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better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”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

4 thoughts on “Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

  1. I’m sure you have, as you always have, done a great job. But perhaps for those who can’t afford to subscribe to the Sun and don’t have access to your online work, the Puget Sound Partnership would pay the Sun to have the paywall lifted. You certainly tell the story better than the Partnership.

  2. Informative series.

    Stormwater has always flowed into Puget Sound, at least since the last ice age some 13,000 years ago. It was a significant pollution source before humans were in this area. That “natural pollution” continues, but human related actions have added markedly to the the background of natural stormwater pollution.

    The big question this series seems to be lacking is whether the hundreds of chemicals from sewerage processing facilities are, or are not, a greater threat to Puget Sound as millions of gallons are pumped into Puget Sound 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

    Stormwater from human activity adds its most significant pollution roughly 1-2 months of the year … after the dry season and the first significant rains of the fall season occur.

    And by the end of the rain season, stormwater water quality samples are generally benign.

    Complex problems, but the biggest question on the table is which should get priority attention and funding … reducing human caused stormwater pollution or reducing the constant stream of chemicals from human sewage plant outflows.

  3. Excellent information, Chris. I was surprised to read that stormwater, even after a few days of rain, kills adult coho. I would have expected significant mortality in juveniles, which is bad enough. Mr. Dashiell’s concerns could be addressed, in part, by running the same experiments using effluent from wastewater treatment plants.

    Thank you for continuing to keep the health of Puget Sound in the forefront of our minds, Chris.

  4. Robert and Susie,

    Your comments prompt several thoughts from me. First, stormwater has always been an issue. But in natural forests, far more of the rainwater gets absorbed or adsorbed in trees, plants and duff, eventually soaking into the ground except in extreme conditions.

    The stormwater itself is not the problem as much as what it picks up along the way. The worst stuff probably comes off cars and can be deposited on impervious surfaces, to be carried into streams.

    Sewage treatment plants pick up all kinds of chemicals, including those found in stormwater. The treatment process breaks down some stuff and attaches a lot of other stuff to solids, which get removed and either taken to a landfill or else used as fertilizer — far from waterways, if the rules are followed.

    Some chemicals still go through the effluent, but the ones that experts are increasingly worried about are those that have effects at extremely low levels, such as estrogen excreted by people taking birth control pills, etc. etc.

    Combined sewer overflows are still a major problem in some cities where the stormwater system is connected to the sewer system and a mixture of sewage and stormwater gets discharged into local bays and inlets during heavy rains. These sewer discharges are largely diluted stormwater. Here we are, talking about stormwater again. Human pathogens found in the sewage portion create a risk for eating local shellfish. In addition, the nutrients can trigger a plankton bloom. I don’t believe the chemicals in sewage discharges are any more of a concern than the chemicals in stormwater discharges — but there are plenty people who know more than I.

    Robert, you may want to be specific about the chemicals that concern you. The effluent from a sewage-treatment plant is tested directly for many types of chemicals, and I believe pretreatment at industrial facilities has taken care of most problems, although new ones keep showing up.

    I’m not sure what you mean by, “And by the end of the rain season, stormwater water quality samples are generally benign.” I’ve never heard anyone say this. Maybe someone familiar with stormwater studies will weigh in here.

    Susie, sewage-treatment plants are very different, and some produce water that is clean enough to drink, or so they say. Extensive biological tests have been conducted on a variety of industrial and municipal wastewater and stormwater discharges. The program is called Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) Testing. For details, see this Ecology page:

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