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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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EPA asserts protections under Clean Water Act

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Connections among streams, wetlands, rivers and lakes are at the heart of a new rule proposed today to clarify the intent of the federal Clean Water Act and to spell out the authority of federal agencies.

Specifically, the rule proposed jointly by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers calls for protecting most natural water features under the Clean Water Act. The rule embodies the notion that small tributaries and wetlands are likely connected to larger tributaries, rivers, wetlands and natural channels, even though they may not always appear connected.

The proposed rule is designed to reconcile scientific understanding of hydraulic connections with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which hold that federal jurisdiction applies only to permanent water features and their connecting waters. In the 2006 decision “Raponos v. United States” (PDF 535 kb), the court was highly critical of the Army Corps of Engineers for its effort to squeeze a wide variety of waterways under the definition of “waters of the United States”:

“In applying the definition to ‘ephemeral streams,’ ‘wet meadows,’ storm sewers and culverts, ‘directional sheet flow during storm events,’ drain tiles, man-made drainage ditches, and dry arroyos in the middle of the desert, the Corps has stretched the term ‘waters of the United States’ beyond parody. The plain language of the statute simply does not authorize this ‘land is waters’ approach to federal jurisdiction….

“In sum, on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase ‘the waters of the United States’ includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water ‘forming geographic features’ that are described in ordinary parlance as ‘streams, oceans, rivers [and] lakes.’ See ‘Webster’s Second.’ The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall.”

The Supreme Court ruling has caused confusion, especially in situations where hydraulic connections were not obvious and could be questioned by property owners who wished to avoid federal regulators.

A scientific report was requisitioned by the EPA to fill the gap created by the court. Some findings from the report “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence” (PDF 11.3 mb):

“All tributary streams, including perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams, are physically, chemically, and biologically connected to downstream rivers via channels and associated alluvial deposits where water and other materials are concentrated, mixed, transformed, and transported…

“Wetlands and open-waters in landscape settings that have bidirectional hydrologic exchanges with streams or rivers … are physically, chemically, and biologically connected with rivers via the export of channel-forming sediment and woody debris, temporary storage of local groundwater that supports base flow in rivers, and transport of stored organic matter.”

In the Puget Sound region, the connections among waterways are fairly obvious. In more arid states, however, the connections may occur only during rainy periods, if then.

In a press release, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the proposed rule fits the Supreme Court’s narrower reading of the Clean Water Act while maintaining the historical coverage of the federal agencies:

“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities. Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”


Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, added:

“Today’s rulemaking will better protect our aquatic resources, by strengthening the consistency, predictability, and transparency of our jurisdictional determinations. The rule’s clarifications will result in a better public service nationwide.”

Specifically, the proposed rule clarifies that under the Clean Water Act:

  • Most seasonal and rain dependent streams are protected.

  • Wetlands near rivers and streams are protected.

  • Other types of waters with more uncertain connections to downstream water will be evaluated through a case specific analysis of whether the connection is or is not protecting similarly situated waters.
  • Agricultural exclusions are retained, and agencies have identified 53 conservation practices that will be considered exempt from Corps permits.

EPA’s webpage: Waters of the United States

Environmental groups were thrilled that the Obama administration stepped up to protect waterways where state laws are not as strong.

Stated Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice:

“The EPA’s new Clean Water Act rule finally restores protections so that we can begin the hard work of cleaning up our waters for our children to swim in, fish in, and drink from.

“No doubt, polluters will rail and lobby against this rule and any other clean water safeguards that keep them from dumping their toxic waste in our communities and waters, or that hold them accountable for their pollution.”

“We cannot back down on protecting the waters that eventually flow through our faucets. Our children, our health, and our very drinking water are at stake. We urge the Obama administration to resist the polluter lobbies and quickly move forward in protecting our waterways and our families.”

Not everyone was thrilled with the new rule. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval of the Western Governors Association wrote a letter to McCarthy and Darcy complaining that state officials have been left out of the conversation, despite state authority to regulate water use.

In a March 10 letter, Phillip Ward of the Western States Water Council urged agency officials to delay publication of the proposed rule until EPA’s connectivity report undergoes peer review:

“EPA has indicated that its draft connectivity report will serve to inform the final rule on CWA jurisdiction. However, the draft rule’s submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the finalization of the connectivity report raises concerns that the final report will have little or no influence on the final rule….

“Additionally, many western states have submitted individual comments for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to consider in its review of the draft connectivity report. EPA should carefully evaluate the SAB’s consideration of these comments and any subsequent recommendations from the final report.”

Kevin Kelly, president of the National Association of Homebuilders said the promise of clarification has brought a greater regulatory burden:

“EPA was told to make changes to the rule so that everyone understands exactly when a builder needs a federal wetlands permit before turning the first shovel of dirt. Instead, EPA has added just about everything into its jurisdiction by expanding the definition of a ‘tributary’ — even ditches and manmade canals, or any other feature that a regulator determines to have a bed, bank and high-water mark.”

Comments from others in favor of the proposed rule:
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Amusing Monday: Raise the river or move the ocean?

Monday, March 17th, 2014

A feigned controversy involving Robert Redford and Will Ferrell is bringing some light-hearted attention to a serious effort to restore the Colorado River delta.

In a series of videos released last week, Redford reaches out for public help to restore the delta where the Colorado River once flowed into the Gulf of California. The new campaign, called “Raise the River,” is based on buying up old water rights and putting the water into the river.

“So please,” Redford says, “will you join me at ‘raisetheriver.org’ and find out how you can get involved?”

William Ferrell doesn’t buy idea, and he mocks Redford’s approach:

“We got ol’ Sundance ridin’ around, trying to raise the Colorado River and restore its flow,” Farrell says. “I say, ‘Do we really need more river?’ I mean, hell, we got plenty of ocean. Let’s move it… The way to fix this thing is to send money, so myself and some other scientists can begin the process of moving a small portion of the ocean back toward the wet part of the river.”

As you can see from the video on this page, Redford maintains his serious posture throughout the back-and-forth banter, while Farrell seemingly tries to provoke him.

I believe these videos fully qualify as an “Amusing Monday” post, but I can’t avoid touching on the more complete story, which goes beyond fun and games. As Jill Tidman, executive director of the Redford Center, stated in a news release:

“We saw this idea of a fictitious debate between Mr. Redford and Mr. Ferrell as a novel way to generate greater awareness of the very serious issues facing the Colorado River. Bringing a sense of humor to the effort opens the door for a much greater audience and offers everyone a chance to be part of winning this campaign—and this is one we are going to win.”

The media campaign, developed by the ad firm Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners of Sausalito, Calif., will roll out new videos with Redford and Ferrell through April. A related event is planned for television on March 22 — World Water Day — when “The History of Water” premieres on PIVOT TV. That’s channel 197 on Dish and 267 on Direct TV. PIVOT is not listed for the local cable outlets in Kitsap County.

Campaign supporters are excited about an event starting on March 23, when the United States and Mexico will release about 105,000 acre-feet of water into the Colorado River below the Morelos Dam on the U.S. Mexican border. An initial high flow for several days will be followed by a lower flow for nearly eight weeks.

Francisco Zamora Arroyo, director of the Colorado River Delta Legacy Program at Sonoran Institute, stated in a news release:

“The pulse flow is a vital part of our ongoing restoration efforts. We know that relatively small amounts of water can make a big difference in the health of the delta region.”

In a brochure, “Raise the River” (PDF 1.4 mb), organizers report that this flow, which is less than 1 percent of the river’s annual average flow, will begin to restore the wetland forests and marshes of the delta.

The goal is to raise $10 million to restore 2,300 acres by 2017. To restore an acre of delta, it takes about 8 acre-feet of water flowing in the river, according to the brochure, and it costs about $450 to buy an acre-foot from the holders of existing water rights. By conserving water, residents, farmers and other water users can maintain their activities while contributing to the restoration of this unique ecosystem.

Other sources of information:

Raise the River Facebook page

Save the Colorado

I’m just beginning to learn about this exciting project. Others with personal connections to the Colorado River should feel free to share their thoughts below.


New video describes quest to restore Skokomish

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

In an impressive new video, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team tell the story of the Skokomish River, its history and its people, and the ongoing effort to restore the watershed to a more natural condition.

The video describes restoration projects — from the estuary, where tide channels were reformed, to the Olympic Mountains, where old logging roads were decommissioned to reduce sediment loading that clogs the river channel.

“I thought it was really well done,” SWAT Chairman Mike Anderson told me. “Some people have remarked about how well edited it is in terms of having different voices come together to tell the story in a single story line.”

The 14-minute video was produced with a $20,000 grant from the Laird Norton Family Foundation, which helped get the SWAT off the ground a decade ago, when a facilitator was hired to pull the group together.

The foundation’s Watershed Stewardship Program invests in community-based restoration, said Katie Briggs, the foundation’s managing director. In addition to the Hood Canal region, the foundation is supporting projects in the Upper Deschutes and Rogue rivers in Oregon.

As Katie explained in an email:

“LNFF has been interested in the collaborative work in the Skokomish for a number of years, and we have been consistently impressed with the way an admittedly strange group of bedfellows has pulled together, set priorities, and moved a restoration agenda forward in the watershed.

“We think their story is compelling, and by being able to share that story in a concise, visual way, they could not only attract more attention to the work they are doing in the Skokomish, but also potentially influence and share with other communities grappling with similar kinds of challenges.

“By helping SWAT tell their story, we’ve also gained a tool through which we are better able to share what it is we care about with the larger Laird Norton family and others interested in the foundation’s approach to watershed stewardship.”

The video project was overseen by Tiffany Royal of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a subcommittee of SWAT members. North 40 Productions was chosen to pull together the story, shoot new video and compile historical footage.

“It captures a lot of the collaboration and restoration,” Anderson said, “but it doesn’t cover everything. It leaves out most of the General Investigation and the Cushman settlement.”

The General Investigation is how the Army Corps of Engineers refers to the studies I wrote about Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) and in Water Ways. The Cushman settlement involves an environmental mitigation project on the North Fork of the Skokomish funded by the city of Tacoma and related to relicensing of the Cushman Dam power project.

Alex Gouley of the Skokomish Tribe said he hopes that the video will help tell the story of the Skokomish watershed, as with other tribal efforts such as watershed tours, educational workshops and classroom field trips.

Alex said he and other tribal members appreciate all the work done by each member of the SWAT, from Forest Service employees to the county commissioners, from Green Diamond Resource Company (formerly Simpson Timber) to small property owners in the valley.

“By coming together, everyone is able to make more informed decisions about the projects they are working on,” he said.


New platform offers views of ducks and other wildlife

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

A new viewing platform within Newberry Hill Heritage Park provides a clear view of an open-water wetland, where lots of water birds can be seen at this time of year.

Platformfinished

That’s the word from Frank Stricklin, a member of the park’s stewardship group who helped build the platform. Frank told me that he has seen a variety of colorful ducks on the water, including bufflehead, hooded merganser and ring-necked ducks.

In the summer, the platform will provide a good place to watch swallows and bats flying low over the water at dusk.

Visible from the viewing platform, but somewhat shrouded in vegetation, is a large beaver dam that keeps the water backed up. Once, while Frank was working on the platform before dark, he spotted a pair of beavers swimming around.

Frank is president of the nonprofit Friends of Newberry Hill Heritage Park, which provides funding and volunteers to work on the trails and maintain the beautiful 1,100-acre forested park.

In addition to the volunteers, credit for the viewing platform should go to Silverdale Rotary Club and Kitsap County, which provided funding for materials, along with MTV Home Repair and Asbury Fuel, which offered materials and construction expertise, according to Frank.

The viewing platform is located at a popular vista along Wildlife Trail where the vegetation had been trampled by people trying to get a better view, Frank told me. The platform allows people to view the water without causing damage to the shoreline.

The easiest access to the site is from the Holly Gate along Seabeck Highway near Holly Road. Walk along the service road until it comes to a junction, then turn north. It’s about a mile of level walking from the gate to the viewing platform. A map is posted on the website of Friends of Newberry Hill Heritage Park.

Two other platforms are being planned for the wetland, one near the north end and one near the south end. The northernmost platform will be located on a small ridge, with views of Green and Gold mountains. The southernmost platform will be near the 135-foot-long beaver dam.

Frank, who was recently appointed to a full term on the Kitsap County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said volunteers are always needed to help improve this amazing parkland. For information, visit the Friends of NHHP website.


Amusing Monday: Odd use for a parking space

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Some people find it amusing that I have encouraged a little wetland to grow in a parking space next to the one where I usually park my truck.

I’ve got photos of the wetland, shown here. And, thanks to Grist magazine, I have enjoyed learning what other people have done with parking spots, other than parking your car. But first let me tell you about this little one-parking-space wetland.

The one-space wetland in a Bremerton parking lot.
Photo by Christopher Dunagan

The parking lot, which belongs to the Kitsap Sun, has been around for many decades and does not have its own storm drain. Instead, the rain water drains down to a corner of the lot, flows into an alley and dumps into a drain maintained by the city of Bremerton.

When I first came to the Sun, I was assigned that corner parking space where the water drains out between two curbs. To keep my feet from getting wet during heavy rains, I would step out of my car, onto the curb and then into the alley. I also made sure that the water flowed freely out of the parking lot and did not form a pool under my car.
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Amusing Monday: Messing with moose

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Scott Simon of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” seems to have a thing for moose. On Saturday morning’s broadcast, he interviewed a man who was attacked by a moose in the woods of Western Massachusetts.

It was amusing enough to hear how the man, who had undergone two hip replacements, was able to dart among the trees where the moose had trouble maneuvering with a full rack of antlers. If you didn’t hear the interview, you should probably play it now by clicking the start arrow in the box at right.

What struck me as especially funny was that the man had only been attacked one other time in his life. I was thinking it was probably some kind of bird or possibly a more dangerous animal, such as a bear. But no, his only similar encounter was with a flying squirrel. It took little prompting to get the logger to do a pretty good impression of Natasha from the cartoon “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
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Amusing Monday: Herons live in a variety of climates

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Great blue herons, which we commonly see along Washington’s shorelines, belong to a family of birds containing 64 recognized species — though some are known as “egrets” or “bitterns.”

This family, Ardeidae, can be found on all continents except Antarctica, according to an entry in Wikipedia. They survive in the cold Arctic, dry deserts and even high mountains. Generally, they are found in the margins of wetlands, lakes, streams and saltwater estuaries.

The first embedded video on this page features some special moments this year at the nest of a family of great blue herons living in Sapsucker Woods Pond near Ithaca, New York. Two cameras, installed and maintained by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, captured the action.

For more about the installation, watch this video featuring Charles Eldermire, who leads Cornell’s BirdCams Project.

To learn more about great blue herons, visit a web page of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which includes some videos from Washington state.

The great blue heron may be interesting, as it stands motionless waiting for a fish to pass by. But more amusing is the grey heron, which has been known to fish with bait. Check out the second embedded video on this page.

For another video of a heron fishing with bread, check out this YouTube video, complete with narration. “Oh, what a clever bird!”

Other fishing methods include the “canopy technique,” in which the black heron appears as an inanimate rock while searching for prey.

Herons seem to swallow their food whole, even when it comes in big packages. Here’s a video of a black-crowned night heron eating a rather large Pacific mackerel.

Less appealing are videos of herons hunting and eating rats. It’s great to know that somebody is taking care of the abundant rodents, but these videos are not for those uncomfortable at the sight of a struggling rat.

Heron eats rat

Rat gets away


Amusing Monday: Exotic wildlife in your room

Monday, July 16th, 2012

At times, it seems a little voyeuristic to watch wild creatures behaving naturally, unaware that eyes from all over the world may be watching them via the Internet.

One of the most engaging critter cams is set up at a place called Pete’s Pond, located in the Mashatu Game Reserve in eastern Botswana. The pond lies at confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers in a region that combines dry savannah, riverine forests and soggy marshes.

As I write this on Monday morning, several giraffes have come to the waterhole, where it is late Monday afternoon. Last night (Monday morning at the pond), I spotted a lone jackal wandering near the water.

The viewing is enhanced significantly by volunteers from around the world who take turns aiming the cameras and zooming in on interesting activities taking place. I love the sounds of the pond almost as much as the sights, but an ongoing clicking sound on the audio this morning detracted from the natural sounds.

Late afternoon in Botswana (morning here) seems to be an active time, but apparently different animals show up at the pond at all times of the day and night, and I find it interesting to watch and listen even when things seem completely serene.

I’ve mentioned other wildlife cams on this blog (See Water Ways, March 3, 2011). Technical difficulties always seem to be a factor in keeping these remote cameras in operation.

For the WildWatch Cams managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it does not help that the department has been through some massive budget cuts. Staff efforts on these live videos has been reduced, and some are not in operation. But a few seem to be working fine. Try Batcam, Heroncam, Sealcam and Swiftcam.

If you are aware of other good critter cams working at the moment, feel free to pass them along.


Amusing Monday: Time (again) for biting humor

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

“Sunday Morning,” the television news magazine, carried a piece yesterday about the dangers of mosquitoes, which reminded me of an “Amusing Monday” I wrote a year ago. Coming off a week of vacation, I thought this would be a good time for a rerun with a few updates.

Last year, people were complaining that mosquitoes in Western Washington were larger, angrier and more abundant than ever before. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a repeat performance this year.

Although I have not seen any expert analysis about this, some people believe that the mild winter and wet spring worked in favor of mosquitoes, creating some of the largest swarms of nasty bugs they have ever encountered.

Of course, mosquitoes are serious business, given that they can transmit the dangerous West Nile virus. But even the staid Washington Department of Health knows that humor can go a long way in getting a message across. Check out the videos released at this time last year:

Fight the bite!: Staying safe from West Nile virus

Cover yourself: Stay safe from West Nile virus

Wear repellent to keep mosquitoes away

I’ve collected a variety of funny video clips related to mosquitoes. When you can’t avoid the nasty little insects, try to remember your favorite one.

First, a limerick by Madeleine Begun Kane:

BUGGED
Mosquitos are on the attack.
They have bitten my arms and my back.
You may call ‘em God’s creatures —
These venomous leechers —
I’m tired of being their snack.

Monty Python: Mosquito Hunters

The Clap: a commercial for Good Knight mosquito repellent

Kung Fu Mosquito

X-Box commercial: Work less; don’t lose the gift of play.

Mosquitoes arguing
The Lighter Side Company (click on image)


Puget Sound Science Panel completes two-year plan

Friday, May 4th, 2012

I wonder if anyone has noticed that I’ve been away from this Water Ways blog for a time. Aside from visiting my youngest daughter in Yakima, where she had her first baby, I’ve been occupied with breaking news for the Kitsap Sun.

There is no shortage of things to talk about, however, and I’d like to start with the recently approved two-year Science Work Plan for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Joe Gaydos

In developing a plan to investigate science-related questions, the Partnership’s Science Panel set out to identify weaknesses in our overall understanding of the Puget Sound ecosystem. The panel chose to be strategic about filling the gaps in our knowledge.

“We want to know everything, of course,” chairman Joe Gaydos told me. “But just because there’s a gap in our knowledge does not mean we should go out and do a study.

“The real question is, where does the lack of science hinder our ability to make decisions? We’re not just doing science for science’s sake but to help us make better decisions.”

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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