Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

Amusing Monday: Views of nature and man from EPA

If you enjoy environmental photography, the Environmental Protection Agency is an unusual source of photographs from sea to shining sea. They include contributions from amateurs, professionals and EPA staffers, along with one series of photographs connecting history to the modern world.

An EPA diver maps eelgrass beds in Eagle Harbor to assess the success of the Wyckoff cleanup project. EPA photo, 2007
An EPA diver maps eelgrass beds in Eagle Harbor to assess the success of the Wyckoff cleanup project. / EPA photo, 2007

One can easily get lost, as I sometimes do, following the photo links from the EPA’s photo blog to its Flickr galleries to its Facebook page, with side trips to photo exhibits in the National Archives.

Let me provide a guided tour, if you will. A good place to start is EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project — especially if you like to share your pictures of nature with others. This is a blog that features interesting and often amusing pictures from throughout the United States and even from other countries.

You may choose to subscribe to EPA’s photo blog in the right column to receive notice of new posts. (Don’t forget that you can subscribe to this “Water Ways” blog as well.)

For the past two years, EPA has been encouraging people to submit photos that document the environment and way of life in the U.S. The Documerica Photo Project updates a similar project launched in the early years of the EPA in the 1970s. It is scheduled to continue through the end of this year.

David Falconer photo of Spokane River and Spokane Falls, May 1973. EPA photo
David Falconer photo of Spokane River and Spokane Falls, May 1973. (Click to enlarge.)
EPA photo

A specific feature of the overall project is “Documerica Then and Now” (Flickr page), in which photographers try to match the exact locations from the original series and place them alongside recent photographs. I’d like to see more contributions from Northwest photographers. Check out one set of “Then” photographs for Seattle and another set for Olympia and Tacoma, or go to the full list of location challenges.

Here’s a match: John Day Dam on the Columbia River, 1973 and 2012, by David Falconer and Scott Butner, respectively. Notice the wind turbines in the modern photo.

David Falconer (Flickr page) documented the fuel shortage and water pollution in the Northwest during the early 1970s. It would be fun to match his photographs, including one of Spokane Falls and another of the Thunderbird Motel alongside the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River.

Photographer David Falconer captures visitors swimming in the pool at the Thunderbird Motel alongside the I-5 Bridge on the Columbia River, May 1973. EPA photo
Photographer David Falconer captures visitors swimming in the pool at the Thunderbird Motel alongside the I-5 Bridge on the Columbia River, May 1973. (Click to enlarge.)
EPA photo

It’s a quick jump to the National Archives photostream, where the original Documerica photographs are displayed.

To view recent submittals to the Documerica Project and other EPA galleries, you have the choice of using either EPA’s Facebook photo page or its Flickr page. Both options provide a wide range of EPA photo albums.

Although not connected with the Documerica project, you may wish to wander into the Puget Sound gallery, which features staff photos from our familiar waterway, which EPA calls “a place of rare biological diversity and high economic value.” That’s where I found the picture of the EPA diver assessing conditions at the bottom of Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor.

Time to reflect on drinking water quality, history

This week is National Drinking Water Week, a chance to recognize the high quality of water we drink in the United States and how we built and maintain the amazing storage and piping networks.

The video at right shows some interesting pictures of water systems in Kitsap County. It takes a bit of reading to get through it, but the video reminds us that the area — and most areas — started out with many surface-water systems and now relies mostly on groundwater.

The history of Bremerton’s water system, which still includes a highly protected surface-water supply on the Union River, is described briefly on the city’s website.

Drinking Water Week is a chance to review the water quality of our own drinking water, at least for those of us on public water systems. The EPA requires most systems to provide information to their customers once a year. Accessing this information at other times is not always easy, although most of the larger systems post the required water-quality data on their websites.

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Research divers to watch arrival of Elwha sediments

In a report last night on KING-5 News, Gary Chittim offered a visually rich account of the studies taking place at the mouth of the Elwha River, where nearshore and delta areas are expected to receive huge loads of sediment after the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams come out.

He noted that divers from The U.S. Geological Survey and Environmental Protection Agency have been fighting strong currents as they conduct a spacial survey of the plants and animals in the nearshore area.

Gary quoted Sean Sheldrake, dive unit officer for the EPA:

“Just yesterday, we were diving on a beautiful kelp forest with a variety of fish and plant life, and the hope is through this reconnection of the Elwha to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it will not only continue but thrive.”

And in a news release last week from the U.S. Geological Survey, Sheldrake was quoted as saying:

“Until now, we’ve focused most of our attention on the effect this project will have on the river, salmon habitat and salmon recovery. But with this survey, we will have a more complete and much clearer picture of the effects on the nearshore ocean environment.”

More than 19 million cubic meters of sediment — enough to fill 11 football fields the height of the Empire State Building — has accumulated behind the Elwha River dams, according to the news release. That sediment is expected to create turbidity for a time, but in the long run could be beneficial for a variety of plant and animal species in area.

Documents for further reading:

Proceedings of the 2011 Elwha Nearshore Consortium Meeting (PDF 1.3 mb)

Nearshore function of the central Strait of Juan de Fuca for juvenile fish… Executive Summary (PDF 906 kb)

Elwha Nearshore Update, Summer 2011 (PDF 333 kb)

Nearshore substrate and morphology offshore of the Elwha River (PDF 4.5 mb)

Nearshore restoration of the Elwha River through removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams (PDF 308 kb)

Following the money into raw sewage overflows

Water-quality leaders in the Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were quick to respond yesterday to a Seattle Times’ story, which begins:

“Seattle and King County are poised to spend more than $1.3 billion of ratepayer money on pollution-cleanup programs that won’t even move the water-quality needle in Puget Sound.”

Yesterday’s story, by reporter Linda Mapes, is about combined sewage overflows — something that Bremerton knows a little about, having completed a cleanup program after 20 years and $50 million in expenditures. See my story from May 30 in the Kitsap Sun.

The premise of Linda’s story is that it might be better for local governments to focus on reducing stormwater overall rather trying to meet a 1988 state pollution standard focused on raw sewage discharges. After all, the reasoning goes, stormwater containing toxic chemicals may be worse for Puget Sound than stormwater mixed with sewage.

The state requirement, by the way, limits discharges of raw sewage in stormwater to one overflow per year, on average, for each outfall pipe.

There is plenty of room for disagreement, as the Times’ story points out. Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, stresses that upcoming CSO projects will reduce the public’s exposure to untreated sewage. But Larry Phillips, a member of the King County Council, says dollars spent on CSO projects can’t be spent on buying habitat or attacking the surface-runoff problem, which the Puget Sound Partnership has deemed the region’s top priority.

Bill Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA and former chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, was quoted as saying:

“This is just crazy; we don’t have unlimited funds in this country, and whatever we do, we ought to spend where we get the most bang for the buck … Cost-benefit has not been part of the discussion.”

David Dicks, former executive director of the partnership and now a member of the Leadership Council, said this:

“It’s just momentum. And what you learn in these things is you can go in and scream and yell and be a revolutionary for a while, but the institutional momentum of these laws has a lot of power, and it is just dumb power. … What we need to do is turn off the autopilot and see what makes sense here.”

Ecology and EPA officials took a stand in favor of the existing rules for reducing sewage discharges. Both issued quick responses to the Seattle Times article, writing on a blog called ECOconnect

From Kelly Susewind, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program:

“Infrastructure investments are needed to address water pollution caused by both CSO and stormwater discharges. In areas served by combined systems, CSO projects provide solutions to both CSO and stormwater pollution.

“The investments ratepayers make in their communities’ CSO programs protect public health and Washington’s waters, two principal missions of sewer and stormwater utilities. The success of these projects advances the goals of our state and federal laws to protect, clean up and preserve our waters for present and future generations.”

Adds Dennis McLerran, EPA’s regional administrator:

“Discharging large amounts of raw sewage to Puget Sound and Lake Washington is simply not acceptable. That’s why EPA has worked closely with the state, King County and Seattle over many years to address sewage treatment and the ongoing problem of Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) pollution. With that work nearly completed, now is not the time to lose our resolve to finish the job visionary leaders in the Puget Sound region started some 40 years ago.”

Cost versus benefits for Bremerton CSO project (click to enlarge)
Kitsap Sun graphic

Shellfish were not mentioned in this discussion — maybe because it was focused on Seattle and King County, where industrial pollution is a major problem. In Kitsap County, shellfish are worth millions of dollars a year to the local and regional economy. For Dyes Inlet, the reopening of shellfish beds probably would not have happened except for a lawsuit that forced the city of Bremerton to comply with the federal Clean Water Act on a strict time schedule.

Lisa Stiffler, former PI reporter who now works for Sightline Institute, discussed Bremerton’s accomplishment with a focus on the cost. See “How Bremerton cleaned its waters, and came to wonder about the costs” in the online publication Crosscut.

A case can be made that shellfish beds in Dyes Inlet could have been cleaned up enough to be reopened by spending just the first $33 million, thereby saving the extra $17 million that it took to bring the city into full compliance with federal law.

But state and county health officials have told me on many occasions that Bremerton and Kitsap County, along with local residents, must continue to work hard to keep the Dyes Inlet shellfish beds open. Beaches in the inlet remain on the verge of closure again, and population growth tends to exacerbate the bacterial pollution.

Kitsap County Health District is respected for its monitoring and pollution-fighting program, but it does help to know that release of raw sewage into the inlet has become a very rare event.

Lisa makes a good point when she says Bremerton would have saved money if engineers would have known more about low-impact development during the planning for CSO reductions. Infiltrating rain water near the source (preferably before it runs off the property) reduces the need to deal with stormwater flowing through pipes. Keeping stormwater out of sewer lines by using LID techniques effectively allows the pipes to carry all the sewage to the treatment plants, even during heavy rains.

Bremerton has become a leader in LID. If city officials had known 20 years ago what they know today, they probably would have spent more on pervious pavement and rain gardens and less on expensive piping networks. But it appears they did their best with the knowledge they had — and LID has become a major part of ongoing efforts to address stormwater.

Cities still working on CSO problems may find Bremerton’s experience helpful. Keeping stormwater out of pipes is proving effective, whether or not those pipes also contain sewage.

Though small, Gasworks may qualify for Superfund

A small waterfront site in Bremerton could become the next federal Superfund site in Washington state. The site, called the Old Bremerton Gasworks property, has grown into a complex problem for cleanup agencies, as I describe in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

A sign at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Bremerton warns of the hazards at the Old Bremerton Gasworks property.
Kitsap Sun photo

Old Bremerton Gasworks, the site of a former coal gasification plant, was first placed on the state’s Hazardous Sites List in 1995, with a top-priority ranking of 1 on a scale from 1 to 5.

Nothing much was said or done about the site until a few years ago, when property owners Paul McConkey and his son Trip began looking for a way to develop the waterfront property. A business park and marina were considered possible options. A portion of the site identified as hazardous is owned by Natacha Sesko, whose property has been included in discussions about future uses.

The federal Brownfields Program, which had expanded under President George W. Bush, was created to clean up former industrial sites and put them back into productive use. The program seemed like the logical vehicle to study contaminants on the gasworks property and help cover the cleanup costs.
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Water quality is defined by the ‘standards’ we use

Washington Department of Ecology is in the early stages of revising water quality standards for our state, beginning with a series of meetings to find out what people think. See my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun for an overview, and check Ecology’s news release for the meeting schedule and process for proposing changes.

It’s hard to tell how aggressive Ecology will be about changing these standards. Given state budget limitations, the agency may opt to do little, yet Ecology officials say they are willing to address problems that people see in the existing standards or in their implementation.

What we’re talking about here is changing the definition what makes good, clean, safe water. Changing the standards could bring increased attention to individual streams, lakes and bays and possibly even trigger a new approach for all streams.

Water quality standards are the driver for creating the state’s list of impaired water bodies (the 303d list). They are used to write discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and stormwater outfalls. And in cleanup plans for polluted waterways, they provide guidance for allocating pollution limits among point and nonpoint sources.

Priorities for changes that could be made are expected to be announced next spring after all the comments are compiled and reviewed, including suggestions from state and local officials, according to Susan Braley of Ecology’s Water Quality Program. Nationwide standards, which are under continual review by the Environmental Protection Agency, sometimes require the state to make changes.

Some of the ideas that have been kicking about, in no particular order:

  • New standards for total petroleum hydrocarbons
  • New standards for certain kinds of pesticides harmful to salmon
  • New standards for copper, which are known to affect salmon
  • New standards for toxic chemicals known to affect human health
  • A change in the bacterial standard from fecal coliform to e. coli
  • Allowance for alternative indicators for the presence of human waste
  • Further refinements of temperature standards, which were updated in 2006 to protect bull trout
  • New standards for pH as related to ocean acidification
  • New rates for fish-consumption by people, which could change numerical standards for a range of toxics

If anyone tells me about other ideas, I will add them to the list.

For more information, check out EPA’s informational website about Water Quality Standards and Surface Waters. There’s also an instructive online course focusing on theer Clean Water Act by the River Network.

To read the standards themselves, go to the Washington Administrative Code, Chapter 173-201A.

Report notes oxygen troubles in Northwest waters

Low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and along the Washington-Oregon Coast are highlighted as “case studies” in a new federal report regarding the growing number of “dead zones” across the United States. See “Scientific Assessment of Hypoxia in U.S. Coastal Waters” (PDF 2.7 mb).

Incidents of hypoxia have increased 30-fold since 1960, according to the report. The new federal review describes the causes of hypoxia, discusses past and ongoing research efforts and lays out policy recommendations to deal with the problem. Eight troubled waterways are reviewed as “case studies.”

In a news release (PDF 116 kb) accompanying the report, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offered these comments regarding hypoxia and the seasonal low-oxygen area off the coast of Washington and Oregon:

“The report shows good progress on research into the causes of hypoxia and the specific management requirements to restore systems such as the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, but we still have a long way to go to reduce this environmental threat. The discovery of a new seasonal hypoxic zone off the coast of Oregon and Washington that may be linked to a changing climate emphasizes the complexity of this issue.”

That West Coast dead zone is now ranked the second largest in the United States and the third largest in the world. Federal officials say there may be serious consequences to the ecological health of the region.

Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the EPA is proud to have played a role in the research leading up to the report:

“These growing dead zones endanger fragile ecosystems and potentially jeopardize billions of dollars in economic activity. This science can be the foundation for measures that will preserve our waters and reverse the trend, including innovative, watershed-based solutions to this challenge.”

Mike Lee, a reporter with the San Diego Union-Bulletin, interviewed Tony Koslow, who studies low-oxygen areas at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“This is a large phenomenon not due to nutrient outflows” from land, Lee quoted Koslow as saying. “The big question is, ‘Is this due to climate change?’ ”

As the oxygen-rich surface layers warm up, they mix less with colder layers down deep where oxygen levels are low, Koslow said. Global climate models predict that the oxygen levels in deep oceans will decline 20 to 40 percent the next century.

“There are substantial ecosystem concerns,” Koslow said. “A number of species that live in the deep ocean are very sensitive to changes in oxygen levels. These species — although they are not of commercial interest — are prey to squid, fish, marine mammals and seabirds, so changes in oxygen will have repercussions throughout the food web.”

The report suggests these policy actions:

  • Develop and implement cost-effective and scientifically
    sound nutrient reduction strategies to achieve healthy water
    quality in rivers, lakes and coastal waters.
  • Improve ecosystem models to assess how hypoxia
    affects commercially important fish populations in order to
    refine management strategies to protect coastal economies.
  • Improve scientific understanding for emerging sites such
    as the Oregon and Washington shelf, where hypoxia may be
    driven primarily by events linked to climate change. This
    knowledge will help managers mitigate impacts on natural
    resources and coastal economies.
  • Expand stream and river monitoring to document extent
    and sources of nutrients and progress in achieving management
    goals. This can lead to more strategic and effective targeting of
    nutrient reduction actions.
  • More systematically monitor oxygen levels in coastal
    waters using new technologies and observing systems. This is
    critical for forecast model development, fisheries management,
    and determining nutrient reduction success.

Gulf damage assessments begin to roll in

It seems there is finally some good news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.

After 170 days, the leaking oil well — nearly a mile under water — was finally plugged with mud. Officials say it means an end to the long spill. As BP stated in a news release:

“Pumping of heavy drilling mud into the well from vessels on the surface began at 1500 CDT on August 3, 2010 and was stopped after about eight hours of pumping. The well is now being monitored, per the agreed procedure, to ensure it remains static. Further pumping of mud may or may not be required depending on results observed during monitoring…

“A relief well remains the ultimate solution to kill and permanently cement the well. The first relief well, which started May 2, has set its final 9 7/8-inch casing. Operations on the relief wells are suspended during static kill operations. Depending upon weather conditions, mid-August is the current estimate of the most likely date by which the first relief well will intercept the Macondo well annulus, and kill and cement operations commence.”

If the spewing has indeed stopped for good, discussions about the fate of the contamination and restoration of the ecosystem have some real meaning. A report issued this morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration starts to put the issue into perspective.
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Estuary grants will aid Chico Creek and more

I’ve written lots of stories about replacing culverts to improve salmon passage, but a $600,000 grant to the Suquamish Tribe will be used to remove a culvert and fully open up the estuary at the mouth of Chico Creek.

This culvert on Chico Creek is scheduled for removal. Here, Suquamish Fisheries Manager Jay Zischke and the tribe's environmental biologist Tom Ostrom survey the scene.
Photo courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

The Chico Creek grant was among some $30 million in grants announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Puget Sound Estuary Program. I wrote about the grants and quoted involved officials in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. I’ll cover the other Puget Sound projects here after talking about the one on Chico Creek.

Most roads that follow a shoreline in the Puget Sound region go somewhere important, but Kittyhawk Drive is a dead-end. After crossing Chico Creek, the road serves only three homes, if I recall correctly.

After the stream flows through a culvert under Highway 3, it passes beneath Kittyhawk Drive with enough force to blow out some of the large rocks planted there to help salmon make it upstream. Removing the culvert will improve the estuary and help with the fish-passage problem at that location, but the project needs to address a change in elevation to get up to the freeway culvert.

The freeway culvert is another obstacle of concern. Local officials are working with the Washington Department of Transportation to find a way to replace that freeway culvert with a bridge. Needless to say, the cost will be enormous.

Another Chico Creek culvert destined for replacement is the one under Golf Club Road, just upstream from Kitsap Golf and Country Club. That culvert replacement is part of an extensive restoration of the stream channel where if flows through the golf course.

Yes, all this sounds like a lot of expense for one salmon stream, but biologists will tell you that Chico Creek supports the largest chum salmon run on the Kitsap Peninsula and provides a decent run of coho and potentially other species. Once the migrating adult salmon make it through the culverts near the mouth of the stream, they have good spawning habitat upstream in the Chico Creek watershed. Tributaries include Kitsap Creek, which flows out of Kitsap Lake; Wildcat Creek, which flows out of Wildcat Lake; and Dickerson Creek, which originates within a vast undeveloped forestland.

Exactly when we’ll see the culvert under Kittyhawk Drive removed remains uncertain. First, a new driveway must be built for residents on the far side of the culvert. I’m told there is still some design work to be done before contracts can go out to bid, and construction must be scheduled around the salmon migrations.

Other projects approved for funding:
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New policies aim to curb pesticide use and abuse

I’m willing to stand corrected, but I cannot recall a time when there has been so much activity related to the use and abuse of pesticides around water.

In a story written for Monday’s Kitsap Sun, I reported about the permitting activity to comply with the Clean Water Act at both the state and federal levels. I did not, however, get into some significant and surprising activities related to the Endangered Species Act, which I will discuss here in a moment.

I think it’s becoming fairly well recognized that chemicals successful at killing target plants and animals may have unwanted and uncertain effects on plants and animals that we would like to protect. Unfortunately, state and federal regulations have not always kept pace with scientific findings.
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