Category Archives: Planning

Offshore killer whales gain attention from Canadian government

The Canadian government is calling attention to the special needs of offshore killer whales in a new document, “Recovery Strategy for the Offshore Killer Whale in Canada (PDF 3.8 mb).”

Report

Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically, physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.

Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status, while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns about their welfare.

While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery strategy points out:

“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

“The small population size and typically large groupings of offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to stochastic events.”

Whale watchers aboard the Manute’a in Southern California experienced an amazing encounter with offshore killer whales in 2012. Some have questioned whether the boat's skipper was too close.

Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988. Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly 300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently in recent years. The report notes:

“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public interest.”

Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a significant portion of their diet.

Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents. Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame retardants) than either residents or transients. From the report:

“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent occurrence off California.

“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North America. Runoff
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large urban centers…”

“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation in offshore killer whales.

“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure to an elevated contaminant environment.”

While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca population.

One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:

“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving increased marine transport of petroleum products and other hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine environment, and to offshores and their prey.”

Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response, and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease exposure. According to the report:

“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid, pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of infectious agents may be introduced into the marine environment.”

Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.

Other risks include noise generated from human operations, including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social behavior.

The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores — including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of noise.

Comments will be taken on the new report until April 27. For information, go to Offshore Killer Whale Recovery Strategy.

In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any special stock status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused study.

Harper Estuary moving toward restoration, including a new bridge

At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the ecosystem?”

It’s a story I’ve been covering since 2001, when Harper resident Chuck Hower first told me about an old brick factory that operated in Harper during the early 1900s. He was dismayed by the massive amount of fill dirt later brought in to build roads across what had been a beautiful salt marsh. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 12, 2001.

Although state and federal agencies were convinced that restoration of the estuary would be a wonderful thing for fish and wildlife, funding proposals came and went until two years ago. That’s when the Legislature decided that the Harper project should receive $4.1 million. The money was from a $142-million settlement with ASARCO related to pollution from company-owned smelters in Tacoma and Everett. More than $8 million was earmarked for environmental restoration. Check out this story, Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2014.

Once the money was approved, the project got rolling. Planners had to decide how much of the fill material could be removed with the available money and what to do with Olympiad Drive, built on an earthen causeway across the upper portion of the estuary.

Biologists generally agreed that the best thing for the ecosystem was to take out Olympiad Drive entirely, although that would force area residents to take an alternate route on Nokomis Road to Southworth Drive. The result would be only one road in and out of the community east of the estuary, and that did not sit well with folks in the area.

Local fire officials were not happy with that arrangement either, according to Kathy Peters, salmon recovery coordinator for Kitsap County. They said it would cut down response time to the neighborhood.

In addition, she said, county engineers determined that the width of Nokomis Road would not meet design standards if the majority of area traffic began using the road. Widening the road would create other complications, such as buying right of way and tearing down some buildings.

“For all these reasons, everyone agreed that we can’t abandon the road,” Kathy told me.

What then resulted was a question of how long to make the bridge. Often, a longer bridge means greater ecosystem integrity. But there’s always the matter of cost.

What then ensued behind the scenes was a lot of haggling among biologists, engineers and other county officials, as well representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Suquamish Tribe. I’ve been hearing about these difficult discussions for months.

Finally, a resolution came when Kitsap County’s new public works director, Andy Nelson, suggested that the county proceed with preliminary design studies, as it would for any bridge, but include ecosystem restoration as a primary design criteria. Nobody could find any reason not to go that way, Kathy said.

The county is now contracting for a consultant to do preliminary design, which will include various options, how much they will cost and how close they can come to a fully functioning natural system.

Meanwhile, WDFW is moving forward with its plans to restore the estuary and get that project under construction. Much of the work will involve removal of fill on both sides of Olympiad Drive and along the shoreline to bring the estuary back to a semblance of what it once was. A boat launch will be relocated.

A few other details, including the biological value of estuaries, can be found in a fact sheet on the county’s Harper Estuary website. Officials are pulling together additional information in preparation for a public meeting April 6 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church.

Community involvement in the project is important, according to Kathy Peters, who wants people to enjoy the waterway and be able to observe as a variety of plants and animals recolonize the estuary.

Removing the fill is expected to unearth a huge number of old bricks, which were dumped into the estuary after the Harper Brick and Tile Factory went out of business in the 1930s.

Jim Heytvelt, who lives near the estuary, said neighbors have been discussing gathering up the bricks and forming them into some kind of monument.

“We have a pretty tight community,” Jim said. “We have neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of the estuary who want to get involved.”

He said most everyone is excited about the restoration, which has been a long time coming.

New reports of whale territory could shape protection strategy

Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).

Journal

The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and guest editor of the special report.

“They represent the best available information about the times and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean to look at this information and take it into consideration to understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”

Project managers can use information in the report for offshore energy development, military testing and training, shipping, fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise, generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect large areas of whale territory.

Separate articles were written about seven regions of the country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for the West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys and opportunistic sources,” the report says.

BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.

Map

The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah whaling proposal.

The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling, including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if a quota of these whales is reached.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy regional administrator, in a press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the Makah Whale Hunt.

Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs were established for endangered fin whales, because of discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and uncertainty about their population structure.

The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales, beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that future work cover those animals as well as looking into special breeding areas for all the whales.

A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs more information about Southern Resident killer whales before expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. See Water Ways from Feb. 24.

In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any of the following characteristics:

  1. Reproductive areas – Areas and times within which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is found with neonates or calves,
  2. Feeding areas – Areas and times within which aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These either may be persistent in space and time or associated with ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within a larger area that can be delineated,
  3. Migratory corridors – Areas and times within which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the corridor is spatially restricted.
  4. Small and resident population – Areas and times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited geographic extent.

Kitsap to receive major funding for stormwater, sewer construction

Washington Department of Ecology is poised to award $229 million in grants and loans for projects that will help clean up waters throughout the state.

Grants

Grants to Kitsap County include $4.2 million for planned stormwater projects, plus another $4.6 million to lay sewer lines designed to protect shellfish beds in South Kitsap’s Yukon Harbor.

This level of funding for a single round of water-quality grants demonstrates that elected officials are serious about cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies throughout the state. The Legislature must still approve the funding for the proposed grants and loans.

The Yukon Harbor project is interesting, because Kitsap County officials were able to show that residents of the South Kitsap area would face a severe hardship if forced to pay for a new sewer line and all the connections themselves.

Yukon Harbor has been the subject of pollution identification and correction projects by the Kitsap Public Health District. Fixing septic systems and cleaning up pollution from animals allowed 935 acres of shellfish beds to be reopened in 2008. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008. But recent studies show that the pollution is growing worse again as some systems continue to have problems. Officials say the best answer is to run a sewer line to properties on or near the beach.

The grant will pay for the sewer line and pump station to carry sewage to the Manchester sewage treatment plant. Some money will be used to help residents pay for the costs of connections to their homes.

Without the state grant, officials estimate that each of the 121 property owners would need to pay about $70,000 to complete the project, according to David Tucker of Kitsap County Public Works. Without the “severe hardship” grant, the project probably would not get done.

One nice thing about this project is that residents will not be required to hook up to the sewer, Dave told me. Those who have upgraded or replaced their septic systems or have systems still working well may continue to use their own on-site systems.

“The common infrastructure will be covered by the grant,” Tucker said, “and people can make a choice about whether they want to connect. Everybody’s septic system is in a different state of condition.”

In addition to the $4.6 million grant, the county will receive a low-interest loan of $432,000 for the remainder of the $5 million needed for the project. Design is scheduled to begin this year, followed by construction in 2017 if things go well.

Meanwhile, stormwater projects continue to gain attention, because they can address both pollution and streamflow problems. In Kitsap Countyu, grants were proposed for the following stormwater projects, which require a 25-percent local match:

  • Clear Creek project, known as Duwe’iq Stormwater Treatment Wetland, which will use a $937,000 grant to create a stormwater wetland off Silverdale Way near Ross Plaza to collect water from 18 acres of commercially developed property.
  • Ridgetop Boulevard Green Streets project, which will use $1 million in a second phase of construction to create biofiltration systems in the median of Ridgetop Boulevard in Silverdale.
  • Silverdale Way Regional Stormwater Facility project will use $1.5 million for new stormwater ponds north of Waaga Way to collect stormwater running off steep hills in the area.
  • Chico and Dickerson creeks project will receive $500,000 to complete the second phase of a project to replace two culverts on David and Taylor roads and establish floodplains to take excess water during heavy rainstorms.
  • Bay Shore Drive and Washington Avenue Filterra project will use $277,000 to install 15 Filterra planter-box stormwater filters to reduce pollution coming off streets in Old Town Silverdale.

Kitsap County also was successful in obtaining a low-interest loan of $3.8 million to replace three aging pump stations and upgrade a sewer line on the beach near Manchester. Since the line is part of the Manchester system, the loan will be repaid through sewer fees.

In all, Ecology received 227 applications requesting more than $352 million in grants and loans. Some $143 million went into loans, and $21 million went into grants allocated to 165 projects statewide. About 110 of the projects involve stormwater pollution.

A public meeting on all the projects will be held at 1 p.m. March 4 at Pierce County Library, 3005 112th St. E., Tacoma. Comments will be taken until March 15. For information and a list projects, check Ecology’s website.

Maps judged to be wrong; Heins Lake should be Alexander

UPDATE: March 18, 2015
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names on Thursday approved the map correction outlined in this blog post. The change was made on a vote of 15-0 with one abstention after the board heard the explanation about why the correction was needed.

If you check for the name “Heins” on the Geographic Names Information System, the official names database, you will find updated coordinates for Heins and Alexander lakes. If you plot the coordinates, you’ll probably find that the map still bears the incorrect name. I’m not aware of any map that has been updated, but this should take place over time, according to officials with the U.S. Geological Survey.
—–

A pair of lakes long hidden within Bremerton’s vast watershed — Heins Lake and Alexander Lake — should have their names reversed on future maps, according to officials with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The switch-around is designed to correct a map error that apparently occurred in 1953.

The map correction, scheduled to be endorsed March 12 by the federal naming board, will fulfill efforts by Sue Hein Plummer to get the maps corrected. Sue is a descendant of the homesteader for whom Heins Lake is named.

I met Sue in 2012 when I accompanied members of her family to the old homestead in the watershed (Kitsap Sun, Sept. 30, 2012). It was then that Sue told me that the names had been reversed on an old Metsker’s map sometime after 1928, and she had been unable to convince the mapmakers to change it back.

Sue is a history buff and the genealogist in the family. The old homestead was closest to Heins Lake, which has been called Alexander Lake on all modern maps.

It frustrated her that mapmakers wanted to leave the names alone, wrong as they were. She knew that if she did not get the names corrected soon, they could stay wrong for all eternity. Odd as it seems, we might be stuck with Heins Creek running out of Alexander Lake. when it should be associated with Heins Lake, she said.

I told her about the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names, which has the power to change any name in the state. With her extensive research, I thought she would eventually convince both the state and federal naming boards to make an official change.

It never went that far, because staff of both boards came to recognize the error, so a name change was not needed. All that is needed is to change the location of Heins and Alexander lakes in the Geographic Names Information System — a database that records the official names and locations of geographic features.

During an investigation, Jennifer Runyon, a staff researcher for the U.S. board, found some field notes from 1953, in which two people working at the Gorst Creek pumping station said the name of the northern lake should be Heins — opposite of what the maps said in 1937 and before.

Here’s what a typed portion of the notes say:

“The name Alexander Lake would apply to the southernmost lake, according to those who work for the Bremerton watershed and are familiar with the area. According to the city engineer, the northernmost lake has long been known as Alexander. This view would seem most widespread locally…”

In handwriting, these notes follow:

“according to the city engineer. Though the city engineer’s view seemed possible, it was not in accordance with the personnel who work with the name daily at the Gorst Creek pump plant.”

The notes named the two plant workers who must have gotten the names turned around: “Mr. Jarstad, foreman of the Gorst Creek Pump Plant,” and “O.R. Moritz, pump operator.”

“Mr. Jarstad” is presumably Otto Jarstad, for whom the city park at the abandoned pump plant is named.

Sue Hein Plummer thinks the mistake may have been made on some maps before 1953 and that Jarstad and Moritz just wanted to leave the names alone.

Kitsap County Auditor’s Office has already made the change on county maps. Runyon told me the change is likely to be made in the federal database within two days of the March 12 meeting of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, — assuming no further issues arise.

By the way, Heins Lake — which probably should have been “Hein’s Lake” based on the name Hein — now belongs to Ueland Tree Farm as a result of a land trade with the city of Bremerton. At least that’s what the maps indicate. Check out Josh Farley’s story, Kitsap Sun, April 14, 2014. Once the maps get corrected, Ueland will actually own Alexander Lake — the northernmost lake — and Heins Lake will remain in the Bremerton watershed. 

Kingston wastewater could be valuable for watering golf course

Kingston’s sewage treatment plant could provide irrigation water for the nearby White Horse Golf Course and possibly other uses under a plan now in development.

Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant Photo courtesy of Golder Associates
Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant
Photo courtesy of Golder and Associates via ©Sky-Pix Aerial Photography, www.sky-pix.com/

Kitsap County commissioners recently signed a $325,000 “predesign” contract with Brown and Caldwell engineers. The firm was hired to answer a host of questions about the feasibility of producing high-quality effluent at the plant and then putting the clean water to good use.

“We’re just starting to look at the whole project,” said Barbara Zaroff of Kitsap County’s Wastewater Division. “We just had our kickoff meeting two weeks ago, and now Brown and Caldwell will be going out to collect data.”

I peppered Barbara with questions that she could not answer at this point, because the detail work is yet to be done. But we know from a previous study by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) that producing high-quality effluent in Kingston is more than a random thought.

Golder found benefits from using the water for supplementing flows in nearby Grover’s Creek while recharging much-needed groundwater in that area of the county. The Suquamish Tribe, which owns White Horse Golf Course, has expressed interest in acquiring the water if various issues can be resolved.

The Kingston treatment plant, completed in 2005, produces an average of 150,000 gallons of effluent per day, currently discharged into Appletree Cove. As population grows, the plant can be expanded to about 300,000 gallons per day.

It appears it would be cost-effective to treat the water to tertiary standards with sand filters, although other technologies will be explored. A pond could be built on or near the golf course, which would store the water for irrigation and allow infiltration into the ground. The available water should provide the needs of the course with plenty of water left over.

Discharging into a wetland that feeds into Grover’s Creek is another idea, along with providing irrigation at the county’s North Kitsap Heritage Park. Unused water might still be discharged into Puget Sound, particularly in winter months when irrigation water is not needed.

One question that always arises with reclaimed water is what happens to trace amounts of chemicals that pass through the treatment process, such as pharmaceutical drugs that mimic hormones. We know from studies that some of these chemicals can affect the growth, development and metabolism of fish in some situations.

An analysis by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) concluded that future treatment processes in the Kingston plant would remove between 80 and 97 percent of endocrine disrupting compounds coming into the plant. Environmental conditions where reclaimed water is discharged would degrade the chemicals further, so the overall risk would be low for salmon and other fish, according to the report.

The new study is expected to look further into the risks. Meanwhile, the state Department of Ecology is continuing to work on a new reclaimed-water rule that could improve permitting and monitoring by producers of reclaimed water.

The Kingston project would be similar to what is happening at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville, where construction is adding sand filters as part of an overall upgrade to the plant.

Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014
Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant // File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014

The nearby Silverdale Water District has installed about 15,000 feet of “purple pipe” for reclaimed water on the major arterials of Silverdale, including Silverdale Way. The project is part of the water district’s major pipe-replacement project. Another 2,000 feet will be added as part of the Bucklin Hill Bridge project, General Manager Morgan Johnson told me.

Much of the new commercial construction in Silverdale is being designed to use reclaimed water for irrigation, and some buildings are being plumbed to use reclaimed water for flushing toilets and other secondary uses. Ballfields in the area could get some of the water.

A public-outreach program is being planned to educate the public about reclaimed water and to answer questions that people may have. Under the current schedule, the reclaimed-water valve would be turned on in 2020, but that date may be pushed back, Morgan said.

In Kingston, it will take about a year to put the information together and identify a preferred alternative, Barbara told me. Final engineering and design will follow under a new contract if things go as expected.

The current contract will examine pipeline routes to convey the water to the potential users. Costs for building and operating the system will be explored.

Yet to be determined is how costs and benefits of the reclaimed water will be shared between the county, which owns the treatment facilities, and those who will use the water. That goes for both Kingston and Central Kitsap.

Many golf courses across the country — especially in the arid Southwest — are using reclaimed water for irrigation. In a few places where water is in extremely short supply, water systems have begun adding the clean effluent straight into their drinking water. Check out reporter Emily Schmall’s story for the Associated Press.

While water is still somewhat plentiful in the Puget Sound area, it only makes sense to find uses for freshwater that would otherwise be dumped into salty Puget Sound.

Puget Sound: Hopeful signs shine through complex cleanup effort

While putting the final touches on a two-year, 10-part series about the Puget Sound ecosystem, I couldn’t help but wonder about the true character of Washington state and its citizens.

Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

How much do people really care about salmon and rockfish, eagles and herons, killer whales, cougars, and many lesser-known species in and around Puget Sound? Do we have a political system capable of supporting the needed efforts — financially and legally — to correct the problems?

After interviewing hundreds of people over the past few years, I have a pretty good feeling about this state, especially when considering other parts of the country. There is hope that we can save some of the remaining gems of the Puget Sound ecosystem while restoring functioning conditions in other places.

Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the restoration efforts, still has the support of many people and organizations — including many conservatives and business-oriented folks. That support comes despite ongoing struggles by the partnership to find a proper place within the state’s political system. Review my latest story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

“Let science lead the way” remains the refrain of both critics and supporters of the partnership. But that is easier said than done — even if you could take politics out of the equation.

Scientists in almost any field of research don’t always agree on the fundamental problems, and there is a competition among scientific disciplines for limited research dollars. Are endangered fish more important than endangered birds or endangered whales, or should we be studying the plankton, sediments and eelgrass that form the base of the food web?

Really, where should we focus our attention and tax dollars? That’s a key question. The correct answer is, and always has been, “All of the above.”

When it comes to funding, the decision-making becomes widely disbursed, and I’m not sure whether that is good or bad. At the local level, we have Lead Entities and Local Integrating Organizations. At the state level, we have the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board and agencies themselves.

Then there is the Puget Sound Partnership, with its seven-member Leadership Council and 28-member Ecosystem Coordination Board, along with its science advisory panel. The partnership establishes an Action Agenda to guide funding decisions by the others.

One would never want an individual man or woman deciding where the money should go. But do the various groups help identify important problems, or do they diffuse attention from what could be a focused strategy? I believe this will always be somewhat a philosophical question.

One thing I confirmed in the final installment of the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” is that nobody was ever serious about a deadline established in the law creating the Puget Sound Partnership. Restoring Puget Sound by the year 2020 remains on the books as a goal that needs to be changed.

If officials acknowledge that the goal cannot be met, will the Legislature and the public continue their support for the current level of funding or perhaps increase support?

That gets back to my wondering about the true character of Washington state and its citizens. Based on past legislation, this state is clearly a leader in ecosystem protection. We have the Shoreline Management Act, the Growth Management Act (with its urban-concentration and critical-areas protections), Municipal Stormwater Permits, Forest Practices Act and more.

Are we ready to go all the way, by setting interim goals for 2020 and looking to the long term? We will need to better track progress, which means gathering more data in the field — monitoring, if you will.

Monitoring is not as inspiring as restoring an important estuary. But think of all the time and money spent on forecasting the weather, which relies entirely on monitoring with costly investments in satellites and equipment, all needing continual improvements.

Envision a significant role for experts who can describe changes in the ecosystem and help us decide if our money is being well spent. If weather reporters can hold a central role on the evening news, why shouldn’t we have ecosystem reporters discussing environmental conditions.

I wouldn’t mind hearing a report on the news something like this: “We are seeing improved conditions in southern Hood Canal, with scattered salmon spawning at upper elevations, and a 90 percent chance that oyster beds will be opened in Belfair.” (Just kidding, of course.)

Puget Sound Partnership’s proposed budget, as submitted by the governor, contains more than $1 million for assessing Puget Sound recovery. That could be an important step to providing information about how the ecosystem is responding to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on protection and restoration so far.

In writing about the future for the final part of the “Pulse” series, I described a 2008 report from the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Lab. The report identified the primary “drivers” of change that would determine the future of the Puget Sound region.

It was interesting to learn that if we are lucky about climate change — or even if we’re not so lucky — the future is largely in our hands. How will we react to economic ups and downs? How will we address land use with millions of new people coming in? Will we embrace technology as the final solution or look to nature for answers?

The report describes six remarkably different scenarios, though others could be constructed. Perhaps the worst one is called “Collapse,” in which warning signs of ecological problems are ignored and economic challenges are met by relaxing environmental regulations and allowing residential sprawl. In the end, the ecosystem cannot withstand the assault. Shellfish beds are forced to close, and hundreds of species — including salmon and orcas — disappear.

Two scenarios hold more hopeful outcomes. One, called “Forward,” includes public investments to purchase sensitive areas, including shorelines. Growth becomes concentrated in cities, and people learn to fit into the ecosystem. The other, called “Adaptation,” includes grassroots efforts to save water and resources and improve people’s ecological behavior. Protecting shorelines, floodplains and wildlife corridors help reduce flooding and protect species that could have been wiped out. Check out “Scenarios offer glimpses of a possible future for Puget Sound,” Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Joel Baker, director of Puget Sound Institute, capped off my “futures” story with a sense of optimism, which I find contagious. I don’t know if Joel was thinking of the Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York” which contains the line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But Joel told me something like, “If we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere.”

Here are his exact words:

“As an environmental scientist, I find it interesting that things are starting to come together. We continue to grow economically, so we have the money.

“Energy is lining up with the environment, and we’re forcing the restoration program to think holistically. It’s as much about transportation as it is about sewage-treatment plants.

“The Pacific Northwest is technologically savvy; we have smart people here; and we have the collective will to get things done. So I’m optimistic about cleaning up Puget Sound. If we can’t do it here, God help the rest of the country.”

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward on a $40-million restoration program along the Skokomish River, as I mentioned in Water Ways last week.

According to Rachel Mesko of the Army Corps of Engineers, two major projects have been dropped from the “tentatively selected plan” for the Skokomish, which flows into the south end of Hood Canal. That leaves five major projects to advance forward for a likely recommendation to Congress.

Skok watershed

Rachel presented a status report on the program during a recent meeting of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team.

It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been writing about the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Skokomish. So I looked it up. The agency completed a flood analysis in 1988, considered dredging options in 1995 and began work on the current “general investigation” in 2000.

Before I talk about the projects being proposed, I’d like to recall what is at stake in the Skokomish, often cited as the most frequently flooded river in Washington state. Many people believe that the restoration of Hood Canal, a gem of an ecosystem, cannot be successful without first fixing the Skokomish, where individual restoration projects have been underway for years.

Here’s a brief description of the problems from the feasibility report on the Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 5.3 mb).

“High sediment load, reduced flows and encroachment on the floodplain by man-made structures are causing continued degradation of natural ecosystem structures, functions, and processes necessary to support critical fish and wildlife habitat throughout the basin.

“The decline in populations has resulted in the listing of four anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act — chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout — that use the river as their primary habitat.

“The impaired ecosystem has adversely affected riverine, wetland, and estuarine habitats that are critical to these and other important fish and wildlife species such as bears, bald eagles and river otters to name a few.”

Let me list some of the specific problems:

  • Historical removal of large woody debris has simplified the stream, wiping out pools, eliminating places for young fish to hide and reducing nutrients, which feed aquatic insects and support an entire food web.
  • Logging along the river has eliminated the supply of large woody debris, the shade to cool the stream and the overhanging vegetation, a key part of the food web. Logging also has increased erosion which prevents new vegetation from taking hold, smothers salmon eggs and fills in pools, where salmon can rest.
  • Levees built to protect farmland from flooding halted the natural movement of the river, known as channel migration, and prevented the formation of new habitats.
  • Logging upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish River and Vance Creek increased erosion and movement of sediment into the lower river, cutting off fish access to side channels, wetlands and other aquatic habitats.
  • The Cushman Dam Project blocked 25 percent of the mainstem habitat and 18 percent of tributary habitat available for salmon in the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Reduced flows below the dam increased sedimentation in the lower Skokomish. As a result, about a mile of the river dries up about two months each summer, blocking salmon migration.
  • Highways 101 and 106 disrupted natural floodplains that can be used by fish to find food and to escape high flows and then find their way back to the river.

Five projects designed to reduce these problems are being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers:

Car body 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.

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.

Setback levee 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.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. 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 costs above were taken from the feasibility study and do not include design, planning and related costs.

You might note that the River Mile 9 levee and the Grange levee fit the concept of “Floodplains by Design,” an idea supported by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Washington Legislature with $44 million. Check out the Associated Press story.

After discussions with nearby property owners, two projects were removed from the preliminary list. They involve excavation work on both Hunter and Weaver creeks to restore the tributaries to more nature flows.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, said the Skokomish restoration program seems to have wide support among landowners in the Skokomish Valley as well as among interest groups, including the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. As a result, he expects that the project will maintain momentum all the way to Congress.

“It is fairly rare to have a watershed working together,” Rich said at the SWAT meeting. “The ones that are difficult are when you have two parties, one saying ‘yes’ and other saying, ‘Don’t you dare.’

“There is support (for the Skok project) through the Corps chain of command and all the way up to the national level,” he added.

If things go well, a final plan for the Skokomish could be ready by late next summer, according to Rachel Mesko.

By the way, I would like to publicly thank the SWAT for the “certificate of appreciation” I was given for my reporting on Skokomish River through the years. It’s an honor to be associated with this group of men and women who are fully committed to seeing the Skokomish River restored to a healthy ecosystem.

Skokomish River gets special attention in salmon funding

Big money is beginning to come together for planning, engineering and design of major restoration projects along the Skokomish River. If approved by Congress, the cost of construction could exceed $40 million — a lot of money to you and me, but maybe not so much for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Last week, the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board approved grants for more than 100 projects in 29 counties throughout the state. The total, from state and federal sources, was about $18 million for this round of funding.

Mason County was one of the big winners this time, receiving $1.25 million for seven projects, including a $360,000 contribution to planning and engineering for transformative projects on the Skokomish. The total cost for a “35-percent level of design” is expected to be $2.45 million, mostly from the Corps of Engineers. That level of design is needed to give top officials in the Corps and members of Congress a good idea of cost before they commit to the massive undertaking along the Skok.

I’ll address the specific Skokomish River projects, along with new information from the Corps, in a separate blog post to come. For now, I’d like to describe other projects approved in the latest round of SRF Board funding.

In addition to the design work on the Skokomish, the Mason Conservation District will move ahead with the construction of 21 man-made logjams in the Holman Flats area along the South Fork of the Skokomish. That is an area that was logged and cleared in preparation for a dam that was never built.

Man-made logjams were placed in the Skokomish River in 2010. More will be added thanks to a new salmon-recovery grant. Kitsap Sun photo
Man-made logjams were placed in the Skokomish River in 2010. More will be added thanks to a new salmon-recovery grant.
Kitsap Sun photo

The clearing destabilized the river and degraded salmon habitat for more than a mile downstream. The logjams will add structure to the river and create places for fish to hide and rest, ultimately improving the channel itself. The $362,000 from the SRF Board will be supplemented with another $900,000 in grants.

This will be a second phase of a project I wrote about for the Kitsap Sun in 2010, followed by another story in 2011.

Other Mason County projects:

Beards Cove, $297,000: This project, outside of Belfair on Hood Canal, will remove fill, structures and invasive plants and restore the grade to the way it was before development in 1973. The project will restore about a quarter-mile of natural shoreline and seven acres of tidal marsh. Along with a separate seven-acre land-preservation agreement and other efforts, about 1.7 miles of Hood Canal shoreline will be preserved forever. Great Peninsula Conservancy will use a separate $491,000 grant from the state’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program.

Allyn Shoreline, $14,000: Mason Conservation District will complete final designs to enhance 480 feet of shoreline along Case Inlet in Allyn, including removal of about 120 feet of bulkhead.

Likes Creek, $85,000: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group will remove a culvert under the Simpson railroad that blocks salmon migration on Likes Creek, a major tributary of Goldsborough Creek. Another grant will provide $43,000 for the project, and Mason County will assist with removal of another culvert upstream.

Goldsborough Creek, $111,000: Capitol Land Trust will buy 420 acres on the North Fork of Goldsborough Creek near Shelton. The property provides habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead. The land trust will contribute $20,000 in donated land.

Oakland Bay, $24,000: Capitol Land Trust will use the money to remove invasive and dead vegetation and maintain 12 acres of shoreline plantings on Deer, Cranberry and Malaney creeks. About $5,000 in donations will be added.

Three projects were funded in Kitsap County:

Springbrook Creek, $62,000: Bainbridge Island Land Trust will assess the creek’s watershed and design five salmon-habitat projects for one of the island’s most productive streams. The land trust will contribute $11,000 in donations of labor.

Curley Creek, $33,000: Great Peninsula Conservancy will assess how to protect salmon habitat in Curley Creek in South Kitsap, one of the largest salmon and steelhead streams in the area. The conservancy will contribute $6,000 in donations of labor.

Steelhead assessment, $50,000: Kitsap County will analyze existing information on steelhead habitat in the East Kitsap region, south to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, to help with a recovery plan for the threatened fish. The county will contribute $9,000.

Other notable projects include the following in King, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom counties:

Mill Creek, $327,000: The city of Kent will built a floodplain wetland off Mill Creek near the confluence with the Green River, an important stream for chinook salmon and steelhead as well as coho, chum and pink salmon and cutthroat trout. The project includes the construction of 1,000 feet of new off-channel habitat, where salmon can find refuge and food during floods, and 43 log structures. Work also will restore seven acres of native vegetation. A local grant will provide $1.4 million.

Stillaguamish River floodplain, $402,000: The Stillaguamish Tribe will purchase 200 acres on the North Fork and main stem of the river, remove invasive plants and restore about 25 acres of riverbank with native vegetation.

Black River wetland, $90,000: Capitol Land Trust Grant will buy 54 acres to conserve a rare wetland unique to the Black River and protect 1.3 miles of side channel. The property is adjacent to 75 acres already protected by the land trust in the Black River Sub-basin, one of the largest remaining wetland systems in Western Washington.

Nooksack River logjams: The Nooksack Tribe will receive $320,000 for logjams in the South Fork Nooksack and $283,000 for the North Fork Nooksack. Eight logjams in each stream will slow the river and provide resting pools for salmon. Federal grants will add $56,000 in the South Fork and $60,000 in the North Fork.

In announcing the $18 million in salmon-restoration grants statewide, Gov. Jay Inslee commented:

“Salmon are important to Washington because they support thousands of jobs in Washington — fishing, seafood-processing, boat sales and repair, tourism, and more. When we restore land and water for salmon, we also are helping our communities. We get less flooding, cleaner water and better beaches. We also make sure that our grandchildren will be able to catch a fish or enjoy watching the return of wild salmon.”

Funding for the grants comes from the sale of state bonds approved by the Legislature along with the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, approved by Congress and administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

David Trout, who chairs the SRF Board, said the restoration projects are a lifeline for salmon:

“Without these grants that fund incredible projects, we wouldn’t have any salmon. That’s unacceptable. We’ve seen these grants make a difference. They create jobs, support local communities and their involvement in salmon recovery, and most importantly the projects are helping bring back the fish.

“After more than a decade of work, we’ve seen that in many areas of the state, salmon populations are increasing or staying the same. At the same time, we still have some important areas where fish populations are continuing to decline. We can’t get discouraged and must continue working at this. It’s too important to stop now.”

Kitsap gun club withdraws from toxic cleanup program

Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club has decided against undertaking a formal environmental cleanup of its property on Seabeck Highway — at least not any time soon, according to club officials.

The property is listed as a “hazardous site” by the Washington Department of Ecology, mostly because of lead and metals associated with shooting activities. The club had entered into the state’s Voluntary Cleanup Program — which puts a property owner in charge of the cleanup — but then withdrew from the program in late October.

Marcus Carter, executive officer for KRRC, told me that the club had been assured by state officials that if it entered the Volunteer Cleanup Program, it would not be placed on the state’s Hazardous Sites List.

“But they went ahead and ranked us anyway,” he said.

Map

I wrote about that ranking in the Kitsap Sun in January of 2013. The gun range was rated a “2” on a scale from 1 to 5, with “1” being the worst. I noted in the story that many sites ranked a “2” go without action for years. KRRC later disputed the ranking, saying available evidence should place it no higher than a “3.”

A letter written in October by Bruce Danielson (PDF 889 kb), attorney for the club, explained why KRRC was withdrawing from the program. He also noted, “Our voluntary participation has been an unacceptable drain on valuable resources that KRRC can no long afford to expend for no purpose.”

As an example of wasteful spending, Danielson cited a charge for a “fraudulent” phone call from the state Attorney General’s Office related to the site. The unwarranted billing was dropped, he noted, but only after significant effort by club officials.

Marcus Carter said he realizes that the shooting range could get stuck on the “Hazardous Sites List” for many years, similar to the situation with the Navy’s Camp Wesley Harris. The abandoned shooting range on Navy property also was ranked a “2.” Other than an initial cleanup, the Navy has taken no steps to get the property removed from the list. For a full list of hazardous sites, download the latest Hazardous Sites List (PDF 535 kb).

Marcus said the club initiated an extensive recycling program years ago to regularly remove lead and other contaminants from earthen berms that stop the bullets. The only contamination outside the range itself are small amounts of materials where shooting took place years ago, he said.

“Nothing is leaving our property,” Marcus insisted. “There have been no suggestions from DOE to make our operations more efficient or to do anything differently.”

As described in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2012, the gun club has been following an approach generally accepted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency:

“The club has relied on using EPA’s ‘best management practices’ to avoid being deemed a hazardous waste site subject to cleanup. State law does not include such provisions, but Ecology endorses EPA’s suggested practices, which are outlined in a 1997 letter written by Jeff Hannapel in EPA’s Office of Solid Waste.”

I then quoted from the Hannapel’s letter:

“The agency has taken the position that the discharge of ammunition or lead shot does not constitute hazardous waste disposal, because the agency does not consider the rounds from the weapons to be ‘discarded.’ Furthermore, the lead shot has not been ‘discarded’ by virtue of its discharge at the shooting range, because the discharge is within the normal and expected use pattern of the manufactured product. Accordingly, lead shot would be considered scrap metal for regulatory purposes.”

Ecology officials admit that they don’t have enough money to force property owners to clean up the most-contaminated sites, let alone those lower on list.

For several years, the group CK Safe and Quiet, which includes residents living near the shooting range, has been urging Ecology to get the site cleaned up. The group has expressed concerns about contamination leaving the site and getting into nearby waterways.

In 2011, the organization filed a notice saying it would sue for cleanup under the federal Clean Water Act, which allows citizen-initiated lawsuits. I mentioned the claims in a Kitsap Sun article at the time.

The group never filed the federal case, pending legal action against the club by Kitsap County, which focused on land-use and noise issues. A ruling in the county’s case was recently handed down by the Washington State Court of Appeals. See Kitsap Sun story by reporter Josh Farley.

Some members of CK Safe and Quiet say they are now considering a renewal of their Clean Water Act claims. Ryan Vancil, an attorney who wrote the 2011 letter (PDF 134 kb), no longer represents the group, but members are consulting with a new lawyer.