Category Archives: Shorelines

Engineers find new location for boat facility in Harper Estuary

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

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

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

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

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

“Retaining the boat landing in its current location will:

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

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

Harper Estuary Contributed photo
Harper Estuary // Contributed photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big sea stars, but no babies, observed
in Lofall this week

“Still no babies,” commented Peg Tillery, as we arrived at the Lofall dock in North Kitsap in search of sea stars clinging to pilings under the dock.

Barb Erickson examines sea stars at the base of a pier in Lofall. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Barb Erickson examines sea stars at the base of a pier in Lofall on Hood Canal.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

“They say there’s a comeback of the little ones,” noted Barb Erickson, “but I’m not seeing any of them.”

Peg and Barb are two of three retired volunteers who first brought me to this site two years ago to explain their ongoing investigation into the mysterious “sea star wasting disease.” Since our first trip, researchers have identified the virus that attacks sea stars, causes their arms to fall off and turns their bodies to a gooey mush.

I first witnessed the devastation in June of 2014, when starfish were dying by the millions up and down the West Coast (Water Ways, June 17, 2014). Lofall, a community on Hood Canal, was just one location where the stars seemed to be barely clinging to life. Now, just a fraction of the population still survives in many locations.

Bruce Menge of Oregon State University recently reported an upsurge in the number of baby starfish on the Oregon Coast, something not seen since the beginning of the epidemic.

“When we looked at the settlement of the larval sea stars on rocks in 2014 during the epidemic, it was the same or maybe even a bit lower than previous years,” said Menge in a news release from OSU. “But a few months later, the number of juveniles was off the charts — higher than we’d ever seen — as much as 300 times normal.”

As Peg and Barb pointed out, the recovery at Lofall has been hit or miss during more than two years of monitoring the site. I became hopeful on my return trip to the dock in January of 2015, when I noticed a mix of healthy adult and juvenile sea stars (Water Ways, Jan. 20,2015).

This week, the young ones were nowhere in sight. Clusters of healthy adult ochre stars were piled on top of each other at the bottom of the piers, waiting for the tide to come back in. I was not sure what to make of it.

Sea stars clusters on two adjacent piers at Lofall dock. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Sea stars clusters on two adjacent piers at Lofall dock.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

“it could be worse,” Barb said. “I think it is neutral news.” Peg agreed, saying, “It could be totally worse.”

Summer has been the period of reckoning in past years, and we should soon know if we are in for another round of disease, which could kill off more of the surviving sea stars, or if the disease is finally on the wane.

Linda Martin, who normally compiles the data, was not along on this week’s trip to Lofall, but other volunteers filled in for her.

“It is an interesting ride,” Barb told me, referring to her experience as a so-called citizen scientist. “It connects you to the larger picture, and you realize that everything is connected.”

It is nice for people in the community to know that this volunteer work is taking place, Barb said, and that someone is watching for changes in the environment.

“People will come up and ask me if there is anything new, people who couldn’t have cared less before,” she said.

For those interested in this kind of volunteer work, a good place to start is Kitsap Beach Naturalists. One can contact Renee Johnson, program coordinator, at rkjohnson@co.kitsap.wa.us.

Meanwhile, the cause of sea star wasting disease remains somewhat of a mystery even after its connection to the densovirus, which is associated with dead sea stars but also has been found in some that are free of disease.

A laboratory study led by Morgan Eisenlord of Cornell University found that the disease progressed faster when adult sea stars were exposed to higher temperatures and that adult mortality was 18 percent higher when water temperatures reached 66 degrees F. Temperature was documented as a likely factor in the spread of disease through the San Juan Islands.

But temperatures are not the sole controlling factor, because the spread of the disease has been out of sync with temperature change in numerous locations.

“The sea temperatures were warmer when the outbreak first began,” Menge said, “but Oregon wasn’t affected as early as other parts of the West Coast, and the outbreak reached its peak here when the sea temperature plummeted and was actually cooler than normal.”

Could there be another trigger that increases the virulence of the densovirus?

“Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at that now,” Menge said. “Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be multi-faceted.”

Hope for Burley Creek rises with help from Army Corps of Engineers

Andy Nelson, who took over as Kitsap County’s public works director two years ago, quickly proved his worth to the local environment when he proposed federal funding for three major ecosystem-restoration efforts.

One project begins with a proposed $350,000 study of South Kitsap’s Burley Creek watershed — an important stream that probably has never received the attention it deserves. The other projects are in Silverdale and Hansville.

Burley Creek Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Burley Creek // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

I stumbled on Kitsap County’s proposal for Burley Creek buried within a U.S. Senate bill to authorize water-related projects across the country — the same bill that would authorize the $20-million Skokomish River ecosystem restoration in Mason County. (See Water Ways, April 28.)

How did a relatively small Kitsap project find its way into a massive public works bill? You could say it was because Andy was aware of a congressional effort to seek out local partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers. That effort, which began in 2014, came about in part as response to the elimination of old-fashioned earmarks, by which members of Congress could promote their favorite local projects.

Andy came to Kitsap County after retiring from the Army Corps of Engineers, where he held the rank of colonel and was deputy commander for the South Pacific Division. That’s the Corps’ regional office for California and the other Southwest states. (See Kitsap County news release.)

“Kitsap County is a great place, and we chose to come here because of Puget Sound and the nearby mountains,” Andy told me. “With the amount of saltwater shorelines, I anticipated there would be ongoing Army Corps work taking place in Kitsap County.”

In fact, there were no projects in Kitsap County proposed in partnership with the Army Corps. The Corps had previously done studies on Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and on Carpenter Creek in North Kitsap, but funding was never available for the actual restoration work.

Andy put his head together with staffers in Kitsap County Public Works (his department) and the Department of Community Development. They came up with three projects to be submitted to the Corps for consideration. In the end — and to Andy’s great surprise — these three Kitsap projects were the only ones submitted from Washington state during the first year of the solicitation.

The Burley Creek project is one that Tim Beachy, an engineer for Kitsap County Public Works, had been considering in a more limited way.

“We were looking at the replacement of a barrier culvert on Bethel-Burley Road,” Tim told me. “It looked like a bridge upstream on Fenton Road could be impacted by the culvert replacement, and there was a private bridge upstream of that.”

Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek. Photo: KC Public Works
Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

A barrier culvert is one identified as blocking or impeding the passage of salmon. Replacing a culvert can alter the grade of the stream channel, affecting bridges and culverts upstream and/or downstream and potentially leading to unanticipated consequences for salmon migration.

It turns out that Burley Creek contains spawning beds used by Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It also contains important spawning and rearing habitat for other salmon species.

At Andy’s direction, a study was proposed to look at salmon passage at four bridges in close proximity on Burley Creek, to consider the effects of flooding and storm damage on the roads and bridges, and to propose further actions that might reduce pollution affecting shellfish downstream in Burley Lagoon.

County officials met with the Corps to discuss the idea. The Corps accepted it as a worthwhile project and proposed it for funding. Congress will have the final word on the study, which would be done by the Corps. If the project moves to construction, local and state funding — probably a 35 percent match — would be needed.

The Burley Creek study requires congressional authorization because it is somewhat unique and does not fit under the “continuing authority” that allows the Corps to investigate issues such as shoreline restoration, shoreline stabilization, ecosystem restoration or navigation, Andy told me. The Corps does not have authority to address water-quality projects per se.

The other two projects are still being evaluated, but they will not need congressional approval since they fall under existing authority of the Corps.

One would be a close look at Silverdale’s waterfront at the head of Dyes Inlet, including Clear Creek and the pocket estuary near Hop Jack’s and Silverdale Beach Hotel. The study would look at ways to restore ecological processes and biological diversity, including shorelines used by forage fish, salmon, resident and migratory waterfowl, and diverse species found in both freshwater and tidal marshes. The project would address stormwater alternatives and consider ways to improve passive recreation.

The last project — which was actually the first in a letter to the Corps — would involve the restoration of freshwater and saltwater marsh habitats in and around Point No Point County Park. The study would look at the longterm effects of sea-level rise, including flood control and potential damage to houses, roads, park facilities and the historic Point No Point Lighthouse. The project could create a more natural setting and enhance intertidal connectivity.

“Nothing prevents two or even all three of these projects from competing for funds and getting funded,” Andy said. “We may determine that the work is not for the Army Corps of Engineers, but we could still use the science and engineering that comes out of these studies. To get a Kitsap County creek in the (Water Resources Development Act) is a big deal.”

Elwha River:
a continuing march
on the way to renewal

It has always been a question to ponder: Will the most significant changes to the Elwha River ecosystem occur upstream of where two dams have been removed or downstream where the river enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca?

Photo: Olympic National Park
Photo: Olympic National Park

Soon after each dam was torn down in succession — the lower one first — salmon began migrating upstream, while more than 30 million cubic yards of sediment began moving downstream.

It could take a number of years to rebuild the extensive runs of salmon, including the prized chinook for which the Elwha was famous among salmon fishermen across the country. Will we ever see the legendary 100-pound chinook return to the Elwha, assuming they ever existed? That was a question I explored in a story for the Kitsap Sun in September 2010.

On the other hand, massive amounts of sediment have already spilled out of the Elwha River, building an extensive delta of sand and gravel, including about 80 acres of new habitat and two miles of sandy beach.

Reporter Tristan Baurick focused on the dramatic shoreline changes already taking place at the mouth of the Elwha in a well-written story published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The Coastal Watershed Institute, which is monitoring the shoreline near the mouth of the Elwha has documented increases in critical forage fish populations, including surf smelt, sand lance, eulachon (candlefish) and longfin smelt. See CWI Blog. These fish feed a host of larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

Tristan describes the changes offshore, where an area starved of sediment is turning into prime habitat for starry flounder, Dungeness crab and many other animals. Rocky outcroppings that once provided attachment for bull kelp is giving way to fine sand, which allows for colonization by eelgrass and a host of connected species. I described some of the early changes in the flora in a Kitsap Sun story in March of 2013.

For people to view the restoration first-hand, I described a day trip to the Elwha in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2013. Along the way, you can check out the history, enjoy the vantage points and learn about the changes taking place. Tristan offers a suggestion worth heeding to ensure ongoing beach access.

“Access to the beach is granted by the dike’s owners. They could take that away if the area’s overwhelmed with trash, noise and other nuisances, so keep that in mind when you visit.”

If you’d like to see a video record of dam removal and ecosystem recovery, you may wish to view the film “Return of the River” to be shown at Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre on Friday, March 13. The film will be followed by a panel discussion involving the film’s producers, John Gussman and Jessica Plumb. For details, check the Kitsap Sun website.

Puget Sound restoration depends on shorelines

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore ecosystems.

As we researched the series, I was able to interact with a lot of interesting people — from coastal geologists to property owners. Today’s experts in shoreline ecology credit the late Wolf Bauer with many of the ideas that have become commonplace in shoreline restoration. I was pleased when Washington Sea Grant produced a video tribute to Wolf, who died in January at 103 years old.

One story I wrote, which was published today, involved a boat ride along the eastern shoreline of North Kitsap, which was the perfect setting for describing the geology and natural forces that shape the shoreline. I must thank Hugh Shipman of the Washington Department of Ecology and Paul Dorn of the Suquamish Tribe for their expertise. Check out “Sources of Sand.”

On an earlier boat ride, I joined up with a group of shoreline property owners who were learning about nearshore ecology and the benefits of bulkhead removal. The boat trip, sponsored by the Shore Friendly Kitsap program, is part of a pilot project to introduce the idea of removing bulkheads.

The tour departed from Brownsville and went up through Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, where we observed a mixed assortment of houses and associated shoreline structures. Some of these waterfront homes were protected with massive rock bulkheads; some featured stubby wooden walls; and some were surrounded by vegetation with no bulkhead at all.

“Taking this boat ride lets you see what the natural shoreline should look like,” said Lee Derror, a Tracyton resident who has been contemplating whether to remove her bulkhead, built of creosote timbers.

Cost of removal is a major obstacle for many property owners — unless their bulkhead is already failing. The other major concern is whether alternative “soft shore” protection will be enough to protect their shoreline from excessive erosion.

Leaving Liberty Bay, the boat headed to Port Madison on Bainbridge Island to examine the Powel family property, where a bulkhead was removed in 2013. The 1,500-foot bulkhead removal is believed to be the largest private removal so far in Puget Sound. (See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore Friendly webpage.)

Jim Brennan, a consulting marine biologist, told the passengers that accommodations were made to protect a historic boathouse on the Powel property by placing large rocks around the foundation. Also, the beach was sloped back to absorb incoming waves. Other than that, the shoreline is expected to eventually look much the way it did in the 1800s, with a reconnected salt marsh providing food and protection for migrating salmon.

Lee Derror told me that property owners should take a look at their shoreline from the water side, especially if they plan to remove their bulkhead. The Kitsap tour was especially helpful, she said, “because you get to rub elbows with the experts.”

Kitsap’s Shore Friendly pilot project — one of five projects in the Puget Sound region — will help property owners determine if bulkhead removal is right for them. It includes with a visit from a volunteer, followed up by an assessment from an independent geotechnical engineer. The last time I checked, county officials were hoping to offer additional boat rides in the future.

Pilot projects operating in other counties have taken somewhat different approaches, as I described last week in the story “Shoreline Restoration Turns to Private Property Owners.” The second video is from efforts on San Juan Island.

The state’s Shore Friendly website includes web links for people to connect with outreach efforts in their own counties. Go to “Resources in Your Area.”

Below are the seven shoreline stories written by science writer Eric Scigliano and myself for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” These are published by the Puget Sound Institute, which is associated with the University of Washington. Funding came from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shoreline owners are on the front lines of ecosystem protection

Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I mean that in a good way.

When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege in both the cost of property and taxes.

Driftwood helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Driftwood piles up and helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.

The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, are:

Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say, “It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”

One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for water bodies and adjacent lands.

The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,” the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of the state’s shoreline.”

As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private relationship.

“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property) rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline areas.”

State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for all time, regardless of ownership.

Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.

A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.

So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90 percent of the 101 cities.

Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use enforcement.

For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline regulations make much sense.

But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science, and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling us.

Shoreline bulkheads impose changes on
the natural ecosystem

It goes without saying that wood, rock or concrete bulkheads built along the shoreline are not natural. They certainly don’t look like any structure formed by nature. And when the water is pushing up against them, waves bounce around and splash back instead of rolling up on shore.

Bulkhead

I have never had any trouble understanding some of the problems caused by bulkheads. I imagine little juvenile salmon swimming along the shoreline, working their way toward the ocean. In shallow water, these little fish can stay away from the bigger fish that want to eat them. But bulkheads create a stretch of deeper water, where predatory fish can swim in close and devour the little ones.

I’ve been told that bulkheads cause other problems as well, such as blocking shoreline erosion. But isn’t that what they are designed to do? What’s the problem? As I’ve learned — especially over the past few months — natural erosion provides the sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches. Natural beaches also collect driftwood, which provides additional habitat for a variety of creatures.

As many readers know, I now work half-time for the Puget Sound Institute, a University of Washington affiliate that publishes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We’ve been working on a series of articles about bulkheads — formally known as shoreline armoring — and I’m more convinced than ever that bulkheads really do cause problems.

Surf smelt Photo: Wikimedia commons
Surf smelt // Photo: Wikimedia commons

The first story in the series, released this week, describes the effects of bulkheads on spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance, two kinds of small fish that are an important food source for salmon, birds and marine mammals. Check out my story, “Spawning habitat for forage fish being lost to rising tides.”

As sea levels continue to rise, the high-tide and low-tide lines move to higher elevations on the beach — until the high-tide line reaches the bulkhead. For many bulkheads, the high-tide line is already there. At that point, the rising sea level continues to push the low-tide line to higher and higher elevations, reducing the spawning habitat for fish that lay their eggs in the intertidal area.

This shrinking habitat is known as “coastal squeeze” or “beach squeeze.” Recent studies suggest that where bulkheads are located, Puget Sound could lose 80 percent of this spawning habitat by the turn of the century, based on average predictions of sea-level rise.

On beaches without bulkheads, the high-tide line would move steadily inland, helping to maintain the critical habitat for forage fish, according to Timothy Quinn, chief scientist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Everywhere in Puget Sound, there will be beach squeeze when you don’t allow things to equilibrate on the land side,” he told me. “What used to be exposed beach (during the tidal cycle) will no longer be exposed.”

It turns out that many bulkheads constructed through the years were never needed to prevent erosion, because they were built to protect homes in areas where erosion is minimal. Future stories in our series will cover this issue, including the prospect of removing existing bulkheads to improve shoreline habitats. Unfortunately, sea level rise adds a new twist to the discussion. Still, the best advice when building a new house is to keep the structure back from the water’s edge.

In addition to the general story about beach squeeze, I wrote a sidebar about a study that looked at the effects of this phenomenon on 15 different beaches in the San Juan Islands. See “Forage fish are losing places to lay their eggs.”

Meanwhile, this initial installment of the Shoreline Armoring Series includes a nice piece by science writer Eric Scigliano called “Shoreline armoring’s effect on the food web.” In this story, Eric looks at a broad spectrum of effects caused by bulkheads. He reports on an involved study that focused on a series of paired beaches — one with a bulkhead and one without — located in various parts of Puget Sound.

Most of the studies that we will report on during this series were funded by the Environmental Protection Agency through grants coordinated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The plan is to release about two additional stories each week over the next two weeks.

Surf smelt spawning zone below low tide mark Illustration: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Surf smelt spawning zone below high tide mark
Illustration: Dan Penttila, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Specialized bacteria can remove rogue drugs during sewage treatment

UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
—–

Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound, where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish and other organisms.

Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.

Now, researchers are working on a process that would use specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound region.

Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top treatment plant in the lab. UW photo
Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top sewage-treatment plant in the lab.
UW photo

Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for predators.

In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine, cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.

A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment plants around the country, finding significant levels of many compounds.

A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the compounds.

According to a NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.

These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work together to create different effects, depending on their concentrations and the affected organism.

Many people would argue that we have enough information to dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or drain. See the Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover everyone.

Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.

More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.

The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.

Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall. Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific journal.

Previous reports:

  • Genes involved in Bisphenol A degradation, Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria, Pub Med.
  • Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.

Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope in the short term, because it is how most sewage-treatment plants work can be implemented quickly without major modifications and appears to be economical on a large scale, Nocolette told me.

In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria. Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.

The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage digesters reactors, preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might require several tanks for growing different bactieria.

If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment process as needed.

The research into this treatment process has progressed to where the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested for the level of treatment.

Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe concentration for the various chemicals that come from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.

Amusing Monday: Enjoying the many sounds of water

I’ve always enjoyed listening to sounds, whether it be easily identified natural sounds or mysterious sounds that are hard to figure out.

Soundsnap

When I was kid, I was given a tape recorder, which I used to collect all sorts of natural and unnatural sounds. I would play back the sounds and ask people if they could identify the source. Even as an aging adult, I enjoy listening to the sound of a flowing stream, breaking waves or falling rain. I also like to listen to bird calls, and I keep telling myself that I need to learn how to identify more of them — but that’s another story.

For this blog, I would like to return again to this idea of natural sound and share some websites where you can listen to your heart’s content and sometimes shape the sound itself. Since this is a blog about water, I’ve tended to focus on rain, streams, oceans and such things, but these links can be just a starting point.

Soundsnap is a website that boasts of having 200,000 sounds in its catalog, including 6,000 sounds of nature. Included are 249 sounds of rain, 117 sounds of the sea, 1,065 sounds of water and 298 sounds of ice. These sounds can be downloaded for a fee, but it costs nothing to explore Sound Snap’s website.

At the other end of the spectrum is a single 11-hour YouTube video featuring the sound and images of ocean waves. I have not listened to more than a few minutes of this video at a time, so I don’t know what happens if you turn on this video to go to sleep and then leave it on all night. But the sound coming from the video is certainly more pleasant than the nightly sounds that some people learn to tolerate. The video, embedded on this page, was posted by YogaYak, which has several videos of a similar vein.

If you would like to download a sound to save it or use it in a video project, Sound Bible is a royalty-free site with a large collection of sounds. I downloaded the files below from collections called “Sea Sounds” and “Water Sounds.”

      1. Babbling brook.
      2. Rain.

I also found a sound generator that one can play with or simply leave on as background noise. Called “My Noise,” the website features an ocean waves noise generator.

If you would like to share your favorite sound website, please add it to the comments section below.

Making amends for mistakes that damaged our natural world

Preservation is cheaper than restoration. If you need proof, one place to look is the Beard’s Cove estuary-restoration project on Hood Canal, about a mile outside of Belfair.

The project, nearing completion, is re-establishing 7.3 acres of saltwater wetlands by excavating and removing about 4,000 dumptruck loads of old fill dirt from an area originally built as a private park for the Beard’s Cove community.

Belfair and Lynch Cove as depicted on this map created in 1884 by the U.S. Office of Coast Survey. Colors were added, and the label “1973 fill area” shows the site of the current restoration. Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.
Belfair and Lynch Cove as depicted on a map created in 1884 by the U.S. Office of Coast Survey. Colors were added, and the label “1973 fill area” shows the site of the current restoration.
Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file

It is a rare restoration project, because essentially the same dirt used to fill the wetlands in 1973 is being taken out and put back where it came from — across North Shore Road from the development. The cost is estimated at $1.1 million, as reported by Arla Shephard in a story in the Kitsap Sun.

Filling in the salt marsh was part of the development plan for the Beard’s Cove plat, approved by the Mason County commissioners a few years before construction began. The voter-approved Shoreline Management Act and other environmental regulations were just coming on the scene.

Hood Canal Environmental Council, a fledgling group at the time, testified against the Beard’s Cove project. Phil Best, a young lawyer who would later become Kitsap County commissioner, was a founder of that organization.

“We were concerned that this project would set a precedent,” Phil told me. “If you start filling in all these marsh areas, you would be destroying a lot of salmon habitat throughout Hood Canal.”

Although scientists today know much more about the value of estuaries, Phil said there was plenty of evidence at the time about the damage that would be caused by this kind of project. Much of the scientific information was provided by researchers at the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. That facility, near Seabeck in Kitsap County, is still used for salmon research.

In the end, the Beard’s Cove developer prevailed with the county commissioners and the courts, and the fill was dumped into the estuary to create a park. Today, of course, a project like this would not even get off the drawing board.

Aerial photo from 1973 during construction of the Beard’s Cove development, a portion of which was built on fill going out into Hood Canal. Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.
Aerial photo from 1973 during construction of the Beard’s Cove development, a portion of which was built on fill going out into Hood Canal.
Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.

“We’re finally getting to where things should be,” Phil said, “but it is unfortunate that we have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars, when the permit for this should have been denied in the first place. There is a lesson to be learned here: It is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to environmental issues.”

For every restoration project we know about, someone could have avoided the cost by not doing the damage in the first place. We must recognize that we are paying for many mistakes made by our forefathers.

At the same time, we must face the fact that — despite all we have learned — we are still doing damage to the ecosystem. Some damage is inevitable, as more development is needed to accommodate a growing population. But we should be as careful as we can, so our descendants don’t have to undo what we have done.

The alternative, of course, is far more dreadful. If we cannot turn the tide on our ecological destruction and find a way to live within the natural world, Puget Sound is doomed to ecological collapse. Future generations might live on a large, sterile pond and wonder what it once was like. They might as well live on the moon.

The 540 or more families who live in the Beard’s Cove Community today had nothing to do with the mistakes that were made. Who could blame them for using the park and swimming pool developed for their use? People who grew up in Beard’s Cove cherish the memories of that park. I would suggest that it is of little value to blame anyone for past mistakes, since society as a whole sanctioned all sorts of activities that we would not allow today.

The Beard’s Cove community should be congratulated for breaking with the past and allowing the restoration to take place. It may be true that the decision was easier after the park fell into disrepair. Someone apparently destroyed the old swimming pool by draining it during an extreme high tide, causing it to “float” up out of the ground — or so the story goes, says Louena “Louie” Yelverton, president of the Beard’s Cove Community Organization.

Louie says the community supports the restoration of the marsh and looks forward to seeing a more natural shoreline.

“it is nice to be part of a restoration project, realizing that this is a small part of a 700-acre project that is going to help salmon,” she said. “As a society, we are starting to learn that we need to give forethought to the future. It might not affect us, but it will be there for our grandkids and future generations. I am glad to be part of this.”

Louie credits Kate Kuhlman of Great Peninsula Conservancy for helping to generate goodwill in the community. Her concerns for the people as well as the steadfast promotion of the science helped get the project to construction. GPC coordinated the grants to get the work done with some land left for community use.

“She has been a trooper through everything,” Louie said. “Now we are going to have a park, and the shoreline is going to be good for salmon. I am super-excited that we are toward the end of this and will get to see what all the hard work has accomplished.”

Wetlands along the North Shore of Hood Canal have been undergoing protection and restoration for 30 years. This is where I chose to write the opening chapter of the book “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk.”

The Beard’s Cove project, including a permanent conservation easement, fills in the final gap in a full 1.7 miles of unbroken estuarine habitat to be preserved in perpetuity, thanks to GPC and its North Mason predecessor, Hood Canal Land Trust, along with Pacific Northwest Salmon Center, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the North Mason School District.

The project includes the construction of 2,530 feet of newly formed tide channels, 1,200 feet of graveled beach and large woody debris habitat structures.

Marsh areas like this are among the most productive places on the planet, supporting a rich food web that includes salmon species such as Puget Sound chinook, Puget Sound steelhead and Hood Canal summer chum, all listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List.