Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Puget Sound farmers expected to change as climate changes

I’ve been going through the new report about climate change in the Puget Sound region, and I can tell you that the most optimistic chapter is the one on farming. Check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

To be sure, farmers will have plenty of problems to contend with. Rising sea levels and more intense rainstorms will probably causing flooding and seawater intrusion where it has never been seen before. Some of today’s farmland could become unsuitable for agriculture, and drier summers will force much better management of limited water supplies.

Temperatures are rising in the Puget Sound lowlands. Graphic: Climate Impacts Group
Temperatures are rising in the Puget Sound lowlands. // Graphic: Climate Impacts Group

But as the climate undergoes change, farmers can change with the climate, growing crops suitable for the conditions they face, said Kelly McLain, senior natural resources scientist with the Washington Department of Agriculture.

“Farmers are extremely adaptable,” Kelly told me. “I think water is going to be the limiting factor for almost all decisions.”

It’s hard to find that kind of optimism anywhere else when it comes to climate change in the Puget Sound region. The story I wrote to accompany last week’s release of the new report discusses the likelihood that landslides will increase because of more intense rainfall patterns. See “Shifting ground: Climate change may increase the risk of landslides” and the Water Ways post on Nov. 19.

My third and final story in the series, which will be published next week, talks about coming changes in habitats — and thus species — expected in Puget Sound as air temperatures increase, sea levels rise, rainstorms grow more intense and oceans undergo acidification.

Total annual precipitation does not appear to be changing in the Puget Sound region. Graphic: Climate Impacts Group
Total annual precipitation does not appear to be changing in the Puget Sound region.
Graphic: Climate Impacts Group

I took on this writing project as part of my work for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. PSI commissioned the climate report with funding from federal and state governments. The Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington compiled the best scientific knowledge into a very readable report, which can be found on the encyclopedia’s website or on the website of the Climate Impacts Group.

One interesting chapter of the report, called “How is Puget Sound’s Climate Changing?” (3 mb) supports the understanding that climate change is not something we need to wait for. It’s something that scientists can measure now, although climatologists expect the changes to come faster as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase.

Here are a few of the changes that can be measured, along with a bit of explanation about the uncertainty:

  • Average air temperatures have been increasing in the Puget Sound lowlands and are currently about 1.3 degrees higher than in 1895. Higher temperatures have been found to be statistically significant for all seasons except spring, with the overall increase shown in a range between 0.7 to 1.9 degrees F.
  • Nighttime air temperatures have been rising faster than daytime temperatures. Nighttime lows have been increasing by about 1.8 degrees since 1895, while daytime highs have been increasing by about 0.8 degrees.
  • The frost-free season has lengthened by about 30 days (range 18-41 days) since 1920.
  • As in other areas, short-term trends can differ substantially from long-term trends. Cooling observed from 2000-2011, for example, has not altered the long-term temperature increase.
  • An ongoing debate questions how much, if any, of the long-term warming trend is a result of natural climate variability. One study says up to 80 percent may be natural, caused by atmospheric circulation, not by greenhouse gas buildup. Other researchers have been unable to replicate the findings for other data sets.
  • Total annual precipitation does not appear to be increasing or decreasing over a long time scale. Spring precipitation has increased at a statistically valid 27 percent for the months March through May.
  • Most studies are finding modest increases in the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation compared to historical levels, but results depend on the time period and methods of analysis.
  • Ongoing variability in weather patterns related to El Nino and the Pacific decadal oscillation will continue to strongly influence temperature and precipitation for relatively short periods. It is not clear how long-term climate change will interact with these more variable climate patterns.

Climate report describes changes coming to the Puget Sound region

How climate change could alter life in the Puget Sound region is the focus of a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned for safety reasons. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns. Kitsap Sun file photo
A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns.
Kitsap Sun file photo

In concert with the report’s release, I’m writing three stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, all focusing on specific aspects of the report, beginning with landslide risks. See “Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides” on the Puget Sound Institute’s blog.

As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with declines in some native species and increases in others. We are likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more forest fires.

The report, “State of the Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound,” pulls together the best predictions from existing studies, while updating and expanding the range of topics last reported for Puget Sound in 2005.

“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said lead author Guillaume Mauger in a news release. “This report provides a single resource for people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”

The report includes examples of communities taking actions to prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other areas.

“In the same way that the science is very different from the last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger said.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for changes that have already begun.

“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing impacts of climate change,” she said in a news release. “This report helps us better understand the very real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native species.”

Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Washington.

The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated with the University of Washington — Tacoma.

For other news stories about the report, check out:

Puget Sound restoration: two steps forward, one back — or vice versa?

Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very difficult thing to do.

Vital signs

Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams, wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated sediments.

At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region. The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown alterations to ecosystems.

In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step forward?

Gov and Leg

Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,” released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is being made in restoring habitat, according to a news release about the report, but “measures for chinook salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”


“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and reopen shellfish beds,”

Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).

Key findings, as reported in the news release:

  • Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
  • All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental progress.
  • None of the indicators for species or food-web health are making progress.
  • While there has been local-level progress in some indicators, the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.

Pulse logo

I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at the series, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution, population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of ecosystem health.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point in North Kitsap early this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Southern Residents in Puget Sound
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook? Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat, spawning habitat, predation, or something else?

It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going. The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions would be far worse than they are today.

Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting better at establishing priorities that will make the most difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their responsibility.

It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington state’s congressional delegation. Check out a summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the story by Tristan Baurick in the Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.

The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and “best-management practices” are important — but the key is to locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage, then use construction techniques that will cause the least disruption of ecological functions.

Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington State University finally published her findings about the effects of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).

I’ve talked about these findings several times in the past, including an expanded story about stormwater in the “Pulse” series in July of last year. For stories written since the report was published, see Tristan Baurick’s piece in the Kitsap Sun or Sandi Doughton’s story in the Seattle Times or the news release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Development regulations by local government have always been a weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn around and blame the state when local residents complain about the higher costs of development.

On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as I described in the “Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local government can do. Another major role of local government is to protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say in the near future. (“Water Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)

Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to save Puget Sound is on the right track.

It’s time to visit local streams to view chum salmon on the move

Killer whales were back in Puget Sound today, spotted early this morning near Vashon Island, in the afternoon near Seattle and after dark near Point No Point in North Kitsap. Reports can be seen on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Chum salmon swimming up Chico Creek at Chico Salmon Park. Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun
Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek at Chico Salmon Park. // Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun

It’s a reminder that chum salmon are now running in Puget Sound, and the whales are close behind. The chum also are entering our local streams. So this is the time to visit your nearest salmon stream to see if the fish have arrived. Tristan Baurick wrote about recent conditions for the Kitsap Sun.

As always, if you wish to see chum swimming upstream and possibly spawning, one of the best places to go is Chico Salmon Park next to Kitsap Golf and Country Club. For the latest information about the park, read the story in the Kitsap Sun by Terri Gleich.

9 Salmon map

With a couple of updates, my Salmon Viewing Map and videos still offer a guide to the best public spots to watch salmon on the Kitsap Peninsula. Click on the map at right to access the videos and other information, including viewing tips.

If you would like to learn about salmon from the experts, make a note of these events:

  • Saturday, Nov. 7, Poulsbo Fish Park, 288 Lindvig Way. Children’s activities included, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. No charge. Salmon Viewing Saturday
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, Chico Salmon Park, Chico Way at Golf Club Road, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No charge. Kitsap Salmon Tours.
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 3153 Seabeck Highway. Tours, involving a hike of about 1.5 miles, begin at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Nov. 14. Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month later than normal.

As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula. The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands, then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September. Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if that’s all they can find.

In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).

On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as reported by Orca Network.

“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca Network’s sighting report from Sunday.

“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and this was the first October to come and go without the Southern Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs, and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of chum!”

On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L pods continued north, and J pod headed south.

Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”

The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon in other areas besides Puget Sound.

Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.

This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island, passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are somewhere around Kingston.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along above and below the surface.

We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something else.

Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:

The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a 38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a 6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a 5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.

While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four of her offspring.

The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82: 28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.

The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Amusing Monday:
Sea slugs bring color
to Puget Sound

Nudibranchs, soft-bodied mollusks often called “sea slugs,” are among the most ornately decorated creatures in the sea. With about 3,000 species of nudibranchs coming in all shapes and colors, I thought it might be fun to track down some of these animals.

Frosted nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
Frosted nudibranch // Photo: Dan Hershman

Nudibranchs are found in all the world’s oceans, but you don’t need to go beyond Puget Sound to find some of the most beautiful ones. I’m grateful to Dan Hershman, a retired Seattle teacher, part-time musician and underwater naturalist, who shared some of his best photos of sea slugs from this region. Check out Dan’s Flickr website.

The word nudibranch (pronounced nude-eh-brank) comes from the Latin word nudus, meaning naked, and brankhia, meaning gills. So these are animals with naked gills, which often grow out of their backs and sides. These creatures can be as small as a quarter-inch or as long as a foot or more.

White and orange tipped nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
White and orange tipped nudibranch
Photo: Dan Hershman

Nudibranchs are carnivores, eating things ranging from algae to anemones, barnacles and even other nudibranchs. They can pick up coloring for camouflage and even poisons from the prey they eat, using the chemicals in defense against predators.

Hermaphrodites with reproductive organs of both sexes, these animals don’t normally self-fertilize. But they are prepared to mate with any mature individual of the same species. Eventually, they will lay masses of spiral-shaped or coiled eggs.

Diamond back nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
Diamond back nudibranch
Photo: Dan Hershman

For more great pictures, check out Bored Panda’s collection, the 500PX photo gallery or National Geographic’s page of David Doubilet’s photos. If you would like to join a sea slug fan club, visit Slug Site, home of Opisthobranch Molluscs..

Opalescent nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
Opalescent nudibranch // Photo: Dan Hershman

A quiz, based on the new ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

A new publication called “Puget Sound Fact Book” has been released online by the Puget Sound Institute, an affiliation of the University of Washington, Environmental Protection Agency and Puget Sound Partnership.

Fact book

Like its name suggests, the fact book contains detailed information about Puget Sound — from the geology that created the waterway to creatures that roam through the region, including humans. The fact book has been incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Working for the Puget Sound Institute, I became part of a team of about 25 researchers and writers who compiled the facts and produced essays about various aspects of Puget Sound. I wrote an introductory piece titled “Overview: Puget Sound as an Estuary” and a conclusion called “A healthy ecosystem supports human values.”

One can download a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound webpage.

Just for fun, I thought I would offer a multiple-choice quiz from the book. Answers and scoring are at the bottom.

1. Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast covers about four times the area of Puget Sound. The total volume of water in Chesapeake Bay is roughly how much compared to Puget Sound?
A. Twice the volume of Puget Sound
B. Equal to the volume of Puget Sound
C. Half the volume of Puget Sound
D. One-fourth the volume of Puget Sound

2. Puget Sound was named by Capt. George Vancouver, honoring one of his officers, Lt. Peter Puget. Where was the northernmost boundary of the original Puget Sound?
A. The Canadian border
B. The northern edge of Admiralty Inlet near present-day Port Townsend
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows

3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget Sound?
A. 86 meters = 282 feet
B. 186 meters = 610 feet
C. 286 meters = 938 feet
D. 386 meters – 1,266 feet

4. Washington State Department of Health has classified 190,000 acres of tidelands in Puget Sound as shellfish growing areas. How much of that area is classified as “prohibited,” meaning shellfish can never be harvested there without a change in classification.
A. 36,000 acres
B. 52,000 acres
C. 84,000 acres
D. 110,0000 acres

5. In the late 1800s, experts estimate that Puget Sound contained 166 square kilometers (64 square miles) of mud flats. Development has reduced that total to how much today?
A. 79 square kilometers = 30 square miles
B. 95 square kilometers = 36 square miles
C. 126 square kilometers = 49 square miles
D. 151 square kilometers – 58 square miles

6. How many bird species depend on the Salish Sea, according to a 2011 study?
A. 45
B. 102
C. 157
D. 172

7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon. What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
C. Birds
D. Sharks

8. Most fish populations in Puget Sound have been on the decline over the past 40 years. What type of marine creature has increased its numbers 9 times since 1975?
A. Rock crabs
B. Jellyfish
C. Herring
D. Dogfish sharks

9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget Sound?
A. 8
B. 18
C. 28
D. 38

10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what weight?
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds

1. C. Chesapeake Bay contains about half the volume of Puget Sound, some 18 cubic miles compared to 40 cubic miles.
2. D. Tacoma Narrows.
3. C. The deepest spot in Puget Sound — offshore of Point Jefferson near Kingston — is 286 m, although one spot in the larger Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) reaches a depth of 650 m. or 2,132 feet.
4. A. 36,000 acres are prohibited shellfish beds
5. C. Total mudflats today total 126 square kilometers
6. D. 172 bird species
7. B. Transients eat marine mammals.
8. B. Jellyfish
9. C. 28
10. D. 600 pounds is said to be the record, although more typical weights are 50 to 100 pounds.

Most of these questions are pretty tough. If you got five right, I would say you know Puget Sound pretty well. Six or seven right suggests you have special knowledge about the waterway. More than seven correct answers means you could have helped compile the facts for this new book.

Swimming a river called Green/Duwamish to open our eyes to the promise

By swimming the entire Green/Duwamish River in King County, Mark Powell hopes to show that the river’s full length — roughly 85 miles from the mountains to Puget Sound — is a single system worthy of protection and restoration.

I believe that most people have heard about the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle, a channelized, industrialized section of the lower Duwamish River where decades of pollution are being cleaned up, one step at a time. But how much does anyone know about the upper end of the river, which begins as a trickle of crystal clear water in the Cascade Mountains south of Snoqualmie Pass?

Mark Powell
Mark Powell

“Almost nobody knows the river well, not even the people who live along the river,” Mark told me.

Mark, the Puget Sound Program director for Washington Environmental Council. said the idea of swimming the entire river came to him during the kickoff of a new Green/Duwamish Watershed Strategy by King County and Seattle. The plan is to identify all the significant problems in the watershed (map, PDF 1.1 mb) and to increase restoration efforts where needed.

“I thought this would be an interesting way to connect with people,” Mark said. “I’m a guy who likes to get outdoors, so this is a personal commitment I could make.”

Mark swam around Bainbridge Island in the winter of 2008-09. ““By swimming the whole coastline, I’m not just diving to the pretty spots. I’m forced to look at the gross parts,” he told reporter Michelle Ma in a story for the Seattle Times.

So far, Mark has been swimming the upper and middle portions of the Green/Duwamish River. He said his biggest surprise is finding pockets of good habitat everywhere he goes.

Earlier this month, he was accompanied on the river by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership Council. A few days before they swam the river near Auburn, the Leadership Council approved new “vitals signs” indicators for “human health” and “human well-being” to emphasize the human connection to the Puget Sound ecosystem. See “Water Ways” July 30.

The human connection was still on Sheida’s mind when I talked to her about a week after her trip to the Green River. The most “eye-opening” part of the swim for her was the condition of “this incredibly beautiful natural element coursing through a very urban landscape.”

She saw evidence of people living along the river in less-than-desirable conditions, she said. There were barbecues and trailer houses but no suggestion that people had any connection to the river — except that some individuals apparently were using it as a toilet, she said.

“I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that, but it feels very right that we are considering human well-being,” she explained. “On the one hand is what we have done to the river. On the other hand is what we have done to ourselves. We need to figure out how it all links together.”

Mark’s adventures on the river are chronicled in a blog called “Swim Duwamish.” He hopes to swim every section of the river where he is allowed to go and be safe. A portion of the Green River controlled by the city of Tacoma has no public access, because it is a source of the city’s water supply. Rapids in the Green River Gorge are said to be dangerous, so Mark will look for a guide to help him. And because of heavy marine traffic in the Duwamish Waterway, he may use a boat to escort him on his approach to Seattle’s Elliott Bay.

The Green/Duwamish River may be the most disjointed river in Puget Sound, both physically and psychologically. People who have seen the industrialized lower river find it hard to visualize the near-pristine salmon stream spilling clean water down from the mountains. It is the upper part that provides the inspiration to clean up the lower part, Mark told me.

“If there was a reason for sacrificing a river, you could find it in the Duwamish,” he said. “But we can’t afford to sacrifice even one river. To me, this is what protecting Puget Sound is all about. By the time the pollution gets to Puget Sound it is too late.”

If salmon can make it through the gauntlet in the lower river, they may have a fighting chance to spawn and produce a new generation of Green River fish. Improving their migration corridor is not an impossible dream.

I suggested to Mark that the name of the river be officially changed to “Green/Duwamish” or “Green-Duwamish” to help people recognize that this is a single river from the mountains to Puget Sound. After all, the name “Salish Sea” has helped some people realize that we share an inland waterway with Canadians. The other name-change option would be to call it Duwamish all the way.

Until I started reading about the Duwamish, I didn’t realize how this river once captured water from the Black River and the White River as well as the Green River and the Cedar River. But the system has changed drastically over the past century or so.


As you can see in the map on this page, the Green River once joined the White River and flowed north, picking up waters from the Black River. The Black River, which took drainage from Lake Washington, picked up water from the Cedar River.

Where the Black River merged with the White River, it became the Duwamish all the way to Puget Sound.

Two major events changed the rivers’ flow and subsequently the nomenclature. In 1906, a flood diverted the White River to the south into the channel of the Stuck River, which flowed into the Puyallup River. Shortly after that, the White River was artificially confined to keep it flowing south. Because the river flowing north contained water only from the Green River, the name “White” was changed to “Green” downstream to where the Duwamish began.

The other big event was the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 to connect the lake with Puget Sound. The construction lowered the lake by more than 8 feet, with the lake level controlled by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The Black River, which had taken the discharge flow from Lake Washington before construction, then dried up. The Cedar River, which had flowed into the Black River, was diverted into the lake.

Following those changes, the Green River and the Duwamish became essentially the same river, with the total flow perhaps one-third as much as it had been before the changes. If you are interested in this history and other geological forces at work in the area, check out the 1970 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (PDF 53.1 mb).

A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.

Studies of bottom fish help fill in key portions of Puget Sound food web

In a new video, Dayv Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does a great job explaining how scientific trawling provides information about the kinds of creatures that hang out on the bottom of Puget Sound.

The video shows a big net being brought to the surface filled with crabs and all sorts of strange creatures, which are then sorted and measured right on the deck of the Chasina. This research, which has been going on for years, provides information about how populations of marine species are changing over time.

Two years ago, I joined Dayv and his crew aboard the same trawler while working on the Kitsap Sun series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” With most of the attention focused on salmon, I thought it was important to highlight lesser-known fish that play a key role in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

You may wish to check out my story, “Problems with bottom fish are coming into view.” While you’re at it, maybe take a look at the graphic “Ten Puget Sound fish you may not know much about.”

Click on image to see interactive graphic. Kitsap Sun graphic
Click on image to see interactive graphic.
Kitsap Sun graphic

I hate to say it, but one reason that many marine fish get short shrift, compared to salmon, is that they are not as commercially valuable — but that does not mean they are not important.

Overfishing, combined with degraded habitat conditions and pollution caused many of these species to decline through the years. Three species of rockfish are now federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. For a recent update on rockfish, check out Water Ways from June 18.

It is encouraging to know that forage fish, including herring, will receive increased scrutiny with a $1.9-million boost from the Legislature, allowing studies on population, habitat and viability. Reporter Tristan Baurick wrote about this new appropriation in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun. The money should allow researchers to provide a nice status report, and I hope money will be available for ongoing monitoring into the future.

As for those species of fish caught by trawling, it’s time to figure out what role they play in the Puget Sound food web and what it will take to improve their conditions.

During the 1970s, new-fangled fish-finders and commercial fishing gear allowed for more intense fishing than ever before. State resource managers made a critical mistake in assuming that because fishing was going well, populations of bottom fish must be doing OK. Managing fishing using a steady-state fishing rate without adequate monitoring has been the downfall of fish populations throughout the world.

In Puget Sound, “the first sign of a problem came when there were no fish,” Dayv told me, only slightly exaggerating the problem.

Now the effort is to rebuild the populations, and it will likely take more than a trawler to understand where certain species reside and what is posing the greatest threat to recovery. Surveys using remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, have become an important tool, shedding light on fish living in shallow water and rocky areas where the trawler cannot go.

One thing that is still needed, however, is a map of the various types of underwater habitat throughout Puget Sound. Knowing the locations and extent of rocky versus sandy or muddy bottoms could provide a basis for estimating entire populations of marine species. Researchers are working on a computer model to do just that, but more underwater surveys are needed.

If residents of this unique region hope to restore Puget Sound to health, we must not forget about the bottom fish, which for many people tend to be out of sight and out of mind.