Tag Archives: Water pollution

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better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”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

Embracing a new approach to nonpoint pollution?

When it comes to cleaning up bacterial pollution in Puget Sound, we seem to have a clash — or at least some redundancy — in the methods we use.

Sailors take advantage of the nice weather last week on Liberty Bay. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid.
Sailors take advantage of nice weather last week on Liberty Bay.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

In Kitsap County, water-quality officials are saying studies conducted by the Washington Department of Ecology, which allocated total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), have not been much help in attacking the local pollution problem.

That’s because the approach developed by Kitsap County, called the Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program, has been highly successful in tracking down and cleaning up bacterial pollution.

I wrote a story about this issue as it relates to Liberty Bay in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

I also talked a little about the two water-quality standards used for streams. It’s somewhat odd how Liberty Bay must conform to a stricter standard than nearby Dyes Inlet, since both are in urbanizing areas. By the way, there is only one standard for marine waters, and Liberty Bay is generally clean under that standard.

Other information on the Liberty Bay TMDL study can be found on Ecology’s website and in a news release.

With regard to cleanup methods, now that PIC has been adopted and funded for the Puget Sound region, one might argue that it is time to back away from the more cumbersome TMDL approach, which spends a great deal of money to allocate pollution loads with no guarantees that any cleanup will get done. For recent funding details, review the Washington Department of Health’s Page on “EPA Grant: Pathogens, Prevention, Reduction and Control” and the specific funding for PIC projects.

Continue reading

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

Hood Canal report compiles oxygen studies

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).

Continue reading

Amusing Monday: Toilet songs for the holidays

Knowing more than a few sewer operators in my day, I can tell you that their leading pet peeve is all the stuff that people dump down their toilets and drains.

I’ll never forget the courtroom description of a giant “rag ball” — some 30 feet long — found in Bremerton’s sewer. Rag balls are the accumulation of diapers, tampons and baby wipes that get flushed down the toilet and become caught somewhere in the sewer lines.

Bremerton’s famous rag ball became wrapped up in courtroom testimony during a lawsuit against a sewer contractor hired by the city to run the operation. For details, check out my story from April of 1998.

Steve Anderson

What I really wanted to share with you this week is a song called “O Christmas Grease” by Steve Anderson, a water resources analyst at Clean Water Services. This is the agency that manages wastewater and stormwater in a 12-city region west of Portland, Ore.

Steve often writes music and performs in a band when he’s not working at the utility. He told me that he started writing original songs as well as parodies of existing tunes to entertain his fellow water experts at conferences. Last week, for example, he showed up at a conference to help educators decide whether humor is useful in educating people about wastewater issues.

Steve says the public-education folks at Clean Water Services tolerates his songs, but they do not fully embrace his activities. His first song — a parody about the low levels of drugs that make it through the treatment process — got him into a little hot water with some folks in the business. “Dope in the Water” is sung to the tune of the Deep Purple original.

“The Ballad of Betty Poop” was written as a kid’s song for Take-Your-Children-to-Work Day. It’s about the adventures of a plastic GI Joe and other characters. It includes these famous lines: “Give it up, you toilet treasures… You’ll never make it all the way to the river…”

Steve has not released these songs to the public, though he readily shares them with friends and anyone who will listen. I must thank Gayle Leonard, who writes a blog called “Thirsty in Suburbia,” for bringing Steve’s songs out into the light and putting me in touch with this creative force in the sewer world.

 
 
 
 
 

Download the lyrics to all five songs (PDF 72 kb)

Are you ready to water the lawn with treated sewage?

It seems as if it has taken forever for someone in Kitsap County to put treated sewage to beneficial use, but a demonstration project on Retsil Road in South Kitsap is just around the corner. Check out my story in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Darren Noon of Pape and Sons Construction Co. welds a section of "purple pipe" along Retsil Road in South Kitsap, the first reclaimed water project in Kitsap County.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

Local water experts were contemplating uses for highly treated wastewater even before “low-impact development” became a common phrase for infiltrating stormwater into the ground.

LID has caught on fairly quickly as a method of keeping polluted stormwater from reaching our streams and Puget Sound. The concept got an extra push from new stormwater regulations, which have greatly increased the cost of conventional pipe-and-pond methods of stormwater management.

The less-touted benefit of LID is groundwater recharge, which boosts our long-range water supply.

Kitsap County’s Watershed Management Plan (PDF 147 kb), developed in 2005, estimated that Kitsap County’s sewage treatment plants release 8 million gallons of treated water into Puget Sound each day. That’s enough to increase the base flow of 10 streams by 10 cubic feet per second, raise aquifer levels throughout the county or launch a new industry without touching our drinking water supplies.

“The most significant barriers to recycling wastewater are the cost of infrastructure and additional treatment, as well as public perception,” the report states. “Elected officials in WRIA 15 (the Kitsap Peninsula) have expressed support for public education about reclaimed water.”

The report mentions that highly treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville could be used to supplement streamflows in nearby Steele Creek. But more recently Kitsap County and Silverdale Water District have begun working together on a plan to pipe the water into the heart of Silverdale, where it can be used to water ballfields and landscaping.

That’s also the initial plan put forth by West Sound Utility District, as I mentioned in Saturday’s story. Using wastewater for irrigation cuts down on peak demand, which is what drives water utilities to drill new wells. Needless to say, drilling deep wells comes at a tremendous expense — an expense that grows greater as Kitsap County approaches the limits of its groundwater supplies in some locations.

To many people, using reclaimed wastewater seems like a novel idea, especially in an region known for its rain. People remain squeamish about getting anywhere near sewage water, even if it is treated. But I don’t believe it will take long for people to accept the idea of using treated wastewater for irrigation, once they realize it is treated to basically the same level as drinking water.

On the other hand, drinking treated effluent becomes another issue, even though it has been done indirectly for years in many places. If you live in a town on the Mississippi River, your local utility may be drawing water out of the river for your consumption just downstream of where a sewage treatment plant is dumping its effluent.

There are several other places where reclaimed water is mixed with freshwater, such as in a reservoir, then drawn back out for drinking. Ironically, putting the wastewater into a reservoir makes it seem more palatable, even though it probably was cleaner before. Treating the water in the reservoir is essentially treating the wastewater again — although water is just water in the end.

For a description of reclaimed water systems in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, check out a fact sheet compiled by Queensland Water Commission, Australia: “Water recycling: Examples from other countries” (PDF 592 kb).

A community in Texas made news across the country last week, when reporter Angela Brown of the Associated Press wrote about a new $13-million water-reclamation plant to turn effluent into drinking water, the first to be built in that state. Really, it is nothing new, as Angela herself points out.

What I have not found anywhere so far is a direct use of reclaimed water. That’s what you would get by pumping the highly treated wastewater directly into a municipal water system’s piping network. From a health standpoint, there would be nothing wrong with that, provided the water could be shut off in the event of a problem at the treatment plant. No doubt this kind of direct use will be a little harder to get used to, even in areas where water is scarce.

Alix Spiegel of National Public Radio does a nice job analyzing the psychology behind the aversion to using treated wastewater and why people are more accepting of indirect use. Read or listen to “Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds .”

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.

Watching the water-quality report cards

I guess we’re lucky in Kitsap County to have local health authorities who not only gather water-quality data but also know what to do with the information. I’m told that’s not the case for many counties in Washington state or across the nation.

The reason I bring this up is because of a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun. Some of the water-quality report cards being issued by environmental groups are nothing more than a rewrite of raw data from water-quality samples collected by local officials. This could be valuable information in places where no other information is offered. But water-quality specialists at the Kitsap County Health District stand ready to interpret the data and take more samples, if necessary, so we know when we really should worry.

One bad sample does not mean we should run away from the water, but it does serve to raise some questions. Asking questions is the role I play when I see these reports. Fortunately, we have experts in Kitsap County who know our streams and beaches and who are willing and able to answer my questions.

It would be interesting to know how many counties in the state conduct routine monitoring of streams, lakes and marine waters; how many do follow-up tests when they find a problem; how many assess the findings to measure trends; and how many use the data to begin corrective actions. If anyone knows of information compiled on monitoring programs for all counties or cities, please let me know. If not, maybe this would be a project someone could take on.

Kitsap County’s monitoring program is funded by a stormwater fee collected with our property taxes. The residential fee is $70 per year. Commercial businesses may pay more, depending on their size.

Many cities and counties collect stormwater fees, but few use the money for monitoring. Even fewer compile long-term trends with a comprehensive ongoing monitoring program. Such programs deserve consideration.

In addition to paying for water-quality testing, Kitsap County’s stormwater fee is used to investigate sources of pollution; retrofit older communities with stormwater systems; clean out storm drains on county property; inspect all storm drains except for state highways; teach people about clean water; coordinate volunteers in programs including Beach Watchers and Stream Stewards; provide signs and supplies for the Mutt Mit dog-waste cleanup program; fund grants for a backyard rain garden program; and plan for and monitor results of stream-restoration and stormwater-retrofit projects.

I’m not saying that programs such as Heal the Bay and Testing the Waters (by Natural Resources Defense Council) don’t have value. In some cases, this is all that communities have, and they provide a good reason to ask questions about water quality.

But, as Keith Grellner of the Kitsap County Health District told me, these reports may be like crying wolf for some individuals. If people keep hearing warnings when the problems are minimal or nonexistent, will they pay attention in the face of serious water-quality concerns?