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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘septic systems’

Hood Canal report compiles oxygen studies

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Despite millions of dollars spent on research in Hood Canal, the precise causes of low-oxygen problems in Southern Hood Canal are still not fully understood, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology.

News articles about the report have created some confusion, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

As I reported in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun, research has not proven that nitrogen from human sources is responsible for a decline in oxygen levels greater than 0.2 milligrams per liter anywhere in Hood Canal. That number is important, because it is the regulatory threshold for action under the Clean Water Act.

Mindy Roberts, one of the authors of the report, told me that scientists who have worked on the low-oxygen problem have gained an appreciation for Hood Canal’s exceedingly complex physical and biological systems. So far, they have not come to consensus about how much human inputs of nitrogen contribute to the low-oxygen problems in Lower Hood Canal.

The report, which examined the complexity and scientific uncertainty about these systems, seems to have generated some confusion, even among news reporters. I think it is important to understand two fundamental issues:

1. The deep main channel of Hood Canal is almost like a separate body of water from Lower Hood Canal (also called Lynch Cove in some reports). This area is generally defined as the waters between Sisters Point and Belfair. Because Lower Hood Canal does not flush well, low-oxygen conditions there are an ongoing and very serious problem.

2. Fish kills around Hoodsport cannot be equated or even closely correlated with the low-oxygen conditions in Lower Hood Canal. The cause of these fish kills was not well understood a decade ago, but now researchers generally agree that heavy seawater coming in from the ocean pushes up a layer of low-oxygen water. When winds from the south blow away the surface waters, the low-oxygen water rises to the surface, leaving fish no place to go.

I’m not aware that researchers were blaming nitrogen from septic systems for the massive episodic fish kills, as Craig Welch reports in the Seattle Times. At least in recent years, most researchers have understood that this was largely a natural phenomenon and that human sources of nitrogen played a small role, if any, during a fish kill.

The question still being debated is how much (or how little) humans contribute to the low-oxygen level in the water that is pushed to the surface during a fish kill and whether there is a significant flow of low-oxygen water out of Lower Hood Canal, where oxygen conditions are often deadly at the bottom.

The new report, which was reviewed by experts from across the country, concludes that fish kills can be explained fully without considering any human sources of nitrogen. Evidence that low-oxygen water flows out of Lower Hood Canal in the fall is weak, the report says, though it remains a subject of some debate.

“We have not demonstrated that mechanism to their satisfaction,” Jan Newton of the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program told me in an interview. “We never said it caused the fish kill, only that it can reduce the oxygen level below what it was. In some years, it wouldn’t matter, but in some years it would make it worse.”

A cover letter (PDF 83 kb) to the EPA/Ecology reports includes this:

“While the draft report concludes that although human-caused pollution does not cause or contribute to the fish kills near Hoodsport, our agencies strongly support additional protections to ensure that nitrogen and bacteria loadings from human development are minimized.

“Water quality concerns extend beyond low dissolved oxygen and include bacteria and other pathogens that limit shellfish health. Overall, human impacts to Hood Canal water quality vary from place to place and at different times of year. Hood Canal is a very sensitive water body and people living in the watershed should continue their efforts to minimize human sources of pollution.”

One of the most confounding factors is the large amount of nitrogen born by ocean water that flows along the bottom of Hood Canal. An unresolved but critical questions is: How much of that nitrogen reaches the surface layer, where it can trigger plankton growth in the presence of sunlight?

Plankton growth is a major factor in the decline of oxygen levels, because plankton eventually die and decay, consuming oxygen in the process.

Human sources of nitrogen often enter Hood Canal at the surface, but researchers disagree on how much of the low-oxygen problem can be attributed to heavy seawater that reaches the sunny euphotic zone near the surface.

Here are the principal findings in the EPA/Ecology report, “Review and Synthesis of Available Information to Estimate Human Impacts to Dissolved Oxygen in Hood Canal” (PDF 3.8 mb).

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South Fork Dogfish Creek will get gradual makeover

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

The city of Poulsbo now has a reasonable blueprint for restoring the South Fork of Dogfish Creek as money and volunteers become available. The city is the logical entity to lead the effort, considering that 90 percent of the 700-acre watershed lies within the city limits.

Reporter Brynn Grimley quotes Mayor Becky Erickson in Wednesday’s Kitsap Sun:

“The plan identifies the low-hanging fruit, the individual projects over time that don’t cost a lot of money and that really restore the creek… Over the next four to five years, we hope to find funding and fix these one piece at a time. The idea of salmon spawning throughout Poulsbo and what that means to our heritage, that’s a good thing.”

The South Fork of Dogfish Creek
Kitsap Sun photo

The battle against pollution in Dogfish Creek has been going on for years under the leadership of the Kitsap County Health District. Much of the focus has been on septic systems and farming practices on the main stem of the creek, which flows down from the north through rural farmlands and housing developments, as well as the east and west forks of the stream.

What struck me about the plan for the South Fork is its clear focus on structure and function — in other words, looking at the needs of salmon. The South Fork Dogfish Creek Restoration Master Plan (PDF xx 8.8 mb) lists these objectives:

  • Remove, repair, and replace barriers to fish migration.
  • Restore/create off‐channel rearing and high‐flow refuge habitat.
  • Increase instream habitat complexity (e.g., install large woody debris, create pools).
  • Improve low‐flow water quality conditions (e.g., temperature and dissolved oxygen).
  • Improve high‐flow water quality conditions (e.g., sediment and chemical pollutants in stormwater).
  • Improve connection to the floodplain (i.e., restore natural planform and reduce channel incision).
  • Restore riparian habitat (e.g., restore native plant species, increase interspersion of different plant communities).
  • Restore connection to floodplain wetlands.
  • Enforce existing regulations that protect stream ecology.

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Oxygen in Hood Canal reaches dangerous levels

Friday, September 17th, 2010

I hate to be the voice of doom, but low-oxygen conditions in Hood Canal have never been worse — if you can believe the data gathered since the 1950s, alongside more intense monitoring the past several years.

In the southern portion of Hood Canal, you only need to go down about 30 feet to begin to see stressful oxygen levels in the range of 2 milligrams per liter. For current conditions at Hoodsport, go directly to the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program’s website, which lists data sent back from the Ocean Remote Chemical Analyzer (ORCA).

Sea creatures are beginning to show signs of stress, according to scuba diver Janna Nichols, who described her findings to me Wednesday after a dive in Hood Canal. She talked about fish “panting” as their gills moved in and out rapidly. Some fish, shrimp and other sealife had moved into shallower water. Watch Janna’s video of a wolf eel and other visuals she captured on the dive.

When low-oxygen conditions are that close to the surface, the danger is that a south wind will blow away the surface layer and bring low-oxygen water right to the surface, leaving fish with no place to go.

Of course, I have no desire to see a massive fish kill, but we already know that fish are probably dying in deep water due to the stressful conditions. I collect this information and offer these reports so that people can alert researchers when something happens. Being on the scene when fish are dying could provide important information about the nature of the low-oxygen problem. For details, please check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun Sept. 7 and Sept. 15 as well as the more technical report from Jan Newton on Sept. 7 (PDF 320 kb).

The phone number to report fish kills or oil spills is (800) 258-5990 or (800) OILS-911

If you haven’t heard, the worst low oxygen conditions normally occur in the fall after a summer of burgeoning numbers of plankton, encouraged by nitrogen and sunlight. By fall, much of the plankton has died and dropped to the bottom, where decay consumes the available of oxygen.

While there are plenty of natural sources of nitrogen in Hood Canal, computer models have demonstrated that human inputs from septic systems and stormwater can push things over the edge in the fall.

Officials are hoping that a new sewage-treatment plant in Belfair will begin to reduce the inputs of nitrogen into Lynch Cove. Another treatment plant is being planned in Potlatch. Stormwater upgrades also are being proposed for Belfair and other areas.

In addition to the low-oxygen problem, Hood Canal was closed to the harvest of oysters after people became sick from vibriosis, a natural bacteria that multiplies in warm conditions. See Kitsap Sun story Sept. 10 and Washington Department of Health maps.

The orange triangles represent this year's composite oxygen levels for the south half of Hood Canal. The latest reading, near the end of August, is the lowest ever seen.


Estuary grants will aid Chico Creek and more

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

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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Studies examine effects of drugs on ecosystems

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Investigations are under way throughout the world to determine if drugs that people take for various medical conditions are getting into the environment and affecting other species.

So far, the answers are not entirely clear, but studies have shown that pharmaceutical compounds are getting into the water through sewers and septic systems. A story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun involves water samples taken in Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay, where extremely low levels of several compounds were found.

Despite intensive studies, effects on the environment remain uncertain. Part of the problem is the vast number of pharmaceutical compounds being consumed by people, while the compounds themselves are often found in very low levels in our waterways.

A good number of studies are focusing on the effects of synthetic estrogen, because there is growing evidence that the sex ratios of fish are being altered near some sewage-treatment plants by constant exposure to such compounds. Elsewhere, laboratory studies are exposing fish and other organisms to a wide array of medical compounds at various levels to see if effects can be observed.

It is a complex field of inquiry, according to researchers I’ve interviewed. Sometimes effects are not observed in fish exposed to the chemicals, but show up in their offspring. Some changes may be too slight to notice at first but may be observed after several generations.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Check out the main page for general information or review the various areas of investigation.

The U.S. Geological Survey also is focusing studies on environmental effects of pharmaceuticals.


With effort, Dyes Inlet has grown much cleaner

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

It seems like only yesterday that the Kitsap County Health District started a major Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) project all around Dyes Inlet.

Now, after five years, the health district has released a report showing major improvements in water quality in all the major streams. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun or check out the report (PDF 1.7 mb).

During the project, area residents were assisted in finding and repairing their aging septic systems in various parts of the watershed. Businesses were shown how to maintain nearby storm sewers and were encouraged to flush washwater down the sanitary sewers, not the storm drain. Even old sewer lines were inspected and repaired in some cases.

Here are some specific water-quality data on Dyes Inlet streams:
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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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