All posts by Administrator

Levee safety is an issue in Washington and across the country

I collaborated recently on a story about the safety of levees and dikes, most of which undergo no inspections at the state or federal levels anywhere in the country — including Washington state.

Scripps Howard News Service reporters Lee Bowman and Thomas Hargrove studied the federal records and examined some of the worst problems in the country. I was able to add some information for Washington state in a story published today.

What I found is that the Washington Department of Ecology has put a lot of effort into making sure that dams — you known, the kind that hold back lakes — are operated safely. Dams on Lake Symington and Lake Tahuyeh in Kitsap County were rebuilt the last few years to improve their safety and reduce the risk of killing or injuring people downstream.

The agency is just now putting together an inventory of the levees that lie along major rivers, but it has no authority to comment on their safety. In fact, the focus at this point is on listing a relatively few flood-control levees certified to allow for lower insurance rates. Lesser levees may come later.

Most flood-control districts — including one for the Skokomish River in Mason County — don’t have the money to rebuild their dikes even if someone did inspect them and were to find them lacking.

I have heard that some state legislators may be putting together a bill to address these safety issues following severe flooding on the Chehalis River in December, but I haven’t been able to find anybody working on that part of the issue.

Lessons from an entangled humpback whale

It’s been an interesting year for humpback whales in Washington state, where people were seeing one or more full-sized animals in Central Puget Sound up until a couple of weeks ago.

The latest excitement involves a young humpback tangled in lines from crab pots and staying one step ahead of would-be rescuers in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I posted a story about this on the Kitsap Sun Web site today, and John Calambokidis wrote a report with photos for Cascadia Research Collective.

On Saturday, trained rescuers with the Makah Tribe, Cascadia Research and NOAA Fisheries Service located the whale but didn’t have time before dark to dislodge the lines, which were pretty tight. Before departing for the night, they attached a “control line” with a float and radio transmitter trailing some 100 feet behind the whale. They also attached what is called a “knife line” with a trailing float.

Brent Norberg of NOAA explained to me that the control line allows a rescue boat to approach the whale without racing up to the animal in a boat. The rescuers simply grab onto the trailing float and pull in the line. The knife line I’ll explain in a moment.

All the good plans fell apart when some fishermen noticed the whale dragging the floats and decided to do a good deed. They cut the trailing lines. Of course, that did nothing to free the whale from the crab pots but only removed the radio transmitter that the rescuers were depending on to locate the animal again. Nobody seems to be overly mad at the fishermen, since they were just trying to help. But maybe we should all learn from this experience.

Whale rescuers are trained in certain techniques perfected on right whales on the East Coast, Norberg said. The techniques, first developed at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, are designed to minimize contact with humans, since right whales are said to be aggressive and resistant to people working around them.

The “knife line” is part of an apparatus used when rescuers find it too hard to quickly cut through a line. The knife is J-shaped to slip under the entangled line without injuring the whale. The knife is attached to its own line with a float on the end. The knife exerts pressure to cut through the line as the whale pulls the trailing float across the water.

For examples of whale rescues, see the Provincetown Center’s recent rescues pages. For other information, check out the FAQ page, which includes this advice relevant to the past weekend’s events:

There is a distinct difference between cutting a whale free and disentangling the whale. People have reported cutting line from anchored whales, then watching them swim away. This very innocent and well-intentioned act may do more harm than good.

By cutting the lines that anchor a whale or cutting only the lines that are most visible or accessible, a person may be releasing an animal with the most lethal part of the entanglement still present. Days or months later, the PCCS whale rescue team may get a report of such an animal and will face the challenges of trying to subdue and disentangle a free-swimming animal with very little gear to hold on to for traditional rescue techniques.

After being freed from anchor, the lines left on the animal may hinder movement, feeding, cause severe infection through abrasion and/or become embedded within the animal.

Humpback whale entangled in crab gear off Sekiu, July 5
Photo courtesy of John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research

Money needed for oil spill preparation and response

When oil spill experts got together yesterday, the talk turned to money — money for ongoing preparedness and money for a permanent response tug at Neah Bay.

One clear message was that Washington’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program needs additional funding to protect state waters at levels that residents expect. See Kitsap Sun reporter Derek Sheppard’s report in today’s Kitsap Sun:

Dale Jensen, spills program manager for the Department of Ecology, told two members of the state House’s Ecology and Parks Committee on Monday that his program could have a $4 million to $6 million deficit by the end of 2009.

“We’re feeling a little anxious and excited about finding a funding fix,” he said.

One source of additional money would be to eliminate the 1-cent-per-barrel exemption on the so-called barrel tax that kicks in when the state’s Oil Spill Response Account reaches $9 million. The recommendation, from the state’s Oil Spill Advisory Council, would establish a regular 5-cent tax in place of one that occasionally jumps from 4 to 5 cents.

The council also has recommended a new fee on businesses transferring refined oil products — such as gasoline, jet fuel and home-heating oil — over state waters.

If you are interested in these recommendations and the justifications given, you may download the council’s annual report (PDF 396 kb) or its Recommendations to the Legislature (PDF 1.8 MB).

Meanwhile, the Neah Bay response tug, funded with $3.7 million from this year’s Legislature, went on duty today. For the next year, the tug will protect the coastline from vessels that lose power or maneuverability. The Legislature is still looking for a permanent funding source. Derek reported that prospects for federal funding may be looking dim.

Since 1999, state-funded tugs have assisted 40 ships that were disabled or had limited mobility, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had this to say in a news release issued yesterday:

“While the Strait of Juan de Fuca is one of the busiest shipping lanes on the West Coast, the area also is one of the most pristine marine ecosystems in the country. A major oil spill in the strait or along our coast would be an unimaginable catastrophe. The state-funded Neah Bay tug is a critical tool to help us protect our region’s natural resources.”

Some questions about Hood Canal remain to be answered

Alder trees and septic systems appear to be the big contributors of nitrogen to lower Hood Canal, according to scientists who have been studying the problem for more than three years.

Nitrogen is the key to excessive algae blooms and low-oxygen problems, experts say.

Researchers involved in the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program laid out their findings in a daylong conference yesterday in Bremerton, which I reported in today’s Kitsap Sun. (For those who saw my initial story, published about 12:30 p.m. yesterday, all I had to work with at that time was a brief summary and a speech by Rep. Norm Dicks.)

Hood Canal is a complex system, and it is clear to me after attending yesterday’s conference that there is still uncertainty in the sources of nitrogen, For example, the amount of nitrogen from fertilizers has not been teased out from other surface and groundwater inputs.

Although I did not mention it in my story, there is great variability in the amount of nitrogen coming out of an individual septic system. One study showed that some systems remove almost all the nitrogen while others remove almost none. The reasons were not fully explained, but it’s easy to observe a huge variety of septic systems in the Hood Canal watershed — from upland areas with good soils to ancient systems at the edge of the water.

Because there are so many kinds of septic systems, it won’t be easy to provide a simple fix over a wide area. The logical approach may be to consider small areas, one at a time. For example, I’m finding that most people agree that sewers in Belfair would be a good idea.

I could go on about the questions that I still have, and I know many of you have questions as well. If you want to make sure I see your questions, please send an e-mail to I’ll have more to write on this in the near future.

Update on blog problems: I’m still waiting for new software so readers can comment again in this space. I’m probably more anxious than anyone. It looks like Watching Our Water Ways will move to the new software this week or next. Thanks for your continuing patience. Meanwhile, if you e-mail me with a comment, I’ll try to find a way to post it.

It’s too bad that a mixture of oil and politics is so flammable

When I heard President Bush calling for offshore oil drilling, I wanted to know what it could mean for Washington state. It didn’t take long to learn that Washington and Oregon aren’t of much interest to the oil companies.

Along the way, I learned a few other things that I reported in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun – such as the idea that oil companies are pretty well resigned to not drilling more wells off California uless there’s a major change in attitude within the state.

I also got the latest information about how natural gas companies are spending many millions of dollars to explore for gas in Eastern Washington. Only time will tell what may come of that.

I took a few steps into what appears to be a partisan squabble over putting institutional controls on futures markets for oil. It’s a complicated issue that deserves more attention than I could give it in this story. Several members of Washington’s congressional delegation are in the middle of the issue.

While oil markets are really one of our “oil ways” rather “water ways,” I’d like to read a good article or book that gets into this issue somewhat deeply. Please pass along any suggestions you have to If I learn something interesting, I’ll share it in this space.

Private well owners urged to test for arsenic

Washington State Department of Health is calling for all private well owners in the state to test their water for arsenic. Over the entire population, it’s likely that many wells will exceed the new EPA standard of 10 parts per billion.

As I describe in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun, the EPA revised its standard two years ago — from 50 ppb — and state health officials have decided that the best thing to do is encourage people to find out what levels of arsenic they are drinking.

This seems like a pretty big deal when you consider that the Department of Health wants to reach every private well owner — probably tens of thousands of homes in Kitsap County alone.

Although the agency’s news release is dated June 12, it appears that almost no news organizations have reacted to it. In my case, I never saw the fax that supposedly was sent out. In today’s world of e-mail, I open most news releases right on my computer. I have to say it is possible that another Kitsap Sun staffer just tossed the arsenic fax in the trash. But since only the Yakima Herald may have had a story about this, I think it is also possible that something went wrong on the state’s end of the fax machine.

Anyway, the word is out now. If you are on a private well or know someone who is, I would encourage you to pass along this information. What people do with the information is really up to them. Here are some links to help folks delve more deeply into this issue:

Washington Department of Health arsenic page. Check out the map for areas where arsenic has been detected over the last 15 years, “Q & As for Consumers” and “Arsenic and Your Private Well.”

EPA’s Web page on arsenic in drinking Water News

EPA’s Web page on private drinking water

State’s list of certified laboratories (PDF 17 kb)

Twiss Analytical (the only certified water-testing lab in Kitsap County)

Visitors discover tiny creature in Bremerton Marina

When Colleen Horne of Seattle visited Bremerton for the first time on Sunday, she strolled down to the Bremerton Marina with her boyfriend, Kris Byrum, and encountered a strange, tiny creature.

“We were looking over the edge of the dock,” she told me. “All of a sudden, we saw this little thing squirting through the water. It looked like a cursive ‘F,’ and it would kind of curl itself together.”

The creature looked like a cross between a shrimp and a praying mantis, she told me on the phone.

“Creature” lined up along pinky finger is known as a skeleton shrimp, but it’s really a Caprelli, a type of amphipod. / Photo by Colleen Horne

“We watched it and watched it,” Colleen said. “We thought, ‘How bizarre!,’ then we walked on down the dock. There was an entire sea of them. A couple of them were fighting with the antennas on top of their heads. It was like an entire city of them there on the kelp.

“We found a dried one on the dock and gave it a proper burial at sea. There were hundreds in this one section of sea kelp.”

Colleen sent me a photo of the unidentified sea creature. It looked strange to me as well, so I forwarded the photo to my old friend Ron Hirschi, who has spent his life watching the water world.

He wrote back: “Cool amphipod, eh! These are skeleton shrimp. Caprellids.”

Then he quoted from the 1939 book “Between Pacific Tides” by Edward Ricketts and Jack Calvin: “If caprellids were a few feet tall instead of around an inch, as in the case of the relatively gigantic Metacaprella kennerlyi, no zoo would be without them, and their quarters would surpass those of the monkeys in popularity.”

Checking the Internet, I found some amazing photos on Image Quest.

It seems lots of people besides us enjoy having these guys around. For example, there’s an online log from the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown written during an expedition to the New England Seamount Chain.

Despite the long hours and the unending work — or maybe because of it — spirits are high as the scientists preserve and investigate their samples. Susan Mills projects her microscope onto a large video screen, where everyone can admire the images, showing incredible details of a variety of worms and invertebrates.

“That’s a caprellid,” said Dr. Jon Moore.

To demonstrate its behavior, he and Mercer (Brugler) invented the “Caprellid dance,” holding up both hands and waving them, while shifting hips from side to side.
This made clear to everyone what kind of organism they were looking at. (“Oh yes, the caprellid!”)

Later, Mercer adapted the technique to demonstrate worm behavior, while watching some under the microscope. These activities, known as the “late night sillies,” are common on cruises where scientists work long hours on things they enjoy!

Read on for comments:

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A sampling of reactions to the Exxon decision

Wesley Loy, Anchorage Daily News

CORDOVA — In a fishing town hit as hard as anywhere by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the reaction ranged from disappointment to resignation to disgust. Many boats in the harbor were out fishing, but some were still in town because of the closure of the famous Copper River fishery.

Terry Buchholz, 60, was standing near the harbormaster’s office. He’s a longtime Cordova resident who’s been gillnetting for 48 years.

“I was sick to my stomach this morning,” he said.

Pat Forgey, Juneau Empire

Public officials in Alaska are reacting strongly to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today to slash the $2.5 billion damage award to Alaska fishermen to $508 million, nearly 20 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The first statement out after the early morning Supreme Court ruling was from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, now running for U.S. Senate, who said he was “angered” by the ruling.

“The thousands of Alaskans whose lives were devastated by this disaster are hurt, once again, by this ruling,” Begich said. “What we’re seeing today is another example of how Washington is out of touch with real people. The justices have sided with corporate America rather than with Alaska families who have suffered for nearly 20 years.”

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO, Rex W. Tillerson

“The Valdez oil spill was a tragic accident and one which the corporation deeply regrets.

“We know this has been a very difficult time for everyone involved. We have worked hard over many years to address the impacts of the spill and to prevent such accidents from happening in our company again.”

Doug Kendall of The Huffington Post

Today, at a time when gas prices and oil company profits are record highs, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken $2 billion from 32,000 Americans who lost their livelihood in the worst oil spill in U.S history… and given it back to Exxon.

The Court’s reduction of punitive damages in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker is a nakedly activist decision that pulls its standard for limiting damages out of thin air, demonstrates hostility to the role of Congress, and continues a pattern of ignoring the Framers’ views on the importance of civil juries.

Greg Palast blog

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez slimed over one thousand miles of Alaskan beaches, the company has yet to pay the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by the jury. And now they won’t have to. The Supreme Court today cut Exxon’s liability by 90% to half a billion. It’s so cheap, it’s like a permit to spill.

Exxon knew this would happen…

Chris Rizo, Legal Newsline

Legal reformers praised the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 25, for its decision to slash the punitive damages award in the long-running Exxon Valdez case, but one expert said the maritime case will have little effect on the overall legal landscape…

“This is the right ruling; there should not have been punitive damages awarded in this case, but the precedential implications here will be fairly limited,” James Copland, director of the Manhattan Institute Center for Legal Policy, told Legal Newsline.

Howard Garrett, Orca Network, comment to Water Ways

Who will bring some justice to these orcas?

Matkin, C. O., E. L. Saulitis, G. M. Ellis, P. Olesiuk, S. D. Rice. Ongoing population-level impacts on killer whales Orcinus orca following the ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska (2008). Mar Ecol Prog Ser., Vol. 356: 269-281, 2008

ABSTRACT Killer whales were photographed in oil after the 1989 ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill, but preliminary damage assessments did not definitively link mortalities to the spill and could not evaluate recovery. In this study, photo-identification methods were used to monitor 2 killer whale populations 5 yr prior to and for 16 yr after the spill. One resident pod, the AB Pod, and one transient population, the AT1 Group, suffered losses of 33 and 41%, respectively, in the year following the spill. Sixteen years after 1989, AB Pod had not recovered to pre-spill numbers. Moreover, its rate of increase was significantly less than that of other resident pods that did not decline at the time of the spill. The AT1 Group, which lost 9 members following the spill, continued to decline and is now listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Although there may be other contributing factors, the loss of AT1 individuals, including reproductive-age females, accelerated the population’s trajectory toward extinction. The synchronous losses of unprecedented numbers of killer whales from 2 ecologically and genetically separate groups and the absence of other obvious perturbations strengthens the link between the mortalities and lack of recovery, and the ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill.

Supreme Court allows punitive damages, but cuts amount

The U.S. Supreme Court has reduced punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case from $2.5 billion down to $500 million.

The court upheld the legal principle of punitive damages in maritime cases. But, following an elaborate trail of judicial logic, ruled, 5-3, that punitive damages should not exceed compensatory damages.

As you can see from an Associated Press story by Pete Yost, Justice John Paul Stevens supported the $2.5 billion figure for punitive damages, saying Congress has chosen not to impose restrictions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented, saying the court was engaging in “lawmaking” by concluding that punitive damages may not exceed what the company already paid to compensate victims for economic losses.

“The new law made by the court should have been left to Congress,” wrote Ginsburg.

Justice Stephen Breyer made a similar point, opposing a rigid 1 to 1 ratio of punitive damages to victim compensation.

Nearly 33,000 Alaskans are in line to share in the award, about $15,000 a person. They would have collected $75,000 each under the $2.5 billion judgment.

I’ve selected some of the key language from the syllabus presented this morning by the court. You can download the syllabus as well as the entire ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Web site (376 kb).

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One last George Carlin video: on the environment

Since George Carlin died Sunday, I have heard many cuts from his routines on the radio – all played in tribute to the “acerbic, Grammy-winning comedian whose career spanned more than 50 years,” as Los Angeles Times reporters described him.

I was never sure where this guy was coming from, but his knife-sharp observations always made you think.

As he said in a 1991 interview with the LA Times, “There are three ingredients in my comedy. Those three things, which wax and wane in importance, are English language and wordplay; secondly, mundane, everyday observational comedy — dogs, cats and all that stuff; and thirdly, sociopolitical attitude comedy.”

Did he really use the word “stuff”?

The attached clip from You Tube is Carlin talking about the environment. Be warned, he uses language that can be offensive to some, including a few F–bombs.

When you think you know what Carlin is trying to say, he’ll change course in the middle of his discourse. For example, consider this from his bit on the environment:

“The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are. We’re going away… And we won’t leave much of a trace either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little Styrofoam… The planet will be here and we’ll be long gone, just another failed mutation, just another closed-end biological mistake, an evolutionary culdesac. The Earth will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”