Citing pollution problems in Puget Sound, an environmental group
is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Washington
state’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.
Environmental Advocates, based in Portland, says a review of
103 discharge permits issued by the Washington Department of
Ecology shows a failure to control nitrogen pollution. Excess
nitrogen reduces oxygen levels in the water and triggers algae
blooms, resulting in serious problems in Puget Sound, according to
petition submitted to the EPA.
“Ecology determined that over 80 percent of the human sources of
nitrogen in Puget Sound comes from cities and towns, but it
continues to issue discharge permits as if it were completely
ignorant of these facts,” Nina Bell, the group’s executive
director, said in a
“It’s just flat out illegal to issue permits that contribute to
harmful pollution levels,” she added. “These permits are the
walking dead, existing merely to create the impression that the
state is doing its job to control water pollution when it is
As far as I know, nobody has come up with a good name for the
type of pollution that gets picked up by rainwater that flows
across the ground, carrying contaminants into ditches, streams and
eventually large waterways, such as Puget Sound.
“Stormwater pollution” is a term I have frequently used. But
Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, made
a good point when I interviewed her last summer about the perils of
“I don’t really like calling it ‘stormwater,’” Sheida told me.
“It doesn’t have much to do with storms. It has to do with people.
We’re talking about our dirt, our detritus, our filth. Everyone has
it, and we all dump it into the sound to one degree or
Stormwater is relatively pure when it falls from the sky as
rain. It only gets dirty because the runoff picks up dirt, toxic
chemicals, bacteria and other wastes, mostly left behind by
“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really
what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”
Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington
Department of Ecology tend to call it “nonpoint source pollution.”
It’s a term that tells us what this kind of pollution is not.
Specifically, it is not pollution coming from a point source, such
as a pipe. But “nonpoint” does not describe what it really is.
Technically, nonpoint pollution is more than stormwater. It
includes waterborne sources such as marinas and atmospheric
deposition from air pollution. Taken together, this form of
pollution remains the most serious threat facing those who would
clean up and protect Puget Sound.
We need a new term like “mess-left-behind pollution,” because it
generally results from someone leaving some kind of contamination
on the ground — such as animal waste or leaking motor oil — or
failing to anticipate future problems — such as those caused by
toxic flame retardants in furniture or mercury from a multitude of
coal-fired power plants.
Agriculture, including livestock wastes;
fertilizers and pesticides; and erosion from grazing practices and
over-cultivation of fields.
Atmospheric deposition, including emissions
from automobile, industrial and agricultural sources and backyard
burning of trash.
Forest practices, including turbidity from
erosion caused by loss of vegetation and road-building, as well as
pesticides and fertilizers from forest applications.
including increased temperature from loss of vegetation or water
impoundment; turbidity from erosion caused by shoreline alteration;
and increased bacteria and chemical concentrations from loss of
Recreation, including sewage, paint and
solvents from boats.
Urban/suburban areas, including bacteria from
failing septic systems, pet wastes and urban wildlife; erosion from
construction and landscaping; lawn chemicals; road runoff; chemical
spills; and increased stream temperature from loss of
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.