Tidal waters in Silverdale flow smoothly in and out of Clear
Creek estuary, passing under a new 240-foot-long bridge — a massive
structure that has replaced a pair of six-foot culverts.
I visited the site this afternoon, walking over to the bridge
from Old Mill Park, and I found the changes startling. Flows of
freshwater from Clear Creek joins saltwater that trickles through
tidal channels from Dyes Inlet. Tidal shifts are reshaping the
estuary, flushing out trapped sediment and leaving deposits of
gravel of varying size. When the fall rains come, salmon will be
able to linger in the estuary upstream or downstream of the bridge
before moving up into the watershed.
Traffic across the estuary was shut off for construction a
little more than a year ago. Now county officials are planning to
celebrate the opening of the new bridge on Friday of next week
(July 22). The ceremony, led by Kitsap County Commissioner Ed
Wolfe, will begin at 10 a.m. on the east end of the bridge. A
Marine Corps honor guard will present the colors, and the Central
Kitsap High School marching band will perform.
“We encourage the community to join us in celebrating this
special occasion,” Ed stated in a news release.
“The new bridge not only addresses traffic needs, but provides
additional non-motorized enhancements as well as restoring Clear
Creek estuary with the removal of culverts.”
Parking will be available at the former Albertson’s/Haggen
grocery store parking lot near the intersection of Bucklin Hill and
The $19.4 million construction project is said to be the largest
project of its kind ever undertaken by the county. The bridge
allows the roadway to be widened from two to four lanes with a new
left-turn lane at Levin Road and a center two-way turn lane
elsewhere in the area. The project adds new bike lanes, sidewalks
and pedestrian overlooks.
After the bridge opens, the contractor, Granite Construction,
will continue to finish various aspects of the project. Occasional
traffic delays can be expected, according to county officials.
Chris Butler-Minor, a master’s degree candidate at Portland
State University, is studying the ecological changes resulting from
the project with the help of volunteers. They are collecting water
samples and monitoring sediments, vegetation and invertebrates.
“It’s a yearlong inconvenience but the outcome will be improved
transportation, improved bike and pedestrian access, and the salmon
are going to love it,” Chris was quoted as saying in a
story by Kitsap Sun reporter Ed Friedrich.
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.
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.
“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
“Reduce sediment contaminant removal associated with the
“Retain compacted gravel substrate that does not support
aquatic plants or benthic organisms at the existing boat launch,
“Impede restoration of filled estuarine habitat and functional
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“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.
“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
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.
“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
“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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
Could there be another trigger that increases the virulence of
“Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at
that now,” Menge said. “Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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
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
“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.”
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?
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
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
The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two
parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore
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
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
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.
Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore
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.
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Meanwhile, this initial installment of the Shoreline Armoring
Series includes a nice piece by science writer Eric Scigliano
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria,
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 workcan 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
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.
I’ve always enjoyed listening to sounds, whether it be easily
identified natural sounds or mysterious sounds that are hard to
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
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
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