Category Archives: Puget Sound

Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

Learn about ecosystem indicators and the quest for Puget Sound health

More than 100 people tuned in today to an online presentation regarding the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs indicators and the quest for ecological health.

While there was not much breaking news, the session turned out to be a very nice summary of progress toward restoring ecological functions in Puget Sound — or rather, in too many cases, the ongoing declines in species and habitats.

One can review the entire two-hour webinar, in which a variety of our leading Puget Sound experts chime in on their areas of expertise. Go to Puget Sound Partnership’s webpage and click on “Vital Signs Webinar.”

Because of the linkage between Vital Signs and Implementation Strategies, many of the issues under discussion relate to stories that I have been writing for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound over the past two years. Check out 16 stories by various writers on topics of ecosystem health found on the Puget Sound Institute’s website.

Other key documents on this subject:

One emerging issue brought up during the question-and-answer portion of today’s webinar was what will happen to the Vital Signs indicators and targets as the year 2020 approaches. The targets were all established with a notion that if we could meet certain goals by 2020, Puget Sound would be in pretty good shape. As it turns out, almost none of the targets will be met by 2020, so the struggle must go on.

Sometime this year, work will begin on a possible overhaul — or at least a major update — of the Vital Signs indicators and targets, according to officials with Puget Sound Partnership. Some indicators, for example, reflect the success of restoration projects by reporting the number of acres restored with no accounting for acres lost somewhere else.

The targets were originally established with a sense of optimism but without a clear understanding of what it would take, nor was there any commitment of funds for improving a specific type of habitat. As I see it, the uncertainty of financing will remain a problem until the Legislature comes up with a dedicated funding source.

Even if the targets remain the same, the target date of 2020 will need to be changed when we get to that year, if not sooner. I discuss some of the benefits and pitfalls of changing the indicators in a Water Ways post I wrote in November while going over the 2017 State of the Sound report.

The Puget Sound Science Panel, a team of expert advisers within the Puget Sound Partnership, is expected to play a primary role in revising the indicators and targets. I’m sure the discussion will address implementation strategies, adaptive management and a process to get Puget Sound on a more certain path to recovery.

Remembering Dan O’Neill, who focused on things as they are

I was pleased to see the tribute story about Dan O’Neill written by Arla Shephard Bull, a regular contributing reporter for the Kitsap Sun.

Dan O’Neill
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

Dan, who played a key role in Puget Sound restoration, died in October at age 81. A celebration of his life is scheduled for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Salmon Center in Belfair.

Dan was a longtime board member for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group based at the Salmon Center. He also served on the Washington State Transportation Commission and was a member of the Leadership Council, the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership.

I thought Mendy Harlow, executive director of the enhancement group, described the Dan I knew in Arla’s story: “He was really focused on the facts, the science and the truth, which was something I appreciated in him as an individual, but also as a board member,” Mendy said. “He was someone who looked at the reality and not at dreams.”

I don’t remember Dan ever saying anything flashy, but I could always count on him for an honest assessment of various situations. He looked at all sides of an issue. His comments were thoughtful and down to earth.

His unique role on both the Transportation Commission and Leadership Council put him in a good position to address some serious environmental issues. We talked about stormwater runoff from highways and salmon-blocking culverts. He was downright practical about these matters, even when funding measures inexplicably fell into legislative cracks.

“The Legislature right now is dealing with all kinds of issues,” Dan told me in the midst of the culvert lawsuit pitting tribes against the state. “From a transportation standpoint, revenues are down. Gas taxes aren’t producing as much revenues, because people are driving less or using more efficient cars or whatever.”

On the Leadership Council, Dan was always looking for ways to help the public understand the issues better. He once told me that he learned from my stories about the environment, which was nice to hear.

During this time, Dan served on the board of The Greenbrier Companies, a publicly traded railroad car leasing and manufacturing company. He was also a founder of and investor in PowerTech Group, Inc., a business security software company. Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Partnership, said she appreciated his business sense.

“Dan’s unique perspective from the business community enabled the Leadership Council and the Partnership to make more balanced and broadly informed choices about Puget Sound recovery,” Sheida said in a written statement. “He spoke eloquently on behalf of business interests, but he also kept protection and recovery of Puget Sound at the top of his priority list.”

Dan’s obituary can be found in the Kitsap Sun.

What would it take to restore the legendary Chinook salmon?

Giant Chinook salmon of 50 pounds or more have not yet faded into legend, as operators of a salmon hatchery in Central British Columbia, Canada, can tell you.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, holds a Chinook salmon caught this year for the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River in Central British Columbia.
Photo: Percy Walkus Hatchery

The annual spawning effort at the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River involves catching Chinook as they move upstream rather than waiting for them to arrive at the hatchery. This year, fishing crews brought home a remarkably large fish that has lived long and prospered. The progeny of this fish will be returned to the river from the hatchery to continue the succession of large Chinook.

These big fish compare to the massive Chinook that once made their way up the Elwha River and other major salmon streams of Puget Sound. Knowing that these big fish still exist provides hope that we might someday see such large salmon on the Elwha, following the recent removal of two dams and ongoing habitat restoration.

Large, powerful Chinook are suited to large, powerful streams. Big chinook can fight their way through swifter currents, jump up larger waterfalls and protect their eggs by laying deeper redds. Experts aren’t sure that the conditions are right for large Chinook to return to the Elwha, but many are hopeful. I explored this idea in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in 2010.

As for the two-year-old Percy Walkus Hatchery, big fish are not uncommon in the Wannock River, as you can see in the hatchery’s Facebook photo gallery. By spawning both large and smaller salmon, the hatchery hopes to rebuild the once-plentiful numbers of Chinook in the system. Involved in the project are the Wuikinuxv First Nation along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and others.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv and the man featured in the photo on this page, said the largest fish need to remain part of the gene pool for the hatchery and the river. That’s why volunteers go out into the river to take the brood stock. This year, 47 males and 47 females were spawned to produce more than 300,000 fertilized eggs.

“If you catch a 60-pound salmon and you keep it without breeding, that part of the gene pool eventually gets wiped out,” Walkus was quoted as saying in a CBC News report.

For similar reasons, some anglers choose to release their catch alive, if possible, after getting a photo of their big fish. The hope, of course, is that the fish will continue on and spawn naturally. In the hatchery, the genes will be passed on to more salmon when the progeny are released. Unfortunately, I was unable to quickly locate a facility management plan for the Percy Walkus Hatchery to see if anyone has projected the long-term effects of the hatchery.

Chet Gausta, middle, shows off the big fish he caught off Sekiu in 1964. Chet's younger brother Lloyd, left, and his uncle Carl Knutson were with him on the boat.
Photo courtesy of Poulsbo Historical Society/Nesby

Big fish are genetically inclined to stay at sea five, six or seven years rather than returning after four years. They must avoid being caught in fishing nets and on fishing lines during their migration of up to 1,000 miles or more before making it back home to spawn.

Perhaps you’ve seen historical black-and-white photos of giant Chinook salmon taken near the mouth of the Elwha River. Like the giant Chinook of the Wannock River, some of these fish are nearly as long as a grown man is tall. Catching them with rod and reel must be a thrill of a lifetime.

Some of those giants — or at least their genes — may still be around. The largest Chinook caught and officially weighed in Washington state dates back to 1964. The 70-pound monster was caught off Sekiu by Chester “Chet” Gausta of Poulsbo, who I wrote about upon his death in 2012. See Water Ways, Feb. 3, 2012. His photo is the second on this page.

There’s something to be said for releasing salmon over a certain size, and that goes for commercial fishing as well as sport fishing. Gillnets, for example, target larger fish by using mesh of a certain size, say 5 inches. Smaller fish can get through the nets, spawn in streams and produce the next generation — of smaller fish.

The genetic effects of removing the larger fish along with the effects of taking fish during established fishing seasons artificially “selects” (as Darwin would say) for fish that are smaller and sometimes less fit. Some researchers are using the term “unnatural selection” to describe the long-term effects of fishing pressure. I intend to write more about this soon and also discuss some ideas for better managing the harvest to save the best fish for the future.

Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

Floodplains in natural condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

As always, the biennial State of the Sound report (PDF 60.2 mb), issued this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, reveals mixed results for efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound.

It’s been 10 years since the Washington Legislature created the Partnership with an urgent mission to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020.

That 2020 deadline, which was the idea of then-Governor Chris Gregoire, has always been a double-edged sword. The clear time frame has created a sense of urgency — which was Gregoire’s goal. But now, with 2020 looming just three years away, the second edge of the sword threatens to create a sense of failure.

Everyone who has followed the issue has known from the beginning that Puget Sound would not be restored to health by 2020, so I don’t intend to belabor that point. But I’ve been asking for several years how the Puget Sound Partnership plans to finesse the “failure” into an ongoing recovery effort, without which Puget Sound could become a lifeless body of water.

“Thousands of projects have been successfully completed, and more are taking place every day,” writes PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy in a forward to the latest State of the Sound report. “However, investment in recovery has been a fraction of that needed to reach targets, and it is clear at this point that the work of recovering Puget Sound cannot be completed by 2020.”

Click to download the new report

Sheida repeated in her statement the same thing she has told me several times: “The work of maintaining ecosystem health, much like maintaining human health, is never ‘done,’” she writes. “This is particularly true in light of increasing systemic pressures, like population growth, water acidification and temperatures changes.”

I understand that Partnership staffers are working on a transition strategy to handle the looming 2020 deadline, but I have not heard what they plan to do. One idea is a major overhaul of all the ecosystem indicators, making them better markers for ecosystem health. It’s something many of the scientists have wanted to do, given improved awareness of ecological function.

But if the original indicators were abandoned, we would lose the sense of continuity gained over the past decade. Besides, that would disrupt the latest effort to develop and effectuate “implementation strategies,” which are aimed directly at improving the existing indicators. (Check out the stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

The simplest idea would be to change the date of 2020 to one or more dates in the future, perhaps with greater thought given to the costs and practicality of meeting the deadline. The original goals were somewhat arbitrary, often referred to as “aspirational” rather than practical. Perhaps the Partnership will adopt an approach somewhere between — with some new indicators, some revised indicators and new dates for those that seem to be good indicators as they are.

While the problem with the year 2020 can be managed, the more serious matter is funding the restoration so that real progress can be made in areas where the ecosystem is in decline. Protecting areas that are still functioning well is widely accepted as the top priority, but protection strategies have been somewhat hit and miss. Improving the monitoring effort to measure the changes is more important than ever.

“We must be willing to conduct an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed,” states a letter from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory. The Puget Sound Partnership is ready to work with all of our partners to improve our own efforts in the recovery endeavor.”

The Leadership Council identifies four overriding problems:

  1. “We are not investing at a level necessary to achieve recovery. We simply have not prioritized Puget Sound recovery at a level that results in adequate spending on restoration and protection projects.”
  2. “Too few people understand that Puget Sound is in trouble. We must do a better job of providing credible, hard-hitting information to our citizenry, whom we are confident cares deeply about Puget Sound and will demand a recovery effort that is successful.”
  3. “While we have appropriately focused much on restoration projects, we have not focused enough on programs designed to protect what we have. We must support our local governments and state and federal agencies as they go about the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing projects and activities that will harm the Sound.”
  4. “We have to ramp up our effort to keep pace with our booming economy. It has been reported that 1,000 people a week are moving into the Puget Sound basin. That means housing, roads, and other supportive infrastructure, which all have the potential to destroy habitat, degrade water quality, reduce stream flows, and lower groundwater tables.”

As I reported this week for the Puget Sound Institute, the Leadership Council is working with Gov. Jay Inslee to instill a greater sense of urgency for the recovery of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which remain on a dangerous path to extinction. That will surely involve efforts to increase the number of chinook salmon, which are not faring well, according to the latest State of the Sound report.

The population of killer whales is one of four indicators that are going the wrong direction, getting worse instead of better. The others are:

  • The amount of forestland being converted for development in ecologically sensitive regions;
  • The quality of marine waters, as measured by dissolved oxygen and related factors; and
  • The total biomass of Pacific herring, considered an important food supply for salmon and other species.

I have to say that the Puget Sound Partnership has gotten better at presenting information about the Puget Sound ecosystem. The 2017 State of the Sound report is fairly understandable to the average reader without sacrificing the technical details necessary to understand the problems and solutions. I also like the graphics, particularly those that represent contrasting views of natural features, namely shorelines, shellfish, floodplains and stormwater runoff. I’ve copied the two floodplain graphics to the top and bottom of this page.

Funding problems are given increased attention in the latest report. Understanding what it will take to expand the protection and restoration effort is critical, especially during the era of President Trump, whose budget proposed eliminating the most important federal funding sources for Puget Sound.

The report also includes recommendations from the Puget Sound Science Panel, established by the Legislature to advise the Leadership Council on science issues. In the latest report, the Science Panel recommends moving from a focus on restoration alone to one of involving increased resilience of natural systems.

As stated by the Science Panel in the report: “The successful restoration of ecosystem functions is an important means to maintain resilience, but is not the end in itself. Resilience also relies on human capacity and ability to respond and adapt.

“Resilience focuses less on conditions as they once existed and more on managing ecosystem processes, patterns, and change to provide the ecosystem benefits we care about into the future.”

Floodplains in degraded condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

Waterfront property owners face options in response to sea-level rise

Rising sea levels and isolated floods will be an increasing challenge for waterfront property owners, according to experts I interviewed for a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The Vechey home and bulkhead before the big move. // Photo: John Vechey

Changing conditions call for property owners to consider their options with regard to their shoreline — not just for today but for the long run. What I learned while researching this story is that every waterfront site will respond differently as the highest tides go higher and higher.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought the obvious answer would be for people to build taller and stronger bulkheads — despite well-known environmental damage. And that may be the only answer for some. But for others, that approach could be a waste of money, as bigger walls degrade the owners’ enjoyment of the beach as well disrupting natural systems. Alternatives include moving or raising a house or even replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” protections.

After the home was moved back from shore and the bulkhead removed. // Photo: John Vechey

Sea levels in Puget Sound are rising slowly at this time, with the actual rate dependent on location. We live in a tectonically active area, with major movements along continental plates. As a result, the ground is sinking in most areas around Puget Sound, adding to the relative rise in sea level.

In Seattle, the sea level has risen about 9 inches since 1900 and is expected to rise an additional 4 to 56 inches (4.75 feet) by 2100. The uncertainty reflected in that range relates to whether greenhouse gases continue to increase, thus accelerating the rate of melting of land-based ice in the polar regions.

Some changes can be expected regardless of the human response over the next 80 years. For example, one analysis looking at Whidbey Island suggests that there is a 99 percent chance that by 2040 — just 13 23 years from now — sea level will be at least 2.4 inches higher than today with a 50 percent chance that it will be 7.2 inches higher. After 2040, the tides will keep rising even faster. Take a look at the related story “Average high tides are creeping higher in Puget Sound.”

John Vechey of Orcas Island, who I featured in my story, took sea level into account when deciding whether to remove his bulkhead while seeking to improve the beach for family activities and for the environment. His solution was to move his house and give the beach more room to function naturally.

Moving a house will not be the answer for everyone, but I can safely say that everyone should consider their long-term picture before making any investments that will last a lifetime — and that includes changes to the shoreline.

I believe it is generally possible, certainly with professional help, to calculate elevations for the house and any low spots on the property, add one to four feet above the current high-tide mark, and then consider tidal surge, which is the wave height caused by weather conditions. In some counties, professional help is available if you are considering whether to remove a bulkhead. Check out the “Shore Friendly” website and “Resources in Your Area.”

At this time, future sea levels do not enter into regulatory considerations about where a person can build a house. One problem is the uncertainty surrounding the amount that sea levels will actually rise. But some environmental advocates say it is time to require additional setbacks, not only to protect the environment as tides push back the natural beach but also to protect homeowners from future losses.

For some people, sea-level rise is a distant worry, but for others the threat is just around the corner. I was reading this morning about how high tides are already affecting Naval Station Norfolk. Check out “Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It” by Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.

A new Government Accountability Office report, released yesterday, cites estimates of future property damage totaling between $4 billion and $6 billion per year in the U.S. as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms. The report outlines the need for a coordinated federal response.

Sen. Maria Cantwell discusses the new GAO report and calls for better planning in the video below.

Carpenter Creek culvert is gone, as bridge work pushes to meet schedule

UPDATE, Thursday Oct. 26

The bridge construction will continue beyond the end of the year, when it was originally scheduled for completion. The new completion date is listed as March 2018.

“The delay is due to numerous issues and challenges, including encountering old buried wooden pilings and associated contaminated material, a revised sanitary sewer design, and labor and materials shortages, which disrupted the construction schedule,” according to a news release from Kitsap County. “The onset of the winter weather months will also add to the delay as final work on the project, such as paving, depends on fair weather.”
—–

An old five-foot culvert where Carpenter Creek passes under West Kingston Road is now down to its last bit of concrete plus a wedge dirt, with final removal awaiting completion of a new 150-foot-long bridge.

Only one section of the old culvert remains on Carpenter Creek after other pieces were pulled out two weeks ago. // Photo: Sillwaters Environmental Center

Massive amounts of earthen fill and have been removed since the project started about six months ago. All that remains is the wedge of dirt that still supports pipes and utilities, which will be attached to the bridge during construction. After that, the last fill material will be removed, leaving a wide-open estuary flowing under the bridge.

The construction has created some inconvenience for folks in the Kingston area, but the project promises to enhance salmon migration in Carpenter Creek, restore tidal function in the estuary and enhance the salt marsh for a variety of creatures. The creek and/or the estuary may be used by chum, coho and chinook salmon, along with steelhead and cutthroat trout.

Stillwaters Environmental Center is coordinating monitoring in the estuary to measure improvements in the ecosystem. Before and after elevation measurements will help describe the physical changes, while biological surveys identify changes in water quality, vegetation, fish and insect populations, among other things.

A new bridge takes shape where West Kingston Road crosses the upper estuary of Carpenter Creek. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

I am particularly interested in how the new bridge will further improve the function of the estuary, which is the last major stop-over point for juvenile salmon on their way out of Puget Sound, according to biologists. The bridge on West Kingston Road is the second phase of a project that began in 2012, when a small box culvert was replaced with a 90-foot-long bridge on South Kingston Road. The first bridge crosses the lower estuary, while the new bridge crosses the upper estuary.

While my focus has been on life in the estuary, the project goes beyond the ecosystem, Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder told Kitsap Sun reporter (now retired) Ed Friedrich in a story published in March at the beginning of construction.

Here’s what the old culvert looked like before the recent project began.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works.

“This isn’t just a culvert-replacement project but a project that will increase the safety and functionality for drivers and pedestrians alike,” Rob said. “Road closure is never easy, but I hope the community will appreciate the improvements when it’s all complete.”

The work involves widening the travel lanes, adding 5-foot pedestrian and bike lanes on the north side and a 6-foot paved shoulder on the south side. In addition, street lighting will be added.

As of today, the project has fallen behind schedule, according to Tina Nelson, senior program manager for Kitsap County Public Works. Tina said she hopes the contractor, Redside Construction of Bainbridge Island, will catch up enough to allow the road to reopen by the end of December, as originally scheduled.

Officials will be assessing the situation through the end of October, she said. If it appears the bridge and roadway won’t be ready for opening by Dec. 31, then an announcement will be made in late October or early November. Advance notice is needed because of school bus routing and scheduling after the new year.

The causes of the delay are many, Tina told me, but it generally boils down to scheduling of project materials and crews, for which the contractor is responsible. The contract calls for the work to be done in a certain number of days, she said, and the contractor will lose money if the work is not completed on time.

So far, fish passage has not been an issue, although chum salmon could soon move into the estuary — if they haven’t already — as they begin their fall migration. If fish try to move upstream before the channel is reopened, officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will help determine the best way to safely get them upstream.

Much of the $3-million project is funded by the Navy as mitigation for ecological damage caused by the 2012 renovation of Pier B at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton.

Travels to the front lines of restoration throughout Puget Sound

In the Puget Sound region, the front lines in the battle for clean water, healthy species and safe seafood include experts from Washington State University Extension and University of Washington Sea Grant.

These are the folks who help property owners understand how their lives are intertwined with natural systems. These are the folks who lead armies of volunteers to monitor changes in the ecosystem and help the rest of us understand how we can improve the environment in our own way.

These folks in the Extension and Sea Grant offices seem to have a special connection with average citizens, and they are some of my favorite people.

I was pleased to see an article in Washington State Magazine about the role that WSU Extension offices play in the Puget Sound region. The article, by Rebecca Phillips, highlights the close relationship between Extension and Sea Grant, especially in Kitsap County.

With artful writing, Becky juxtaposes the beauty of Puget Sound with the ongoing perils that have disrupted the ecosystem. She describes the efforts to turn things around and save this magnificent waterway that so many people call home.

“From Puyallup to Bremerton, Port Townsend to Everett, WSU Extension and research centers are immersed in Puget Sound revitalization through a combination of investigation, stewardship and educational outreach programs,” Becky writes.

She goes on to talk about the various programs — not the least of which is the Puyallup Research and Extension Center and the associated Washington Stormwater Center, which is doing great work to figure out how to remove pollution from toxic runoff coming from roads and developed areas.

The cooperative extension system was established in 1914, linking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to land grant colleges, such as WSU. Traditionally, every county in the country had a local extension office, but in some areas county offices have been consolidated into regional centers.

The National Sea Grant College Program, established by Congress in 1963, is a network of 33 Sea Grant colleges supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to promote the conservation and responsible use of the nation’s waterways.

I have covered most of the issues mentioned in Becky’s article, often in some depth, but her story touches on the essential elements of various restoration projects taking place throughout Puget Sound. It was nice to see such a comprehensive story involving the important problems of our time, with a special emphasis on the frontline folks addressing the issues. For some people, the article may serve as an introduction to the problems of Puget Sound. For others, it is a reminder of the local efforts taking place across the landscape.

Washington State Magazine is a product of the WSU Communications Office. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of WSU and worked in that office one summer while I was a student at the university.

Washington State Magazine

Streaming Solutions: Below the glimmering waters of Puget Sound lie invisible problems

Video extras

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.