Tag Archives: water quality

Stream ‘bugs’ will help guide funding for future stream restoration

One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region, as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: C. Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works. Here’s the basic idea:

“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species. Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the worst conditions.”

Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams — as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.

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Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

The long-running controversy over Washington state’s water quality standards for toxic chemicals is nearly over. We will soon know just how pure the water must be to get a clean bill of health.

chinook

We still don’t know whether the Environmental Protection Agency will approve the new state standards adopted this week or impose more stringent standards that EPA developed for several key pollutants. The EPA has already taken public comments on its proposed standards.

“We believe our new rule is strong, yet reasonable,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, in a news release. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable. With this rule now complete, we will continue to press forward to reduce and eliminate toxics from every-day sources.”

For more than two years, much of the controversy focused on the fish-consumption rate — an assumption about how much fish that people eat. The FCR is a major factor in the equation used to set the concentration of chemicals allowed in water before the waterway is declared impaired. (See early discussions in Water Ways, Nov. 11, 2010.)

Initially, after plenty of debate, the state proposed increasing the FCR from 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day — a 27-fold increase. The initial proposal counter-balanced the effect somewhat by increasing the cancer-risk rate from one in a million to one in 100,000 — a 10-fold shift. Eventually, the state agreed to retain the one-in-a-million rate.

As I described in Water Ways last October, some key differences remain between the state and EPA proposals. Factors used by the EPA result in more stringent standards. The state also proposes a different approach for PCBs, mercury and arsenic, which are not easily controlled by regulating industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants — the primary point sources of pollution.

PCB standards proposed by the EPA make representatives of industry and sewage-treatment systems very nervous. Water-quality standards are the starting points for placing legal limits on discharges, and EPA’s standard of 7.6 picograms per liter cannot be attained in many cases without much higher levels of treatment, experts say.

“Available data indicate that most state waters would not meet the EPA proposed criteria and that most (federally permitted) wastewater treatment plants will have to apply membrane filtration treatment and additional treatment technologies to address PCBs,” according to a letter from five industrial organizations and a dozen major businesses (PDF 3 mb).

Entities in Eastern Washington are in the midst of planning efforts to control pollution in the Spokane River, and major sewer upgrades are under consideration, the letter says.

“If Ecology were to follow the same approach on Puget Sound that it has on the Spokane River, this would amount to a range of compliance costs from nearly $6 billion to over $11 billion for just the major permits identified by EPA,” the letter continues. “A more stringent PCB criterion is also likely to impact how stormwater is managed, as PCB concentrations have been detected in stormwater throughout the state.”

For pulp and paper mills using recycled paper, the primary source of PCBs is the ink containing the toxic compounds at EPA-allowed concentrations, the letter says. Other major sources are neighborhoods, where PCBs are used in construction materials, and fish hatcheries, where PCBs come from fishmeal.

sailing

The letter points out similar problems for EPA’s proposed mercury standard, calling the level “overly conservative and unattainable in Washington (and the rest of the United States), as the levels of mercury in fish are consistently higher than the proposed criterion.”

When water-quality criteria cannot be attained for certain chemicals using existing water-treatment technology, facilities may be granted a variance or placed under a compliance schedule. Both environmentalists and facility owners have expressed concern over uncertainties about how the agencies might use these approaches.

Despite the uncertainties, environmentalists and Indian tribes in Washington state generally support the more stringent standards proposed by the EPA.

“Tribes concur that water quality discharge standards are only a part of the toxic chemical problem in the state of Washington and that more efforts toward source control and toxic cleanup are needed,” writes Lorraine Loomis of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “However, the standards are an essential anchor for determining where and how to deploy toxic reduction efforts and monitor enforcement.”

When I said this controversy is nearly over, I was referring to a time schedule imposed this week by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who ruled that the EPA missed its own deadlines for updating water quality criteria.

Rothstein, responding to claims from five environmental groups, imposed a new deadline based on EPA’s own suggested dates. Because the state has finalized its rule, the EPA now has until Nov. 15 to either approve the state’s criteria or sign a notice imposing its own standards. Checkout the judge’s ruling (PDF 494 kb).

The new criteria won’t have any practical effect until applied to federal discharge permits for specific facilities or in developing cleanup plans for specific bodies of water — although state inspectors could use the new state criteria for enforcing state laws if they discover illegal discharges.

If you want to dig a little deeper, view the full list of comments about Ecology’s proposal, many of which refer to the alternate EPA proposal as well. Ecology posts its information on its “Water Quality Rulemaking” page. EPA posts its information on the “Washington Water Quality Standards” page.

Inslee to decide whether to revise water-pollution standards for the state

Identifying and eliminating sources of water pollution — a process involving “chemical action plans” — is a common-sense idea that never faced much opposition among legislators.

Capitol

But the Legislature’s failure to act on the idea this year cut the legs out from under Gov. Jay Inslee’s anti-pollution plan, which included updated water-quality standards along with authority to study and ban harmful chemicals when alternatives are available.

Although chemical action plans make a lot of sense, the idea of coupling such planning to water-quality standards never quite gelled. Inslee argued that water-quality standards alone would not solve the pollution problem, because the standards address only a limited number of chemicals.

Furthermore, while the water-quality standards define an acceptable level of pollution for a body of water, they are limited in their regulatory control. The standards generally limit discharges only from industrial processes and sewage-treatment plants. In today’s world, stormwater delivers most of the pollution. Legal limits for stormwater discharges are nonexistent, except in rare cases where a toxic-cleanup plan has been established.

Environmentalists and tribal leaders were disappointed with the governor’s proposed water-quality standards. They believed he should be calling for much more stringent standards. While most people liked the idea of an ongoing program of chemical action planning, the governor received limited support for his legislation, House Bill 1472, among environmental and tribal communities.

Inslee

We can’t forget that Inslee had publicly stated that if the Legislature failed to act on his full pollution-cleanup program, he would revisit the water-quality standards — presumably to make them stronger. So the governor kind of boxed himself in, and that’s where we stand today.

Republican legislators acknowledged the value of chemical action plans. Their concerns seemed to center around a distrust of the Department of Ecology, reflecting the views of the chemical industry and others who could find themselves under greater regulatory control.

The House stripped out a provision in the bill that would allow Ecology to ban chemicals without legislative approval. And the key committee in the Senate — the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee — went further by limiting Ecology’s ability to study safer chemicals when a ban is under consideration.

The governor ultimately shifted his support away from the bill that emerged from the committee, as I described in a story I wrote in April for InvestigateWest. The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate, and it ultimately died, along with funding for a wider range of chemical action plans.

“Not only did we not get additional policy help, but we also didn’t get funding to implement the chemical action plans that were already done,” noted Rob Duff, the governor’s environmental policy adviser.

In all, about $3.8 million for toxic cleanup efforts was cancelled along with the legislation.

Plans have been developed to reduce toxic releases of five classes of persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs, including polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. But carrying through on cleanup ideas spelled out in those plans has been slow without targeted funding, and many toxic chemicals of concern, such as pharmaceuticals, are not considered PBTs.

“We aren’t going to throw up our hands,” Rob told me. “Under the PBT rule, we can do PBTs. We will continue to push toward source reduction, although we did not get additional authority from the Legislature.”

Educational programs and voluntary efforts by industry remain in play, pending a further try at legislation next session. Meanwhile, the governor will review the proposed water quality standards, according to Duff.

Rule note

“We will put everything on the table and see what is the best path forward,” he said. “We will have the governor briefed and the necessary discussions over the next two weeks.”

The governor’s proposed water-quality standards have gone through public hearings and must be approved by Aug. 3, or else the process must start over.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing its own water-quality rule, which could impose stronger standards upon the state. Water-quality standards, which are a concentration of chemicals in the water, are based on a formula that accounts for how each chemical is assimilated through the food web and into the human body.

One factor involves how much contaminated fish a person is likely to eat. For years, states across the country have used the same fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams a day, which is less than a quarter of an ounce. This number was long recognized as grossly underestimating the amount of fish that people eat, especially for Northwest residents and even more so for Native Americans who generally consume large quantities of fish.

If adopted, the new water-quality standards would raise the daily fish-consumption rate to 175 grams, or about 6 ounces. If all other factors stayed the same, the new fish consumption rate would raise the safety factor by 27 times. But, as the update moved along, several other factors were amended as well.

Inslee’s proposal was to raise the allowable risk of getting cancer after a lifetime of eating 175 grams of fish each day. The proposal was to increase the risk factor from one case of cancer in a million people to one case among 100,000 people. Inslee included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that the allowable concentration of chemicals would not be increased, no matter what the formula came up with.

Environmental advocates and tribal leaders cried foul over the cancer risk, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA, said he did not want the cancer risk to be increased for any state under his authority.

I covered these issues in a two-part series for the Kitsap Sun:

The EPA expects to have its proposed standards for Washington state ready this fall, possibly November. EPA officials will review the state’s proposal when it is final, but that won’t stop the agency from completing its work, according to a written statement from the EPA regional office.

“We continue to work closely with Governor Inslee’s office and the Washington Department of Ecology to see water quality standards adopted and implemented that protect all residents of the state, as well as tribal members, who regularly and often consume fish as part of a healthy diet,” according to the statement.

Industry officials and sewage-treatment-plant operators have argued that the technology does not exist to meet some of the water-quality standards that would result from a cancer-risk rate of one in a million if the other factors stayed the same. PCBs is one example of a pollutant difficult to control. Besides, they argue, stormwater — not their facilities — is the primary source of PCBs in most cases. That’s why eliminating the original sources of PCBs is so important.

McLerran, who seems to support the more stringent standards, has mentioned that facilities can apply for variances, relaxed compliance schedules or other “implementation tools,” to get around strict numerical standards impossible to meet with today’s technology.

Environmental groups are calling on the governor to tighten up the proposed water-quality standards, rather than let them go into effect, given the Legislature’s failure to approve his overall plan.

“Gov. Inslee must do everything in his power to protect the most vulnerable — babies and children — from the devastating health effects of potent neurotoxins like mercury and carcinogens like PCBs,” stated Chris Wilke, executive director for Puget Soundkeeper.

“Ecology’s draft rule provides only the appearance of new protection while manipulating the math, leaving the actual water quality standards largely unchanged,” he said. “This is simply unacceptable. Without the veil of a new source control package from the Legislature, the Governor’s plan clearly has no clothes.”

Others maintain that the governor has been on the right track all along, and they warn that the state could face lawsuits if it imposes standards that are too strict.

Bruce Hope, a retired toxicologist, wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle Times that included these statements:

“Taking an achievable approach like the one in the Department of Ecology’s draft rule would reduce the risk that municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities are subject to standards that couldn’t be met…

“Developing the right approach to water-quality protection for Washington will thus require various interests continuing to work together to find common ground.

“Washington’s rules for protecting our waters need to be established by the people elected by Washington voters. The EPA’s Region 10 office should simply not be threatening to circumvent or supersede the standard-setting authority granted to the state under the Clean Water Act.”

Water cleanup program will forego grants, reorganize for efficiency

After much success in cleaning up streams in Kitsap County, pollution investigators for the Kitsap Public Health District plan to turn their backs on most state and federal grants and reorganize their approach to local waterways.

I’m talking about the folks who literally wrote the book on pollution identification and correction, or PIC, a strategic approach to tracking down bacterial contamination and eliminating the sources. A 2012 “Protocol Manual” (PDF 10.6 mb) and a 2014 “guidance document” (PDF 4.3 mb) — both developed by Kitsap’s pollution investigators — are now being used by local health departments throughout the state.

Category 1 = meets water-quality standard; Cat. 2 =
Category 1 = meets water-quality standard;
Cat. 2 = reasons for concern; Cat. 3 = lacking data;
Cat. 4A = TMDL plan; Cat. 4B = local plan;
Cat. 5 = “impaired.”

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the health district plans to change course for its pollution-cleanup program this fall — especially the part about reducing reliance on state and federal grants. For many Puget Sound jurisdictions, these grants provide the major sources of funding, if not the only funding for their PIC projects.

Kitsap County is fortunate to have a stormwater fee collected from rural property owners. For single-family homeowners, the fee will be $82 this year. The money goes into the Clean Water Kitsap program, which funds a multitude of clean-water projects — including street-sweeping, improving stormwater systems and restoring natural drainage.

The fee also supports the health district’s ongoing monitoring program, a monthly sampling of more than 50 Kitsap County streams, along with lakes and marine waters. The program has successfully reported improvements in various streams while providing early-warning signs for water-quality problems. The program was started in 1996.

None of that will change, according to Stuart Whitford, supervisor for the health district’s PIC Program. While state and federal grants have been helpful in tracking down pollution problems, most of the major problems have been identified, he said.

“We know what we have, and the patient has been stabilized,” he noted.

The problem with grants is that they require specific performance measures, which must be carefully documented and reported quarterly and in final reports.

“The administrative burden is heavy, and the state grants don’t fully pay for the overhead,” Stuart said. “Looking out into the future, we think state and federal grants will be reduced. We are already seeing that in the Legislature. So we are going to wean ourselves off the grants.”

Future efforts need to focus on identifying failing septic systems and sources of animal waste before they become a serious problem, Stuart told me. The process of doing that is firmly established in local plans. Work will continue, however, on nagging pollution problems that have not been resolved in some streams. And he’s not ruling out applying for grants for specific projects, if the need returns.

To increase efficiency in the ongoing program, health district staff will be reorganized so that each investigator will focus on one or more of the 10 watersheds in the county. In the process, the staff has been cut by one person. The assignments are being made now and will be fully implemented in the fall.

Kitsap's watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.
Kitsap’s watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.

“The stream monitoring will remain the same,” Stuart said. “But each person will be able to do more intensive monitoring in their home watershed.”

Having one investigator responsible for each watershed will allow that person to become even more intimately acquainted with the landscape and the water-quality issues unique to that area. Because of the extensive problems in Sinclair Inlet, two people will be assigned to that drainage area, which includes a good portion of South Kitsap and West Bremerton.

Dave Garland, regional water-quality supervisor for the Department of Ecology, said he, too, was surprised that the Kitsap Public Health District wishes to avoid grants, but he is confident that Stuart Whitford knows what he is doing.

“They are definitely leaders in the state and have been very successful in their approach,” he said. “We wish more health districts and surface water departments would be more like Kitsap. They are improving as they go.”

Garland said Kitsap County officials have done more than anyone to remove streams and waterways from the “impaired waters” list that Ecology compiles. The list — also known as 303(d) under the federal Clean Water Act — is part of Ecology’s “Water Quality Assessment,” now being finalized for submission to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, Kitsap County had 69 stream segments listed as “impaired.” As a result of work over six years, now only 7 are proposed for the upcoming list. Many streams were removed when they came under state cleanup plans for Dyes and Sinclair inlets, between Port Orchard and Silverdale, or in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Those state plans identify cleanup efforts to reduce pollution loading and bring the waters into conformance with state water-quality standards. They are called TMDLs, short for total maximum daily loads.

Because the Kitsap County PIC Program has been so successful, Ecology has allowed the local program to substitute for TMDL studies for many streams where stormwater outfalls are not an issue. Under the Clean Water Act, the local program comes under Category 4B (for local planning), as opposed to 4A (the state’s TMDL approach).

“No one has done a more thorough job,” Dave said of Kitsap’s effort. “It is very impressive to see that they have gone to TMDLs or to 4B. That does not mean the waters are clean, but it means they are under a plan.”

Of the remaining seven “impaired” water bodies, some should be removed because of Kitsap’s cleanup plans, Stuart said. They include Anderson Creek and Boyce Creek, which flow into Hood Canal, and Murden Creek on Bainbridge Island, which is undergoing a special study. Phinney Creek in Dyes Inlet is already part of a TMDL, and an area in southern Hood Canal should not be on the list because it meets water-quality standards, he said. Stuart hopes to get those changes made before the list is submitted to EPA this summer.

Currently, nothing is being done with regard to Eagle Harbor or Ravine Creek, two “impaired” water bodies on Bainbridge Island. The health district’s program does not extend to cities, although Bainbridge could contract with the health district for monitoring and cleanup.

Eagle Harbor could become subject to a TMDL study by the Department of Ecology, but it is not currently on the state’s priority list. As a result, work is not likely to begin for at least two years.

Eating fish from Puget Sound may be safe — within prescribed limits

For the past few years, I’ve been hearing that Washington’s water-quality standards are grossly out of date, especially when it comes to assumptions about how much fish people eat. Water-quality standards are a set of criteria used to determine when a body of water is “impaired” and to establish limits for discharges from industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.

Fish

It was hard to understand how the Department of Ecology could assume that an average person was eating just 6.5 grams of fish a day. That’s less than a quarter-ounce. A typical meal of fish is commonly considered to be eight ounces (226.8 grams). So the assumption was that people were eating one meal of fish every 35 days.

The water quality standards come from an equation established to ensure that if you consumed a certain amount of fish, then your health would be protected. So it would seem logical that if you ate more than that amount, your health might be at risk.

That’s what got me started looking into the nuances of this discussion about water-quality standards and eating fish, especially fish from Puget Sound. The result was a two-part series published Sunday and Monday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) — Part 1 and Part 2 — and reprinted with permission on the website of Investigate West — Part 1 and Part 2.

I’ll talk about my new relationship with InvestigateWest at the bottom of this page, where I’ll also report on a new study about the protective effects of eating fish even when mercury levels are high.

The first thing to understand about water-quality standards is that the state has been relying on an equation created by the Environmental Protection Agency. That equation resulted in water quality standards used since 1992 across the nation and still in effect for some states (PDF 429 kb). The problem was that the EPA has not updated the nationwide standards, known as the National Toxics Rule, even while the federal agency has been pushing for states to come up with their own standards.

Obviously, the fish consumption rate was no longer valid, if it ever was. State and federal guidelines call for people to eat at least two or three meals of fish each week for health reasons. It is not uncommon for Native Americans to eat a meal of fish or more each day. Protecting the treaty rights of tribal members, which includes safely eating fish from their “usual and accustomed areas,” is a responsibility of the state and federal governments, I’m told.

Fish consumption is not the only issue, however. Other factors in the equation are also out of date. The EPA has updated estimates of toxicity for many of the 100 or so chemicals for which water-quality standards are listed. The weight of a person’s body in the equation also was changed.

Perhaps the most controversial change in the formula, as proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is to increase the cancer risk rate for human health from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.

I won’t go deeper into the calculation here, since you can read my story for more details, or look into the state’s “Overview of key decisions in rule amendment” (PDF 6.4 mb). But understand that all the assumptions taken together changed the final number for each of the 96 chemicals under review for Washington state. Also note that the vast majority of these chemicals are not even detectible in fish down to parts per billion.

Under Inslee’s proposal, the final number generated by the equation would be the new water-quality standard for a chemical if the number were lower (more protective) than the existing standard. For chemicals in which the number was higher (less protective), the old standard would remain.

The result was that 70 percent of the standards would become more stringent under Inslee’s proposal and 30 percent would stay the same, according to Ecology officials. To see the proposed changes between the old and new standards and whether the change in cancer risk would make a significant difference, check out “Human Health Criteria Review Documents” (PDF 2.9 mb).

Out of the 96 chemicals on the list, two create the greatest concerns for human health in Puget Sound waters. They are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. For these chemicals, Inslee’s proposal would keep the water-quality standards the same. This is controversial, but his thinking is that these chemicals are widespread in the environment, and reducing their concentrations in effluent would have little effect on improving the safety of fish.

The governor has proposed a separate planning process with funding from the Legislature to track down and reduce the sources of pollution that cause the greatest health concerns — including some chemicals not on the EPA’s list.

Eating fish is especially important for pregnant mothers and young children, as I described in the first part of the series. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish tissue are considered essential for the proper development of the brain and neurological system, including memory and performance, as well as other health effects.

Health advisories tend to balance the beneficial effects of eating fish with the risks of getting too much PCBs, mercury and other harmful chemicals. The goal is to choose fish that are relatively low in toxic chemicals, knowing that practically all fish, meats and dairy products contain some contaminants.

New study on protective effects of fish

A new study in the Seychelles, an island country where people eat a lot of fish, suggests that polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may provide some protection against the health risks of mercury, including neurological problems.

The study was published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” The report’s co-author, Edwin van Wijngaarden, associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of Public Health Sciences, had this to say in a news release:

“These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially adverse effects of mercury.”

Because the findings are so new, I chose to stick to the standard health advisories in my Sunday story.

Laura Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the advice to limit fish intake may not be warranted after all. But she is not ready to drop the cautionary approach, according to a story by Dennis Thompson of HealthDay magazine.

“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the data.”

Legislative coverage

As most of you know, I have retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun, but I’m still writing this blog and occasional stories for the newspaper, including the two-part series this week.

I was recently asked by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group, to cover some environmental issues being debated in the Washington Legislature. I started this new assignment this week and expect to continue coverage to the end of the legislative session. My work is being funded through a crowd-sourcing website called Beacon. All contributions are appreciated.

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.

—–

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.

Time to reflect on drinking water quality, history

This week is National Drinking Water Week, a chance to recognize the high quality of water we drink in the United States and how we built and maintain the amazing storage and piping networks.

The video at right shows some interesting pictures of water systems in Kitsap County. It takes a bit of reading to get through it, but the video reminds us that the area — and most areas — started out with many surface-water systems and now relies mostly on groundwater.

The history of Bremerton’s water system, which still includes a highly protected surface-water supply on the Union River, is described briefly on the city’s website.

Drinking Water Week is a chance to review the water quality of our own drinking water, at least for those of us on public water systems. The EPA requires most systems to provide information to their customers once a year. Accessing this information at other times is not always easy, although most of the larger systems post the required water-quality data on their websites.

Continue reading

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?

Sinclair-Dyes study: How to get ahead of pollution

The soon-to-be-released cleanup plan for Sinclair and Dyes inlets could become a leading example of how to reduce all kinds of pollution in a waterway. Check out my story in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

Based on conversations with many people involved in the project, I believe the keys to success are continual and ongoing monitoring of water quality, an unfailing commitment to identify pollution sources, and a spirit of cooperation with people who can help solve the problems.

Officials with the Kitsap County Health District and other local and state agencies will tell you that one can never walk away from a watershed with the belief that the pollution problem is solved. Still, at times, the rewards can be relatively quick, as one observes improvements in water quality after a pollution source is turned off.

Every month for the past 15 years, health district officials have gone out into the field and taken water samples from nearly every stream in Kitsap County — some 58 streams at last count. Often, these monthly tests provide assurance than cleanup plans are working. Occasionally, they offer an early warning that someone in the watershed is doing something to degrade water quality.

If you haven’t checked the health district’s Water Quality website, I would recommend reading through some of the reports under “Featured Water Quality Reports,” particularly the “2010 Water Quality Monitoring Report.”

Monthly water-quality testing over time tells a story about differences between wet years and dry years, about the effects of new development, and about successes that follow cleanup of problem farms, septic systems or yards containing dog feces.

I think it would be a big step forward if every significant stream in the state were monitored monthly for at least bacterial pollution. The results would help all levels of government set priorities for dealing with stormwater and other pollution sources.

Sinclair and Dyes inlets animation of hypothetical treatment system failure in East Bremerton (Click to launch; shift-reload to restart)
Project Envvest

Another factor worth mentioning in regard to the Sinclair-Dyes cleanup is the Navy’s funding for Project Envvest, a cooperative effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Department of Ecology and the Navy. The resulting computer model helped describe the flow of pollution under various rainfall scenarios. It can even predict the movement of pollution resulting from various kinds of spills.

The animation (right) shows what would happen if the ultraviolet infection system were to fail in the East Bremerton treatment plant, which handles stormwater mixed with sewage during periods of heavy rainfall. Tidal flows make a big difference. This simulated spill is 7,000 gallons per minute for a total of 10 million gallons. See CSO Simulation Scenarios to view other animations from the model.

Other websites related to the Sinclair-Dyes project:

Project Envvest Status, Progress, Reports, and Deliverables (Navy)

Sinclair/Dyes Inlets Water Quality Improvement Project (Ecology)

Water quality is defined by the ‘standards’ we use

Washington Department of Ecology is in the early stages of revising water quality standards for our state, beginning with a series of meetings to find out what people think. See my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun for an overview, and check Ecology’s news release for the meeting schedule and process for proposing changes.

It’s hard to tell how aggressive Ecology will be about changing these standards. Given state budget limitations, the agency may opt to do little, yet Ecology officials say they are willing to address problems that people see in the existing standards or in their implementation.

What we’re talking about here is changing the definition what makes good, clean, safe water. Changing the standards could bring increased attention to individual streams, lakes and bays and possibly even trigger a new approach for all streams.

Water quality standards are the driver for creating the state’s list of impaired water bodies (the 303d list). They are used to write discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and stormwater outfalls. And in cleanup plans for polluted waterways, they provide guidance for allocating pollution limits among point and nonpoint sources.

Priorities for changes that could be made are expected to be announced next spring after all the comments are compiled and reviewed, including suggestions from state and local officials, according to Susan Braley of Ecology’s Water Quality Program. Nationwide standards, which are under continual review by the Environmental Protection Agency, sometimes require the state to make changes.

Some of the ideas that have been kicking about, in no particular order:

  • New standards for total petroleum hydrocarbons
  • New standards for certain kinds of pesticides harmful to salmon
  • New standards for copper, which are known to affect salmon
  • New standards for toxic chemicals known to affect human health
  • A change in the bacterial standard from fecal coliform to e. coli
  • Allowance for alternative indicators for the presence of human waste
  • Further refinements of temperature standards, which were updated in 2006 to protect bull trout
  • New standards for pH as related to ocean acidification
  • New rates for fish-consumption by people, which could change numerical standards for a range of toxics

If anyone tells me about other ideas, I will add them to the list.

For more information, check out EPA’s informational website about Water Quality Standards and Surface Waters. There’s also an instructive online course focusing on theer Clean Water Act by the River Network.

To read the standards themselves, go to the Washington Administrative Code, Chapter 173-201A.