Waterfront property owners face options in response to sea-level rise

Rising sea levels and isolated floods will be an increasing challenge for waterfront property owners, according to experts I interviewed for a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The Vechey home and bulkhead before the big move. // Photo: John Vechey

Changing conditions call for property owners to consider their options with regard to their shoreline — not just for today but for the long run. What I learned while researching this story is that every waterfront site will respond differently as the highest tides go higher and higher.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought the obvious answer would be for people to build taller and stronger bulkheads — despite well-known environmental damage. And that may be the only answer for some. But for others, that approach could be a waste of money, as bigger walls degrade the owners’ enjoyment of the beach as well disrupting natural systems. Alternatives include moving or raising a house or even replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” protections.

After the home was moved back from shore and the bulkhead removed. // Photo: John Vechey

Sea levels in Puget Sound are rising slowly at this time, with the actual rate dependent on location. We live in a tectonically active area, with major movements along continental plates. As a result, the ground is sinking in most areas around Puget Sound, adding to the relative rise in sea level.

In Seattle, the sea level has risen about 9 inches since 1900 and is expected to rise an additional 4 to 56 inches (4.75 feet) by 2100. The uncertainty reflected in that range relates to whether greenhouse gases continue to increase, thus accelerating the rate of melting of land-based ice in the polar regions.

Some changes can be expected regardless of the human response over the next 80 years. For example, one analysis looking at Whidbey Island suggests that there is a 99 percent chance that by 2040 — just 13 23 years from now — sea level will be at least 2.4 inches higher than today with a 50 percent chance that it will be 7.2 inches higher. After 2040, the tides will keep rising even faster. Take a look at the related story “Average high tides are creeping higher in Puget Sound.”

John Vechey of Orcas Island, who I featured in my story, took sea level into account when deciding whether to remove his bulkhead while seeking to improve the beach for family activities and for the environment. His solution was to move his house and give the beach more room to function naturally.

Moving a house will not be the answer for everyone, but I can safely say that everyone should consider their long-term picture before making any investments that will last a lifetime — and that includes changes to the shoreline.

I believe it is generally possible, certainly with professional help, to calculate elevations for the house and any low spots on the property, add one to four feet above the current high-tide mark, and then consider tidal surge, which is the wave height caused by weather conditions. In some counties, professional help is available if you are considering whether to remove a bulkhead. Check out the “Shore Friendly” website and “Resources in Your Area.”

At this time, future sea levels do not enter into regulatory considerations about where a person can build a house. One problem is the uncertainty surrounding the amount that sea levels will actually rise. But some environmental advocates say it is time to require additional setbacks, not only to protect the environment as tides push back the natural beach but also to protect homeowners from future losses.

For some people, sea-level rise is a distant worry, but for others the threat is just around the corner. I was reading this morning about how high tides are already affecting Naval Station Norfolk. Check out “Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It” by Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.

A new Government Accountability Office report, released yesterday, cites estimates of future property damage totaling between $4 billion and $6 billion per year in the U.S. as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms. The report outlines the need for a coordinated federal response.

Sen. Maria Cantwell discusses the new GAO report and calls for better planning in the video below.

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

They key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.

Rains bring chum salmon back to their home streams

Salmon appear to be on the move in several local streams, thanks to the recent rains and increased streamflows. Wetter conditions no doubt triggered some of the migratory fish to head back to their spawning grounds.

A pair of chum salmon make it up Dickerson Creek, a tributary of Chico Creek. // Video: Jack Stanfill

It is still a little early in the season for coho and chum salmon to be fully involved in spawning activity, and there is plenty of time for people to get out and observe their amazing migration.

Salmon-watching is often a hit-or-miss situation, although Chico Creek is usually the best bet. After hearing several reports of chum moving upstream, I went out this afternoon to look in several local streams. Unfortunately, I did not get there before the rains stopped. What I saw in Chico Creek and other streams was fish milling about in deep pools, seemingly in no hurry to move upstream. Additional rains and streamflows are likely to get the fish fired up to move in and upstream more quickly.

Jack Stanfill, who lives on Dickerson Creek, a tributary of Chico Creek, said at least two adult chum reached his property today. Several restoration projects along Dickerson Creek probably helped the fish get upstream earlier than we have seen in previous years.

Jon Oleyar, who monitors the salmon migration for the Suquamish Tribe, told me that chum don’t normally get into Dickerson Creek until two weeks after they get into the upper reaches of Chico Creek. “This might be one of the earliest times ever,” Jon said.

As for other streams, the tribal biologist said he has seen early chum in Curley and Blackjack creeks in South Kitsap.

Viewing suggestions for this weekend:

  • Chico Creek: Chico Salmon Park (Facebook) along with a location just above the culvert under Golf Club Hill Road off Chico Way. Also check out the bridge near the 19th Hole Tavern on Erland Point Road and the access at the end of Kittyhawk Drive.
  • Dickerson Creek: Salmon Haven overlook on Taylor Road, off Northlake Way.
  • Curley Creek: Bridge on Southworth Drive near the intersection with Banner Road.
  • Blackjack Creek: A new bridge at Etta Turner Park between Port Orchard Ford and Westbay Center on Bay Street.
  • Gorst Creek: Otto Jarstad Park on Belfair Valley Road, where a new beaver dam has created a sizable pool of water, The dam may be limiting the migration of coho and perhaps blocking most of the chum.

Note for salmon-watchers: This year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours will be held in two weeks, on Saturday, Nov. 4. This year, the popular event has been expanded to seven locations. For details, go to the Kitsap WSU Extension website.

It appears that the chum coming into streams on the Kitsap Peninsula this year are noticeably larger in size than normal, perhaps in the 10- to 10.5-pound range, Jon Oleyar told me. That exceeds the normal 8- to 10-pound size for chum, he said.

Orca Network reported today that some of our Southern Resident killer whales have been foraging this week off the Kitsap Peninsula as well as in other areas not easily identified because of the dark, stormy weather we have had. Let’s hope the orcas can find enough food to stick around awhile.

On Sunday, a small group of whales from L pod showed up in the San Juan Islands for the first time this year. Normally, these whales — L-54 and her offspring along with males L-84 and L-88 — would be seen numerous times during the summer, but this was a highly unusually year. They were seen this week with J pod, which hasn’t been around much either.

On Monday, reports of orcas near Kingston and Edmonds suggested that the whales had moved south. They were later spotted near Seattle and then again near Kingston on Tuesday, when they headed out of Puget Sound by evening.

It is often said that the orcas will go where the salmon are. They are known to prefer chinook when their favorite fish are available, but they will switch to chum after the chinook run is over. It will be interesting to how much time the whales spend in Central and South Puget Sound, where chum are more plentiful.

The total number of chum salmon predicted this year — including those harvested along the way — is expected to be lower than last year. Still, there is hope that the preseason forecast will be exceeded by the actual return. The total predicted for Central and South Puget Sound is 433,000 chum, with 85 percent returning to streams and 15 percent coming back to hatcheries.

Last year, the total predicted run was 526,000 chum, about 21 percent higher than this year. Typically, the number of chum returning in odd-numbered years is lower than in even-numbered years, other things being equal. That’s because odd-numbered years is when the vast majority of pink salmon spawn, resulting in increased competition and lower survival for the young chum. Smaller numbers of juveniles mean fewer adult chum that return four years later during another odd-numbered year, continuing the cycle.

Most of the difference between last year’s and this year’s chum run can be accounted for in the odd- versus even-numbered years, said Aaron Default of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It is too early in the season to update the preseason forecast based on commercial and tribal fishing that has taken place so far, Aaron said. As usual, fishing seasons are likely to be adjusted up or down when more information becomes available. The main goal is to make sure that enough fish make it back to sustain and potentially increase the salmon population.

Scientists reveal the ‘plumbing’ found under Old Faithful geyser

A group of scientists have been examining the “heart” of Old Faithful — Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser. These researchers are focused on figuring out exactly what causes this rare geological formation to beat faithfully and forcefully, beginning long before the geyser was discovered in 1870.

Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia Commons

University of Utah researchers have finally produced substantial images of the geological anatomy of the geyser, complete with its natural underground ductwork that causes it to flush regularly.

“Here’s the iconic geyser of Yellowstone,” declared Robert Smith, researcher and professor of geology and geophysics. “It’s known around the world, but the complete geologic plumbing of Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin has not been mapped, nor have we studied how the timing of eruptions is related to precursor ground tremors before eruptions.”

Smith, who has spent 60 years working in America’s first national park, said in a news release that he and his associates may have cracked the mystery by mapping the underground pathways that eventually carry steam and heated water to the surface vent, which spews out every 44 to 125 minutes. The mapping effort relied on a dense network of portable seismographs and new methods of analyzing the data.

Results of the study are published in Geophysical Research Letters. The paper’s lead author is doctoral student Sin-Mei Wu. The news release was written by science writer Paul Gabrielsen of the University of Utah’s communications department.

Yellowstone National Park is underlain by two reservoirs of active magma, one about 3 miles down, the other about 25. They are the power behind the unusual formations and ongoing venting that form chemical lakes and springs as well as the explosive geysers.

The anatomy of Old Faithful geyser, as revealed in new studies
Image: Sin-Mei Wu

Smith along with fellow researchers Jamie Farrell and Fan-Chi Lin have spent years characterizing the magma reservoirs. They track the small rumblings of ground movement, as recorded on seismometers, and then plot out the underground structures.

“We try to use continuous ground shaking produced by humans, cars, wind, water and Yellowstone’s hydrothermal boilings and convert it into our signal,” Lin explained in the news release. “We can extract a useful signal from the ambient background ground vibration.”

About 30 permanent seismometers around the park monitor ground shaking and earthquakes at a cost of about $10,000 each. In 2015, the work expanded. Some 133 small seismometers, which cost about $2,000 each, were deployed for two weeks around Old Faithful and Geyser Hill. These cheaper seismometers were developed by the company FairfieldNodal for oil and gas exploration, but they became a key to understanding Old Faithful’s seismic activity.

Small portable seismometers were the key to tracing underground formations.
Photo: Paul Gabrielsen

The data show patterns of intense tremors lasting about 60 minutes followed by 30 minutes of quiet. The eruption of Old Faithful occurs not during the peak of shaking but just before everything goes quiet.

The cycle begins after an eruption when the geyser’s underground reservoir starts filling up with water. Pressure in the reservoir builds up from heated water and lots of aqueous bubbles, which rumble until an eruption occurs. The eruption cools the water very quickly causing an implosion that registers on the seismometers before everything stops and the cycle starts again.

Typically, seismic imaging uses a man-made source to shake the ground, such as setting off an explosion or banging a hammer on a metal plate in the ground. Lin and Wu developed a method of sifting useful signals from the natural hydrothermal rumblings, thanks to the number and location of small seismometers.

“It’s amazing that you can use the hydrothermal source to image the structure here,” Wu said.

The data showed that tremors from Old Faithful were not reaching the western boardwalk, while seismic waves from another hydrothermal feature also slowed and scattered in the same general area. That pointed to some kind of underground feature that became the focus of intense study using a dense network of the small seismometers. The researchers believe they pinpointed the location of Old Faithful’s long-sought reservoir.

Wu estimates that the reservoir, a network of fractured rock, is about 650 feet across and can hold more than 79 million gallons of water, as compared to Old Faithful’s eruption, which releases about 8,000 gallons at a time.

“Although it’s a rough estimation, we were surprised that it was so large,” Wu said.

The research team is returning to the park this winter for more studies into the subsurface structure and to develop higher resolution images at Old Faithful. Smith hopes to use similar methods to reveal hidden features in other areas, including the Norris Geyser Basin — the hottest geothermal area in the park.

Meanwhile, National Park Service officials would like to know if any of the geothermal features and underlying magma might pose a future risk to people and buildings in the park, especially around the large visitor center at Old Faithful. The underground mapping could help with those questions.

Lin credits Smith’s long-term relationship with the park as opening the door to the research being conducted by the University of Utah. “You need new techniques,” he said, “but also those long-term relationships.”

Old Faithful was named on Sept. 18, 1870, by members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. As later described in Nathanial P. Langford’s account of the expedition:

“It spouted at regular intervals nine times during out stay, the columns of boiling water being thrown from 90 to 125 feet at each discharge, which lasted from 15 to 20 minutes. We gave it the name ‘Old Faithful.’”

In those days, nobody could explain why Old Faithful acted the way it did, but some of the early visitors put the geyser to a practical use. In his 1883 guide for tourists, Henry J. Winser wrote:

“Old Faithful is sometimes degraded by being made a laundry. Garments placed in the crater during quiescence are ejected thoroughly washed when the eruption takes place. Gen. Sheridan’s men, in 1882, found that linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds.”

It would be another 135 years before the plumbing of this natural “laundry” would be explained with the use of advanced technology.

Amusing Monday: Umbrellas for James Bond, Bozo the Clown

They say it’s going to start raining steadily any day now and that we could be headed for rainy La Niña conditions this winter. So I thought it might be fun to pay tribute to the common — and especially the uncommon — umbrella.

The polite umbrella: Pull a string on the handle to squeeze through tight spaces or walk through crowds without poking someone.

I never knew people could be so creative with umbrellas, whose basic design goes back at least 2000 years when these devices were used by Chinese royalty. It remains unclear whether the first of these folding canopies was used to protect against sun or rain, according to a documented entry on Wikipedia.

Because umbrellas date back to antiquity, I guess I can’t search out the original patent, although it is said that the U.S. Patent Office has submissions with more than 3,000 plans to improve on the umbrella’s basic design. See the entry in Mental Floss.

As for etymology, the word “parasol” comes from the combination of “para,” meaning stop, and “sol,” meaning sun. However, if you want to stop the rain, then the French word “parapluie” comes into play. “Pluie” is a French word for rain, coming from the Latin “pluvial.” So, from now on, you can grab your parapluie when you go out into the rain if you would rather not carry an umbrella.

Raindrops pounding on a special conductive material in the umbrella fabric sets off LEDs to light the way. // Source: Yanko Design

Oddly enough, the word “umbrella” seems to come from the Latin “umbra,” which means shading or shadow, making “umbrella” synonymous with “parasol.” The Latin word for umbrella is “umbella.”

Contrary to common belief, the word “bumbershoot” does not come from Great Britain, and the British do not commonly use this word. Rather bumbershoot was American vernacular, first showing up in a dictionary in 1896, according to an article in World Wide Words.

Getting back to amusing umbrellas, you can go far afield in a search for a stylish, elaborate or finely decorated umbrella. You can seek out whimsy or prankishness in the design, such as in the umbrella with a squirt gun in the handle. You can also find items that meld the ancient with modern technology, such as a blue tooth device to answer the smart phone in your pocket or the miniature video projector for watching movies in the top of your umbrella.

A squirt gun in the handle of an umbrella can break up the monotony of the rain, which refills the pistol.

I’m not sure why I have never written about umbrellas, given the dozens of webpages and advertising sites devoted to the subject. I’ve selected five of the best websites for you to check out:

One video producer gathered up pictures of unusual umbrellas, including some not shown in the websites above. Complete with music, the video can be found on YouTube.

The video below is a demonstration of a specialized umbrella by a one-legged man named Josh Sundquist, who has the greatest attitude about life and problem solving. If you want to know why Josh doesn’t just wear rain gear, listen to what he has to say at 2:23 into the video. And check out Josh’s other videos, including a stand-up routine (no pun intended) about amputees on airplanes.

By the way, I have never owned an umbrella in my entire life, preferring to wear a rain jacket with a hood on most occasions, although rain pants sometimes come in handy. After looking at hundreds of cool umbrellas on the Internet, I think I will choose the perfect one for me. Then again, naaaaah!

Toxic flame retardants gain attention of U.S. consumer commission

Ongoing studies into flame retardant chemicals have raised a serious question: Are ANY of the polybrominated or polychlorinated flame retardants safe enough to be used in household products?

It’s a question I’ve been asking for several years while writing about these chemicals, many of which are known to disrupt hormonal functions in humans and animals. Among them are the familiar polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

Now the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is weighing in on the question by proposing new regulations that would ban this entire class of chemicals containing bromine or chlorine — now referred to as nonpolymeric organohalogen flame retardants. If these regulations are eventually adopted, they would prohibit the use of organohalogens in four types of products:

  • Any children’s product, including toys and baby furniture, except for car seats,
  • Any type of seat cushion or upholstered furniture,
  • Any mattress or mattress pad, and
  • Any plastic case containing an electronic device, including computers and televisions.

Banning an entire class of chemicals is a fairly radical step, because each chemical in this large group of compounds has its own toxicity profile. Even the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended against such a broad regulation. If you are up for some dense reading on the subject, check out the 535-page briefing report (PDF 78.7 mb) or just read the summary in National Law Review.

Despite the opposition by CPSC staff, three out of five commissioners were convinced of the dangers imposed by this broad class of chemicals. They voted, 3-2, to move ahead with a total ban. Convincing documents included a petition for rulemaking (PDF 63 mb) from 12 diverse groups, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the International Association of Fire Fighters to Consumers Union. The commission also heard formal testimony from these groups and many others. (Review the videos on this page.)

“It is imperative that CPSC’s regulation cover all organohalogen flame retardants as a class when used in consumer products,” states the petition. “This class of chemicals is foreign to the mammalian body and inherently toxic, due to its physical, chemical and biological properties.

“Industry has historically responded to the dangers posed by one organohalogen flame retardant by replacing it with one or more other organohalogens that are, by virtue of their chemical properties, also harmful,” the petition continues. “This exposes consumers to a series of ‘regrettable substitutions’ from one harmful flame retardant to another… The way to end this cycle of toxicity is to ban all products in the categories at issue here if they contain any organohalogen flame retardant.”

A total ban was ultimately the position taken by the commission, although formal rulemaking will take time and may not come to pass. At least two commissioners asked on several occasions if even one of these flame retardants has been proven safe. They never received an answer that satisfied them.

After the vote, Commissioner Elliott Kaye, an attorney, issued a strongly worded written statement (PDF 262 kb): to explain why he agreed to take such a strong action.

“As a policymaker and, more importantly, as a parent, I am horrified and outraged at how chemicals are addressed in this country,” he said. “It is completely irrational that we wait for children to be poisoned before the government is allowed to step in.

“Rational and thoughtful public policy in this area would involve the government and industry coming together to agree which chemicals are safe for human exposure, especially for pregnant women and children, and which ones are not. And more importantly, rational and thoughtful public policy would have these assessments occur before these chemicals are permitted to come onto the market. Waiting to assess the safety of chemicals after they are already in consumers’ homes and our children’s bloodstreams is totally irrational public policy.”

Commissioner Robert Adler, an attorney, seemed to be troubled that he went against the commission’s staff, and he wanted to explain his position.

“As a starting point, let me say that I have little serious disagreement with staff on the science aspect of the issues,” he said in a written statement (PDF 136 kb). “To the extent that there was disagreement, it was over the legal and policy issues arising from the science.

“I note that a large part of the staff’s recommendation rested on their misgivings about treating OFRs as a broad class of chemicals given OFRs’ differing levels of toxicity and exposure to which consumers are subject. I grant staff’s point about the differing levels of toxicity for these flame retardants. But what I have not heard from staff, nor from any of the witnesses at our hearings, is credible evidence demonstrating that there are any ‘safe’ organohalogen flame retardants.”

He said all the chemicals in the class seem to have common characteristics. For example, they pass into cells freely, do not metabolize easily, inhibit a cell’s defense system, bioaccumulate in the tissues and cause harm that can be linked to the chemical structure.

“There are certainly a number of OFRs where we have no studies to provide us with proof of harm, but years of experience confirm that every time we get sufficient data to evaluate the risk of harm of any specific OFR, we always find it to be so toxic that we start to remove it from our products. In other words, the more evidence that accumulates, the stronger we see the case against the use of these chemicals.”

As part of the coming regulatory process, the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed to convene a chronic hazard advisory panel to assess the risks of flame retardants, drawing on all available information.

Meanwhile, the commission also issued a “guidance document” that calls on manufacturers, distributors and retailers to voluntary ensure that their products do not contain added flame retardants. Consumers, especially those who are pregnant or have young children, are advised to make sure products they purchase are free of such chemicals.

While the commission appears to be moving on a course of tough action, the regulatory process can be long and filled with potential delays. In fact, through normal appointments of commission members, President Trump will be able to change the direction of the commission over the next four years if he so chooses.

Commissioner Anne Marie Buerkle, whose term was extended by seven years in February when Trump named her to chair the commission, does not support the commission’s decision on flame retardants.

“My Democrat colleagues claim that there is ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ of toxicity across the class; indeed, we heard witnesses at our hearing last week maintain that every organohalogen that has been adequately studied has been found to cause adverse effects,” Buerkle said in a statement (PDF 626 kb). “Even if that claim is accepted at face value, do all such adverse effects result from prevailing exposures? We know that substances as benign as oxygen and water — two of the most essential requirements for human existence — can cause death when too much is inhaled or imbibed. Is there something exceptional about organohalogens such that the dose becomes unimportant?”

Buerkle said she supports formation of a chronic hazard advisory panel, but she believes the results should be available to the commission before moving forward with regulations.

As for chemical manufacturers, it appears that they are not going down without a fight over flame retardants. A statement from the American Chemistry Council (PDF 86 kb), which represents the industry, says it will inform manufacturers and other businesses that the commission’s action has no binding effect.

“The value chain should feel confident that they can continue to use these chemistries in certain applications consistent with existing national and international regulations while CPSC conducts its further analysis of these substances,” says the statement.

Environmental and consumer groups say they will push retailers not to sell products with flame retardants, and “Consumer Reports” magazine offers recommendations about how people can avoid toxic flame retardants.

Meanwhile, Washington is among a growing number of states that have banned certain flame retardants. Based on findings from the state Department of Ecology, the Legislature approve a ban on the worst chemicals in 2008, followed by others last year. See Ecology’s webpage on the PBT Initiative.

For further reading, here are some stories from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

Amusing Monday: celebrating the nation’s wild and scenic rivers

The value and enjoyment of rivers throughout the United States will be highlighted over the next year, as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approaches its 50th anniversary on Oct. 2, 2018.

Some 12,700 miles of rushing waters are protected on 208 rivers designated in 40 states plus the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A Wild and Scenic River designation is the strongest protection for rivers in our country, safeguarding clean water, recreation, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage, according to American Rivers, an environmental group focused on river protection. Check out the webpage “Why do we need wild rivers?”

“Free-flowing rivers create natural riparian areas that foster healthy, abundant, and diverse wildlife and are the centerpieces of rich ecological processes,” according to a news release from the National Parks Service. “Recreationally, free-flowing rivers offer unparalleled inspirational experiences from challenging whitewater to placid fishing. Through the arterial connections of rivers to communities, we all live downstream of a Wild and Scenic River.”

The first video on this page, called “Make Your Splash,” celebrates a family enjoying water recreation. It was produced by the Park Service in conjunction with three other federal agencies and several nonprofit organizations.

To call attention to the importance of wild rivers, American Rivers has launched a program called “5,000 Miles of Wild” with the goal of putting an additional 5,000 miles of wild rivers into protected status.

As part of the effort, the organization is working to collect 5,000 stories from people around the country who have a place in their hearts for special rivers, as explained in “About the campaign.” The second video, “5,000 miles of wild,” promotes the campaign.

I think you will enjoy the personal stories about rivers and the photos submitted to the page “My River Story.”

I would like to see more submissions from people in Washington state, because we have some of the most beautiful and productive rivers in the U.S., and I know there are many personal connections to these special places. Among the Washington folks submitting stories is Paul Cain of Bow, who applauds the efforts of state fish and wildlife officers in an encounter along Samish River in North Puget Sound. Also, Peggy File talks about growing up on the Skagit River, one of the rivers designated wild and scenic.

Former President Jimmy Carter offers a testimonial about taking his own life into his hands on the Chattooga River, which flows from North Carolina into Georgia. The powerful river, he said, “kind of opened my eyes to a relationship between a human being and a wild river that I had never contemplated before.”

As president, Carter said he vetoed about 16 different dam projects throughout the country, because he believed they were counterproductive to the well-being of Americans.

American Rivers has compiled a list of rivers that warrant protection on its page “What is the 5,000 Miles of Wild campaign?” In Washington, protections are proposed for 688 miles of rivers in the North Cascades, including the Nooksack River, and 454 miles of rivers in the Olympic Mountains (Wild Olympics Campaign).

Fiftieth anniversary water bottle, Cafe Press

For existing wild and scenic rivers, take a look at the U.S. map or the map of Washington state. Other information is compiled on a government website called “National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.” The website also has a page with information about the 50th anniversary celebration. One can even purchase a variety of clothing and products showing off the 50th anniversary logo from Cafe Press.

An audio project by American Rivers was composed by intern Annemarie Lewis, who worked this past summer in the Colorado River Basin. She talks about culture, history and science of rivers, as related by a variety of people closely connected to this issue. The project is called “We are rivers: Conversations about the rivers that connect us.”

Speaking of American Rivers projects, I got a kick out of a video completed in 2015 called “50 Favorite Things We Love about Rivers.” See Water Ways, Feb. 23, 2015.

Carpenter Creek culvert is gone, as bridge work pushes to meet schedule

UPDATE, Thursday Oct. 26

The bridge construction will continue beyond the end of the year, when it was originally scheduled for completion. The new completion date is listed as March 2018.

“The delay is due to numerous issues and challenges, including encountering old buried wooden pilings and associated contaminated material, a revised sanitary sewer design, and labor and materials shortages, which disrupted the construction schedule,” according to a news release from Kitsap County. “The onset of the winter weather months will also add to the delay as final work on the project, such as paving, depends on fair weather.”
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An old five-foot culvert where Carpenter Creek passes under West Kingston Road is now down to its last bit of concrete plus a wedge dirt, with final removal awaiting completion of a new 150-foot-long bridge.

Only one section of the old culvert remains on Carpenter Creek after other pieces were pulled out two weeks ago. // Photo: Sillwaters Environmental Center

Massive amounts of earthen fill and have been removed since the project started about six months ago. All that remains is the wedge of dirt that still supports pipes and utilities, which will be attached to the bridge during construction. After that, the last fill material will be removed, leaving a wide-open estuary flowing under the bridge.

The construction has created some inconvenience for folks in the Kingston area, but the project promises to enhance salmon migration in Carpenter Creek, restore tidal function in the estuary and enhance the salt marsh for a variety of creatures. The creek and/or the estuary may be used by chum, coho and chinook salmon, along with steelhead and cutthroat trout.

Stillwaters Environmental Center is coordinating monitoring in the estuary to measure improvements in the ecosystem. Before and after elevation measurements will help describe the physical changes, while biological surveys identify changes in water quality, vegetation, fish and insect populations, among other things.

A new bridge takes shape where West Kingston Road crosses the upper estuary of Carpenter Creek. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

I am particularly interested in how the new bridge will further improve the function of the estuary, which is the last major stop-over point for juvenile salmon on their way out of Puget Sound, according to biologists. The bridge on West Kingston Road is the second phase of a project that began in 2012, when a small box culvert was replaced with a 90-foot-long bridge on South Kingston Road. The first bridge crosses the lower estuary, while the new bridge crosses the upper estuary.

While my focus has been on life in the estuary, the project goes beyond the ecosystem, Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder told Kitsap Sun reporter (now retired) Ed Friedrich in a story published in March at the beginning of construction.

Here’s what the old culvert looked like before the recent project began.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works.

“This isn’t just a culvert-replacement project but a project that will increase the safety and functionality for drivers and pedestrians alike,” Rob said. “Road closure is never easy, but I hope the community will appreciate the improvements when it’s all complete.”

The work involves widening the travel lanes, adding 5-foot pedestrian and bike lanes on the north side and a 6-foot paved shoulder on the south side. In addition, street lighting will be added.

As of today, the project has fallen behind schedule, according to Tina Nelson, senior program manager for Kitsap County Public Works. Tina said she hopes the contractor, Redside Construction of Bainbridge Island, will catch up enough to allow the road to reopen by the end of December, as originally scheduled.

Officials will be assessing the situation through the end of October, she said. If it appears the bridge and roadway won’t be ready for opening by Dec. 31, then an announcement will be made in late October or early November. Advance notice is needed because of school bus routing and scheduling after the new year.

The causes of the delay are many, Tina told me, but it generally boils down to scheduling of project materials and crews, for which the contractor is responsible. The contract calls for the work to be done in a certain number of days, she said, and the contractor will lose money if the work is not completed on time.

So far, fish passage has not been an issue, although chum salmon could soon move into the estuary — if they haven’t already — as they begin their fall migration. If fish try to move upstream before the channel is reopened, officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will help determine the best way to safely get them upstream.

Much of the $3-million project is funded by the Navy as mitigation for ecological damage caused by the 2012 renovation of Pier B at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton.

Amusing Monday: Having fun sliding down a slippery slope

Over the past few years, hundreds of videos have been made of people gleefully slipping, sliding and sometimes crashing while gliding on homemade apparatus they call slip ‘n slides.

“Slip ’N Slide” is actually a name registered to the Wham-O company for a sliding surface originally invented by upholstery maker Robert Carrier. The toy first went on the market in 1961, according to a news release sent out by Wham-O on the 50th anniversary of the Slip ‘N Slide.

In 1993, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning that said the slides were designed for children and should only be used by children, as supported by the instructions that came with the backyard toy.

“Use by adults and teens has the potential to result in neck injury and paralysis,” the agency said in a statement. “Because of their weight and height, adults and teenagers who dive onto the water slide may hit and abruptly stop in such a way that could cause permanent spinal cord injury, resulting in quadriplegia or paraplegia.”

Forget about all that. Many of the videos on YouTube show teens and adults doing things that look plenty dangerous. I’ve selected videos that depict larger slides, including one giant one that was specifically designed for fun and safety. Others were built quickly, some intended for one day of use. In the videos I’ve selected, nobody gets seriously hurt.

The first video shows a goofy group of guys called Dude Perfect participating in a contest that combines a Nurf gun and a slip ‘n slide. I featured the dudes in a blog post in July when the guys were demonstrating the different kinds of people that go to the beach.

Slip ‘N Fly, featured in the second video, is a slide at an adventure camp called Ohio Dreams near Butler, Ohio. Each August, the camp opens to the public for a weekend of fun, and bodies go flying.

Brice Milleson does a nice job of producing videos of each summer’s events at Ohio Dreams. I’ve posted the video from 2014 in the second video player. You might be interested in similar events this past August and from the summer of 2016.

The last video captures the fun and games at an outdoor party where a homemade slide was the centerpiece of the action. A similar party video is called “Slip n’ slide with babes n’ boards.”

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”