap has never depended on the federal government as part of
its plan,” Phyllis told me in a
Kitsap Sun story published Feb. 28, 2006. “The federal
government can’t be with us the day of the disaster. With the
exception of the military, which is part of our community, you
can’t count on the feds early on.”
Mann used our interview to direct pointed questions at Kitsap
“Why aren’t you ready? What is it going to take? We keep asking
this question and finding out that people aren’t prepared. Where is
your food and water for three days? (A week is the latest
recommendation.) Where are your reunion plans? Is it my
responsibility as the county emergency manager to make sure
everyone does it?”
The New Yorker article failed to mention an earthquake threat
that should be of equal concern to residents of the Puget Sound
area. You may have heard of the Seattle fault, which runs from
Seattle across Bainbridge Island and Central Kitsap to Hood
Although the frequency of huge earthquakes on the Seattle fault
appear to be less than those along the Cascadia subduction zone, we
must not forget that a quake on the Seattle fault about 1,100 years
ago lifted up the south end of Bainbridge Island by 21 feet and
created a tsunami that inundated shorelines now occupied by people.
By contrast, a tsunami coming from the ocean after a subduction
quake might raise the water level quickly in Puget Sound but
probably no higher than what we see with daily tides.
In a way, the Seattle fault put the Kitsap Peninsula on the map
with a red bull’s-eye, which I wrote about five years ago. See
Kitsap Sun, May 8, 2010, along with the map on this page.
Bill Steele told me that he is sure that Kenneth Murphy,
regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
regrets saying, “Our operating assumption is that everything west
of Interstate 5 will be toast.” That may be a good “operating
assumption” for an agency trying to plan for the worse possible
emergency, but it is not a very good description of what
seismologists predict by modeling various scenarios.
Bill said many people failed to read the New Yorker article
carefully and took the comment to mean that most of Western
Washington would be hit with a 50-foot wall of water — something
that could not be further from the truth.
“The good news for us is that we have a pretty good 10,000-year
history of what happened on the fault,” Bill said. “We know how the
shaking will be distributed.” Again, look at the hazard map on this
page and note the strip of red along the coast.
While many earthquake experts are surprised by the reaction to
the New Yorker article, it has accomplished one goal of those who
understand the risks: getting people to create earthquake kits,
secure homes on their foundations and other things that could help
prevent damage and get people through the emergency.
“You have to take your hat off to the author,” Bill told me,
“because she got a lot of people thinking. It is not like the New
Yorker has that many subscriptions.”
Emergency managers may be studying the cascading events
triggered by the New Yorker article, including the initial
publication, the ripples running through social media and the
public alarm that rose up and eventually died down.
Directing public concern into action is what folks like Bill
Steele and others are doing right now. Check out the video in the
player below for Bill’s appearance on “New Day Northwest,” and
visit the webpage of the Pacific
Northwest Seismic Network for basic information and scheduled
discussions about earthquake risks. One public forum is scheduled
for Tuesday at the University of Oregon, and
other forums are under consideration at the UW.