Tag Archives: Stormwater

Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid
Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.

Streamlined name is simple: ‘Clean Water Kitsap’

I can’t begin to estimate the number of times I’ve typed “Kitsap County Surface and Stormwater Management Program” over the past 20 years in stories about pollution in Kitsap County and the need to clean up local waterways.

Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth, left, along with Commissioner Rob Gelder and water quality manager Mindy Fohn reveal the new name on a truck used to clean out storm drains. Photo courtesy of Kitsap County
Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth, left, along with Commissioner Rob Gelder and water-quality manager Mindy Fohn reveal the new name on a truck used to clean out storm drains. / Photo courtesy of Kitsap County

But my typing fingers are already offering thanks for a new, shorter name, which will no doubt save some ink as well.

We won’t be talking about the “swim program” anymore when trying to pronounce the abbreviation, SSWM. I hope we won’t need any abbreviation for the new name, which is “Clean Water Kitsap.”

“Clean Water Kitsap” nicely wraps up the goals and image of the long-running program with just three words. It’s a good name with an up-to-date style.

This is the program that collects stormwater fees from properties in unincorporated Kitsap County and uses the money to track down pollution, reduce stormwater and help people do the right thing. The spirit of the program is captured in a new video you can see on this page.

Four agencies receive portions of the stormwater money and coordinate their efforts to clean up our local waters. Here is a short summary of what they do:

Kitsap County Public Works (Stormwater Program): Maintenance of public stormwater systems, inspection of private systems, upgrades to regional systems, street sweeping, watershed monitoring and public education.

Kitsap Public Health District: Countywide monitoring of streams, lakes and bays; pollution identification and correction programs; pollution advisories; public-health investigations; and septic system education.

Kitsap Conservation District: Farm-management assistance and planning; rain garden and green infrastructure grants and assistance; and backyard habitat grants.

WSU Kitsap Extension: Training for stream stewards, beach watchers and rain garden professionals; and coordination of various volunteer projects.

I wrote about the newly approved name Clean Water Kitsap in November (Kitsap Sun, Nov. 29, 2013, subscription), when officials began planning on how they would roll out the new name and logo. Some people wanted to start using the name right away, but organizers kept a lid on it.

logo

As of today, the new name is official and will be used with a new logo. A new website is coming.

I wrote a brief story for tomorrow’s newspaper (Kitsap Sun, May 22), but I could not attend today’s dedication because of other reporting commitments.

From a news release from the county, we get these quotes:

Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth:
“It seems fitting that we are making this change in 2014, at the 20-year mark of this innovative and nationally-recognized program. It is built upon partnerships between agencies, volunteers and community groups.”

Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder:
“Our community may not know what their stormwater fees pay for or think about stormwater management every day. But, Kitsap residents benefit every day – rain or shine.”

The site of the dedication was an overhauled stormwater pond north of Silverdale. The pond, with 2,000 young plants, will increase stormwater storage by 20 percent and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Chris May, manager of the county’s Stormwater Program, speaking of the revamped pond :
“Thanks to the Public Works crews for transforming this ‘water prison’ to a water quality improvement project for Clear Creek and a community amenity. As we move to greener stormwater solutions, it’s facilities like this that will help restore our streams and Puget Sound.”

County Commissioner Rob Gelder joins the planting effort at a stormwater pond at Quail Hollow north of Silverdale. Photo courtesy of Kitsap County
County Commissioner Rob Gelder joins the planting effort at a stormwater pond at Quail Hollow north of Silverdale. / Photo courtesy of Kitsap County

Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

We just completed another group of stories in the ongoing series we’re calling “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” This latest story package is about marine water quality and marine sediments. (The stories themselves require a subscription.)

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound
Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

For all my years of environmental reporting, I have to say that I’ve never really understood the meaning of water quality. Keeping the water free of chemicals and fecal bacteria is one thing. Safe levels of oxygen, temperature, acidity and suspended sediment are other important factors.

But in the real world, you never find ideal conditions. You take what you get: physical conditions dictated by weather, climate and bathymetry; a strange brew of toxic chemicals; and a mix of nutrients and organic material, all drifting through complex cycles of life and death.

Water quality means nothing without the context of living things. More than 1,000 species of tiny organisms live in or on the mud at the bottom of Puget Sound. In many areas, sensitive species have disappeared. We are left with those that can tolerate harsher conditions. Why are they dying off? What can be done about it?

Some plankton species are becoming more dominant, and the effects on the food web are unknown. When water quality is poor, Jellyfish are displacing forage fish, disrupting the food supply for larger fish.

We know that toxic chemicals are spilling into Puget Sound in stormwater and getting into the food web, first touching the tiniest organisms and eventually causing havoc for fish, marine mammals and humans. Compounds that mimic hormones are affecting growth, reproduction and survival for a myriad of species. Because of biomagnification, some chemicals are having serious effects at concentrations that could not be measured until recently.

Puget Sound can’t cleanse itself by flushing its chemicals and waste out to sea, as most bays do. Puget Sound is long and narrow and deep, and the exchange of water takes a long time. Most of the bad stuff floating in the water just sloshes back and forth with the daily tides.

We can’t forget that some of the good stuff floating around are microscopic plants that feed the food web, along with a variety of larvae that will grow into fish, shellfish and many other creatures. But many of these planktonic life forms are vulnerable to chemicals, which can reduce their ability to survive against predators, tipping the balance in unknown ways.

Understanding water quality is not so much about measuring what is in the water as understanding the effects on living things. Which species are missing from a given area of Puget Sound, and what killed them off?

Biological monitoring has been around for a long time, but we may be entering a new phase of exploration in which we begin to connect the dots between what takes place on the land, how chemicals and nutrients get into the water, and what that means for every creature struggling to survive.

We have some brilliant people working on this problem in the Puget Sound region. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me gain a better understanding of these issues, as I attempt to explain these complexities in my stories.

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While I was looking into the sediment story, Maggie Dutch of Ecology’s sediment monitoring team introduced me to a huge number of benthic invertebrates. In a blog she calls “Eyes Under Puget Sound,” she talks about the monitoring program and offers a slideshow of some of the bottom creatures. See also Ecology’s Flickr page.

For some amazing shots of polychaete worms, check out the work of marine biologist and photographer Alex Semenov who took these colorful pix in Russia and Australia.

Is that a light I see shining at the end of restoration?

When it comes to ecosystem restoration, I love it when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s rare when we have a chance to say that restoration is nearing completion, since we know that habitat work continues on and on, seemingly without end, in many areas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, a massive pond was constructed off Waaga Way to capture stormwater from developments that was flowing into Steele Creek. Photo by Larry Steagall
Last summer, a massive pond was constructed off Waaga Way to capture stormwater from Central Kitsap developments flowing straight into Steele Creek. / Photo by Larry Steagall

So let us anticipate a celebration when Kitsap County’s regional stormwater projects are completed, when all the deadly ghost nets have been removed from the shallow waters of Puget Sound, and when there are no more creosote pilings left on state tidelands.

Of course, the light at the end of the tunnel may be a mirage, but let’s not go there quite yet.

Kitsap regional ponds

Kitsap County has been collecting a Surface and Stormwater Management Fee from residents in unincorporated areas and using some of that money to leverage state and federal stormwater grants. The fee is currently $73.50, but it will rise to $78 in 2014, $82 in 2015, $86.50 in 2016, $91 in 2017 and $96 in 2018. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 27, 2012.

The good news is that the effort to retrofit old, outmoded stormwater systems is nearing completion, with remaining projects either in design or nearing the design phase. Check out the Kitsap County Public Works Capital Facilities Program for a list of completed projects with maps as well as proposed projects with maps. As the documents show, the regional retrofits are on their way to completion.

So what are the sources of future stormwater problems? The answer is roads, and the problem is enormous. Still, the county has begun to address the issue with a pilot project that could become a model for other counties throughout Puget Sound. Please read my September story, “New strategies will address road runoff” (subscription) to see how the county intends to move forward.

Ghost nets and crab pots

Earlier this year, the Legislature provided $3.5 million to complete the removal of derelict fishing gear that keeps on killing in waters less than 105 feet deep. The work is to be done before the end of 2015.

Sites where known nets are still killing fish. Map courtesy of Northwest Straits Commission
Sites where known nets are still killing fish.
Map courtesy of Northwest Straits

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was excited about the prospect. Here’s what he said in a news release.

“Working in conjunction with our partners at Northwest Straits and in the State Legislature, we have made enormous strides toward eliminating the risks posed to fish and wildlife by derelict fishing gear. This is difficult work, and it requires a real commitment from everyone to get it done. We look forward to celebrating the next milestone in 2015.”

The most amazing statistic I found on this topic involved the number of animals trapped by ghost nets. According to one predictive model, if all the nets had been left alone to keep fishing, they could be killing 3.2 million animals each year.

For additional information, read the story I wrote for last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) or check out the Northwest Straits webpage.

Creosote pilings and docks

Washington Department of Natural Resources hasn’t slowed down in its effort to remove old creosote pilings and docks. The structures can be toxic to marine life, obstruct navigation and snag fishing gear. By 2015, the total bill for removing such debris is expected to reach $13 million.

Nobody is sure how much it will cost to remove the last of the creosote materials from state lands, but DNR officials have inventoried the various sites and expect to come up with a final priority list over the next six months. Some pilings on privately owned land may be a higher priority for the ecosystem, and officials are trying to decide how to address those sites. Of course, nobody can tackle pilings on private lands without working through the property owners.

Download a spreadsheet of the work completed so far (PDF 53 kb), which involves a focus on 40 sites throughout Puget Sound. Altogether, the projects removed about 11,000 pilings plus about 250,000 square feet of “overwater structures,” such as docks.

I mentioned work underway in Jefferson County in my story last week (subscription), and reporter Tristan Baurick mentioned a specific cleanup project at Nick’s Lagoon (subscription) in Kitsap County. You may also wish to check out the DNR’s page on Creosote Removal.

Take special care to save carwashes from extinction

I used to feel happy for teenagers who got together on a weekend to wash cars and raise money for a good cause. I would often take time to drive in, get my car washed and praise the teens for their efforts. And I would give them a nice tip.

Now, when I see a charity carwash, I just want to know where the water is going. If the water is washing into a storm drain that spills into a stream, I can’t help but wonder if these kids care about fish and wildlife, or if they might not have gotten the message about the harm caused by dirty, soapy water.

You may wish to read the story I wrote on this topic in last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Sometimes, being an environmental reporter causes one to think a little too much about the environment. Sure, carwashes probably are not going to kill everything in sight. But they are just another insult from a human society that has not yet learned how to protect the living Earth.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 declared that it was illegal to discharge polluted water into any natural stream or waterway. At the time, industrial discharges were so severe that soap and heavy metals from carwashes were insignificant. But now, after 40 years, those industrial point sources are greatly diminished, and researchers are learning that the greatest threat to water quality today comes from thousands of small sources.

Gov. Jay Inslee has declared this month “Puget Sound Starts Here Month,” according to a press release issued by the Puget Sound Partnership. The idea is for each of us to pay attention to how we affect Puget Sound.

Here’s the message from Marc Daily, the partnership’s interim executive director:

“It’s not just about the pipe coming out of the factory anymore. Today, stormwater runoff is the single largest contributor to our water quality problems. That pollution comes from our cars and how we wash them, from the chemicals we put on our lawns, and from not picking up after our pets. When it rains, bacteria and toxic chemicals from these and other sources end up in our local waterways. That’s a problem.”

From King County Water and Land Resources
From King County Water and Land Resources

One way to keep charity car washes alive is to capture the wash water and direct it into a toilet or sink that connects to a municipal sewer system, not a septic system. King County provides instructions for making and using a carwash kit to handle the water.

People can also sell tickets to commercial carwashes, which is the method being pushed by most water-quality programs across the nation. It’s not just here that carwashes are getting increasing attention.

How much harm do they cause? It varies from place to place, but some students from Central Kitsap High School calculated the amount of various chemicals produced by capturing the water from washing cars and conducting lab tests on some of the pollutants. See “Characterization of Runoff from Charity Carwashes in the Dyes Inlet Watershed” (PDF 475 kb).

Like many people, I feel a tinge of sadness that carwashes will probably die out. Like many harmful traditions, such as burning garbage and smoking, it might be time to give this one up.

Still, if you want to operate a weekend car wash, get yourself a carwash kit to deal with the wash water. Then stand on the corner and wave signs promoting the fact that this is a clean and safe carwash that protects the environment. If I see you, I’ll even stop and donate to the cause.

‘Don’t Drip and Drive’ offers one approach to oil leaks

I would like to share some comments from a story along with an editorial cartoon, but first I want to talk about rain runoff from streets, driveways, parking lots, yards and roofs — also known as stormwater.

Stormwater is considered the greatest pollution threat to Puget Sound, according to studies by the Washington Department of Ecology. Of course, it is not the rain itself that causes the problem. It is what gets picked up along the way: chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, bacteria … The list goes on.

Cameron Coleman finishes up an oil change on a car at Hockett & Olsen Automotive on Bainbridge Island, where car owners can obtain a free oil-leak inspection. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid
Cameron Coleman finishes up an oil change on a car at Hockett & Olsen Automotive on Bainbridge Island, where car owners can obtain a free oil-leak inspection.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

Among the toxic chemicals, one of the biggest problems appears to be motor oil from vehicles. Oil leaks out of cars as they are moving down the road or while they are parked, then the rains wash the pollution into the nearest ditch and eventually into Puget Sound. By some estimates, that amounts to 7 million quarts of oil each year.

Fortunately, not all the oil goes into the water. In Kitsap County, for example, city and county street sweepers are driving around, picking up some of the oil and other chemicals along with soil particles on the roads. It is a proven effort to reduce pollution.

It would be better still if the oil didn’t get on the roads or parking lots in the first place. But how do you get people to fix the oil leaks in their cars?

An organization of local governments throughout the Puget Sound region is hoping that awareness will provide one answer. More than 80 service shops in the region have agreed to check for oil leaks at no cost or obligation to anyone. See my story in last Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

It’s a pilot program with the clever title “Don’t Drip and Drive.” It will run through April. The cost to the government is the cost of advertising on the radio. A federal stormwater permit issued to local governments throughout the region already requires that they try to educate the public. Maybe this campaign will work; maybe it won’t. I’ll report on the results after the program is over.

It seems like a simple approach to the problem. Even if people know their cars are leaking, this program encourages them to think about solutions. Why not get a free estimate to see what it would cost to fix the leak? Maybe it won’t cost much. Maybe a few people will find a way to address the problem sooner rather than later. Maybe it will reduce wear on their vehicles.

If people become informed and are offered a free, no-obligations solution, will it make a difference? I hope it does, because it avoids the more heavy-handed ideas, such as requiring vehicle inspections to obtain a car license.

If you read some of the comments at the end of the story, however, you might think this pilot program is intruding into people’s personal lives, not just asking them to check for oil leaks. I realize that the comments section can be a dark place, occupied by people who see a full glass as empty. But it is amusing to see what bothers some people.

Here are the first few comments:

“I would guess that 99% of drivers park their vehicle in the same spot in their driveway or garage every night. Do we need a government program so they won’t have to look at that spot to see if oil has dropped there?”

“I agree! Government is way outside of what they are supposed to be. This is ridiculous and out of control.”

“Yep so they find a leak and what’s next??? Big time repair bill and just in time to keep your wallet empty! Nice program! Big goverment (sic) get out of my life will you???”

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’d like to share with you an editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Oil

Highway runoff can kill coho before they can spawn

Stormwater runoff from highways has been found to contain one or more toxic compounds that can bring on sudden death in coho and possibly other salmon as well.

Researchers Kate Macneale (left) and Julann Spromberg place a coho salmon into a tub of stormwater at Grover's Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. Their studies have revealed that urban stormwater can kill coho before they are able to spawn in a stream. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Royal / Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Researchers Kate Macneale (left) and Julann Spromberg place a coho salmon into a tub of stormwater at Grover’s Creek Hatchery. Their studies have revealed that urban stormwater can kill coho before they are able to spawn.
Photo: Tiffany Royal/Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center first noticed the problem in Seattle’s Longfellow Creek, which gets a high volume of stormwater when it rains. Returning adult coho were dying in the stream before they could spawn.

The problem was confirmed last fall at Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap, where coho were placed into tanks containing highway runoff. Even after days of rain, the runoff was deadly, causing the fish to become disoriented and die within hours. This was not a disease process but a severe physiological disruption of the salmon’s metabolism.

On Monday, I reported on these dramatic new findings made by Nat Scholz and his colleagues at NOAA. Since then, the story was picked up by the Associated Press and has appeared in dozens of publications and news digests across the country.

I won’t go into detail about the study here, because most of what I know is the story. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 21. Toward the end, I describe some actions that Kitsap County officials are taking to keep highway dirt and debris from getting into local streams, even before the deadly compounds are identified.

I’ll continue to follow this story as scientists try to narrow down the list of possible toxic compounds that are causing the problem. The next step will be to take clues from tissues removed from the dying salmon at Grover’s Creek Hatchery.

Naturally, these new findings raise many questions about how the unknown chemicals affect the fish so rapidly and where these compounds come from. Could it be from automobile tires or exhaust, or could it be something in the road material itself? Are certain chemicals acting synergistically to heighten the problem? Answering these questions could make a significant difference for urban streams and possibly for rural streams as well.

Personally, I can’t help wondering about the salmon that survive. It’s not easy to find a coho stream where highway runoff does not contribute something to the flow. If these compounds can kill a fish in concentrations found in stormwater, what are they doing to fish exposed to lower concentrations? Are the salmon that survive as successful in finding a mate and conducting their spawning rituals as salmon not exposed at all?

I’m not sure where this line of research will lead, but the early implications appear to be quite serious. On an optimistic note, if the compounds can be identified, Washington state has a reputation for reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals at the source.

Shooting down excuses to permeable pavement

Lisa Stiffler of Sightline Institute does an excellent job addressing common objections to permeable pavement in her latest discussion about stormwater solutions. See Sightline’s website.

I’ve heard the excuses from contractors worried about the use and maintenance of new paving materials. Lisa did some research and tells us that when the concerns are valid, there may be ways to work around the problems.

The fears she allays, including sources for more information:

  • Permeable pavement will clog and lose its porousness.
  • Holes in permeable pavement make it weaker.
  • Permeable pavement won’t work on high-speed, high-volume roads such as highways.
  • Permeable pavement won’t work on sloped sites.
  • Permeable pavement will result in groundwater contamination.
  • Permeable pavement is prohibitively expensive.
  • Permeable pavement is more prone to rutting, breaking apart, or otherwise failing.

The latest post is part of Lisa’s ongoing discussion called “Stormwater Solutions: Curbing Toxic Runoff.”

Studies look at effects of stormwater on salmon

It’s the water, or maybe it’s just the nasty stuff that’s in the water.

A new series of studies by federal researchers is delving into the question of which pollutants in urban streams are killing coho salmon.

David Baldwin of Northwest Fisheries Science Center mixes a chemical soup of pollutants found in urban stormwater. Coho salmon will be kept in the brown bath for 24 hours to measure the effects.
Photo by Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

As I describe in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun, the new studies involve coho returning to the Suquamish Tribe’s Grovers Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap.

Of course, pollutants in streams are just one factor affecting salmon in the Puget Sound region, where development continues to alter streamflows and reduce vegetation, despite efforts to protect and restore habitat. But pollution may play a role that has gone largely unnoticed in some streams.

The new studies continue an investigation that began more than a decade ago with the involvement of numerous agencies. By now, most of us have heard about the effects of copper on salmon, but the latest round of studies will look at the collection of pollutants found in stormwater to see how they work together. It may be possible to pinpoint the chemical concentrations that result in critical physiological changes in salmon.

The latest work involves a team led by David Baldwin of NOAA Fisheries and Steve Damm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Suquamish Tribe is providing the fish, along with facilities and support.

For information on the ongoing effort to understand how toxic chemicals affect salmon, review these pages on the website of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center:

Acute die-offs of adult coho salmon 
returning to spawn in restored urban streams

The impacts of dissolved copper on olfactory 
function in juvenile coho salmon

Mechanosensory impacts of non-point source pollutants in fish

Cardiovascular defects in fish embryos exposed 
to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

A page called “Coho Pre-spawn Mortality in Urban Streams” presents a series of videos that show the advance of an apparent neurological disease that first causes disorientation in coho salmon and then death. The video is taken in Seattle’s Longfellow Creek, an urban stream.

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.