Tag Archives: Water pollution

Call it ‘nonpoint’ or ‘stormwater;’ this problem is serious

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.

Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. Kitsap Sun photo
Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. // Kitsap Sun photo

“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 stormwater.

“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 another.”

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 people.

“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”

To read more about this discussion, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” and the story “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.”

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.

A new plan by Ecology to deal with this type of pollution is now under review. It is called “Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution” (PDF 10.6 mb).

The general categories described in the plan are:

  • 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.
  • Habitat alteration/hydromodification, 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 streamside vegetation.
  • 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 vegetation.

The plan lists a variety of objectives and strategies for reducing the impacts of nonpoint pollution. Among them are these ideas:

  • Complete 265 watershed cleanup plans by 2020, focusing on at least eight priority watersheds each year.
  • Respond to all complaints about water quality by confirming or resolving problems.
  • Provide grants and loans for projects designed to bring a waterway into compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.
  • Support local pollution identification and correction programs to track down pollution sources and eliminate the problems. (Kitsap County was identified as a model program.)
  • Support water-quality trading programs that allow water cleanup efforts in lieu of meeting increased requirements for industrial and sewage discharges.
  • Increase education efforts to help people understand how to reduce nonpoint pollution.
  • Coordinate with organized groups and government agencies, including tribes.
  • Continue existing monitoring programs and increase monitoring to measure the effectiveness of water-quality-improvement projects.
  • Develop a statewide tracking program for cleanup efforts with an annual goal of reducing nitrogen by 40,000 pounds, phosphorus by 14,000 pounds and sediment by 8,000 pounds.

Public comments will be taken on the plan until June 5. Three remaining public meetings are scheduled before then. For information, check out Ecology’s webpage, “Washington State’s Plan to Control Nonpoint Pollution.”

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Kitsap to receive major funding for stormwater, sewer construction

Washington Department of Ecology is poised to award $229 million in grants and loans for projects that will help clean up waters throughout the state.

Grants

Grants to Kitsap County include $4.2 million for planned stormwater projects, plus another $4.6 million to lay sewer lines designed to protect shellfish beds in South Kitsap’s Yukon Harbor.

This level of funding for a single round of water-quality grants demonstrates that elected officials are serious about cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies throughout the state. The Legislature must still approve the funding for the proposed grants and loans.

The Yukon Harbor project is interesting, because Kitsap County officials were able to show that residents of the South Kitsap area would face a severe hardship if forced to pay for a new sewer line and all the connections themselves.

Yukon Harbor has been the subject of pollution identification and correction projects by the Kitsap Public Health District. Fixing septic systems and cleaning up pollution from animals allowed 935 acres of shellfish beds to be reopened in 2008. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008. But recent studies show that the pollution is growing worse again as some systems continue to have problems. Officials say the best answer is to run a sewer line to properties on or near the beach.

The grant will pay for the sewer line and pump station to carry sewage to the Manchester sewage treatment plant. Some money will be used to help residents pay for the costs of connections to their homes.

Without the state grant, officials estimate that each of the 121 property owners would need to pay about $70,000 to complete the project, according to David Tucker of Kitsap County Public Works. Without the “severe hardship” grant, the project probably would not get done.

One nice thing about this project is that residents will not be required to hook up to the sewer, Dave told me. Those who have upgraded or replaced their septic systems or have systems still working well may continue to use their own on-site systems.

“The common infrastructure will be covered by the grant,” Tucker said, “and people can make a choice about whether they want to connect. Everybody’s septic system is in a different state of condition.”

In addition to the $4.6 million grant, the county will receive a low-interest loan of $432,000 for the remainder of the $5 million needed for the project. Design is scheduled to begin this year, followed by construction in 2017 if things go well.

Meanwhile, stormwater projects continue to gain attention, because they can address both pollution and streamflow problems. In Kitsap Countyu, grants were proposed for the following stormwater projects, which require a 25-percent local match:

  • Clear Creek project, known as Duwe’iq Stormwater Treatment Wetland, which will use a $937,000 grant to create a stormwater wetland off Silverdale Way near Ross Plaza to collect water from 18 acres of commercially developed property.
  • Ridgetop Boulevard Green Streets project, which will use $1 million in a second phase of construction to create biofiltration systems in the median of Ridgetop Boulevard in Silverdale.
  • Silverdale Way Regional Stormwater Facility project will use $1.5 million for new stormwater ponds north of Waaga Way to collect stormwater running off steep hills in the area.
  • Chico and Dickerson creeks project will receive $500,000 to complete the second phase of a project to replace two culverts on David and Taylor roads and establish floodplains to take excess water during heavy rainstorms.
  • Bay Shore Drive and Washington Avenue Filterra project will use $277,000 to install 15 Filterra planter-box stormwater filters to reduce pollution coming off streets in Old Town Silverdale.

Kitsap County also was successful in obtaining a low-interest loan of $3.8 million to replace three aging pump stations and upgrade a sewer line on the beach near Manchester. Since the line is part of the Manchester system, the loan will be repaid through sewer fees.

In all, Ecology received 227 applications requesting more than $352 million in grants and loans. Some $143 million went into loans, and $21 million went into grants allocated to 165 projects statewide. About 110 of the projects involve stormwater pollution.

A public meeting on all the projects will be held at 1 p.m. March 4 at Pierce County Library, 3005 112th St. E., Tacoma. Comments will be taken until March 15. For information and a list projects, check Ecology’s website.

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.

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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).

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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.

1. O Christmas Grease - By Steve Anderson     
2. Dope in the Water - By Steve Anderson     
3. The Ballad of Betty Poop - By Steve Anderson     
4. Dont Flush the Baby (Wipes) - By Steve Anderson     
5. Fats Oils and Grease - By Steve Anderson     

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