Category Archives: Planning

EPA’s ‘virtual hearing’ will address proposed water quality standards

Five years ago, I could not have predicted that Washington state would end up in a serious conflict with the federal government over water-quality standards to protect people’s health. But it has happened, and there’s no clear resolution in sight.


The federal Environmental Protection Agency will hold a “virtual hearing” on this issue in December. Read on for details, but let me first provide some recent history.

In November 2010, I wrote about the Department of Ecology’s newest undertaking, as the agency embarked on an effort to define “how clean is clean” in protecting public health in state waters. See Water Ways Nov. 4, 2010, and also Kitsap Sun Nov. 2, 2010.

It was obvious at the time that the state would need to increase its existing fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day — a key factor in the formula used to calculate the allowable concentration of toxic chemicals in the water. After much discussion and delay, the state eventually proposed a rate of 175 grams per day — 27 times higher than the existing rate.

The controversy arrived when the state proposed a cancer risk rate of one in 100,000 — a risk 10 times higher than the existing rate of one in a million. The higher cancer risk rate would somewhat offset the effect of the much higher fish-consumption rate. Other factors were changed as well, as I described in the second of a two-part series in the Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2015.

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s newly proposed standards, he also proposed new legislation to study and reduce the sources of toxic chemicals of greatest concern. The Legislation failed to gain enough support for passage during the past legislative session.

The governor has since pulled back from the original proposal and agreed to return to a cancer risk rate of one in a million. A new proposal is expected to be announced after the first of the year, Meanwhile, the EPA is moving forward with its own proposal, probably more stringent than what we’ll see from the state. I outlined the likely differences in Water Ways on Oct. 8.

On Dec. 15 and 16, the EPA will hold what it’s calling a “virtual hearing” on the proposed water-quality criteria that the agency developed for Washington state. The web-based call-in format is designed to save considerable money, according to Erica Slicy, contact for the event. Given interest across the state, multiple in-person hearings in numerous locations would be needed to accomplish what two phone-in hearings can do, she said.

People will be able to watch the virtual hearing and/or testify by registering on EPA’s website. The event will be recorded and transcribed so that people will be able to review the comments later. Written comments will be taken until Dec. 28.

If the state comes up with proposed water-quality standards, as expected, the EPA could put the federal proposal on hold while the state’s proposal undergoes considerable scrutiny. Meanwhile, I’m sure supporters of the more stringent standards — such as Indian tribes and environmental groups — will continue to be frustrated by more delays.

Climate report describes changes coming to the Puget Sound region

How climate change could alter life in the Puget Sound region is the focus of a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned for safety reasons. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns. Kitsap Sun file photo
A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns.
Kitsap Sun file photo

In concert with the report’s release, I’m writing three stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, all focusing on specific aspects of the report, beginning with landslide risks. See “Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides” on the Puget Sound Institute’s blog.

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 forest fires.

The report, “State of the Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound,” pulls together the best predictions from existing studies, while updating and expanding the range of topics last reported for Puget Sound in 2005.

“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 areas.

“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 said.

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 species.”

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 Washington.

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:

Puget Sound restoration: two steps forward, one back — or vice versa?

Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very difficult thing to do.

Vital signs

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 sediments.

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 forward?

Gov and Leg

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).

Key findings, as reported in the news release:

  • 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 progress.
  • None of the indicators for species or food-web health are making progress.
  • 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.

Pulse logo

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 ecosystem health.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point in North Kitsap early this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Southern Residents in Puget Sound
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

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 responsibility.

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.

Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

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).

I’ve talked about these findings several times in the past, including an expanded story about stormwater in the “Pulse” series in July of last year. For stories written since the report was published, see Tristan Baurick’s piece in the Kitsap Sun or Sandi Doughton’s story in the Seattle Times or the news release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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.

Hood Canal council names winners of environmental awards

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 environment.

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 Canal.

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 habitat.

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 wetlands.

When writing the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” I talked to steward Frank Stricklin, who probably knows the park land better than anyone else. The specific story, titled “Health of forests plays key role in health of Puget Sound,” focused on forests and other upland areas.

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 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.

Volunteers wanted for advice on restoration, recreation spending

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 activities.

Stavis Natural Resources Conservation Area on Hood Canal. DNR photo
Stavis Natural Resources Conservation Area on Hood Canal in Kitsap County. // DNR photo

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 rangeland.

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 important.

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.

Will the Navy extend whale protections
to other regions?

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 the 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.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

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 reproduce.

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 science.”

Humpback whales, an endangered species. NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman
Humpback whales, an endangered species.
NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman

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 vague.

“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 proposed actions.”

Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species. NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whale, endangered.
NOAA photo

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 systems).

“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 NRDC and 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 news 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 Northwest.

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 needs.”

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 permit.”

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 operations.

NASA researchers measure sea levels, predict faster rise

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.

Sea level change over 22 years. Map: NASA
Sea level change over 22 years. (Click to enlarge) // Map: NASA

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 yesterday.

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 100 years.

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 Pasadena, Calif.

Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993. Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado
Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993.
Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado

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 faster.

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 year.”

Other new information from NASA, including lots of graphics:

The following video tells the basic story about sea level rise.

Swimming a river called Green/Duwamish to open our eyes to the promise

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?

Mark Powell
Mark Powell

“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 watershed (map, PDF 1.1 mb) and to increase restoration efforts where needed.

“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 Seattle Times.

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 landscape.”

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 links together.”

Mark’s adventures on the river are chronicled in a blog called “Swim 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 late.”

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 began.

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).

Have we turned the corner on Puget Sound bulkhead construction?

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.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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 employed part-time.

“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 forward.”

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.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County.
Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

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 spot.

“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 are getting.”

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.

See Washington Department of Ecology’s Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 640 kb)

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.

How did one magazine article generate such a tsunami of public alarm?

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 Yorker magazine.

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.”

Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design building to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. Hazard maps of more likely earthquakes are similar but with less emphasis on the Seattle and subduction fault zones. Kitsap Sun graphic
Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design buildings to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. // Kitsap Sun graphic

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 Kitsap Sun.

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.

During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explore a section of Highway 302 near Victor in Mason County. Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.
During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explored a section of Highway 302 near Victor. // Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.

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. Geological Survey)

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 County residents:

“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 Canal.

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.