Category Archives: Benthic organisms

Petition seeks upgrades to Puget Sound sewage treatment plants

UPDATE, Feb. 12
Northwest Environmental Advocates has taken its case to court in an effort to obtain a new Washington state sewage-treatment standard under AKART — “All Known, Available and Reasonable Treatment.” For information about the case, refer to the NWEA news release and the lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court.
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An environmental group, Northwest Environmental Advocates, is calling on the Washington Department of Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee to invoke a 1945 law in hopes of forcing cities and counties to improve their sewage-treatment plants.

Large ribbons of the plankton Noctiluca can be seen in this photo taken at Poverty Bay near Federal Way on June 28 last year. Excess nitrogen can stimulate plankton growth, leading to low-oxygen conditions.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Department of Ecology

In a petition to Ecology, the group says the state agency should require cities and counties to upgrade their plants to “tertiary treatment” before the wastewater gets discharged into Puget Sound. Such advanced treatment would remove excess nitrogen along with some toxic chemicals that create problems for sea life, according to Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, based in Portland.

Most sewage-treatment plants in the region rely on “secondary treatment,” which removes most solids but does little to reduce nitrogen or toxic chemicals. Secondary treatment is an outdated process, Nina told me, adding that Ecology needs to lead the way to a more advanced treatment technology.

“It’s a travesty that cities around Puget Sound continue to use 100-year-old sewage-treatment technology when cities across the nation have demonstrated that solutions are available and practical,” she said.

According to Nina, state law requires the use of “all known, available and reasonable treatment,” or AKART for short. Secondary treatment is the current AKART standard of treatment, she said, but tertiary treatment is known, available and reasonable — and it should become the new AKART standard.

The petition to Ecology (PDF 793 kb), filed in November, was denied earlier this month.

“Although Ecology has decided to deny your petition, we share your concerns regarding existing nutrient impacts and dissolved oxygen impairments within Puget Sound,” states the response (857 kb) signed by Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “However, Ecology does not agree that revising (state regulations) to define AKART as tertiary treatment … is a reasonable approach to address Puget Sound water quality impairments.”

Tertiary treatment is “neither affordable nor necessary for all wastewater treatment plants,” the Ecology director says in the letter, adding that Ecology’s approach is to set effluent limits for each discharger at levels that avoid water quality violations.

A major effort, called the Puget Sound Nutrient Source Reduction Project is using a computer model to look at the effects of nitrogen releases from various sewage-treatment plants at current rates of loading and to consider what would happen if tertiary treatment were installed at specific problem locations.

Meanwhile, future discharge permits issued by Ecology will consider nitrogen loading and require treatment plant operators to evaluate the effects of potential nitrogen-reduction targets, Maia noted.

Preliminary studies showed that if nitrogen-removal equipment were installed at the five largest plants in Puget Sound, the population could double without increasing nitrogen loading. Installing the equipment at all treatment plants in Puget Sound could lead to a 40-percent reduction in nitrogen, according to information I reviewed for a series of stories last year in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Taking the next step before considering a possible lawsuit, Northwest Environmental Advocates appealed to Gov. Inslee this week to overturn Ecology’s finding and support a requirement that all discharges to Puget Sound meet the higher level of treatment. Check out the appeal petition (PDF 217 kb).

Noctiluca scintillans bloom at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines recorded June 4 of last year.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Tertiary treatment is being used in some areas of Puget Sound where excess nitrogen has produced massive plankton blooms, creating low-oxygen conditions that can be deadly to sea life. The Olympia region in South Puget Sound is one example. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Excess nitrogen in Puget Sound can trigger massive plankton blooms, which can lead to deadly low-oxygen conditions for fish and other marine life.

Other than sewage-treatment plants, sources of nitrogen include fertilizers from farm fields and septic systems in rural areas, as well as natural sources such as decomposing vegetation, nitrogen-releasing plants and salmon that have spawned and died.

The greatest obstacle to upgrading all 87 sewage-treatment plants in Puget Sound is cost, according to local and state officials who peg the total costs of sewer upgrades in the billions of dollars.

The largest sewage facility in Puget Sound is King County’s West Point plant in Seattle, which has no room to grow, according to county officials. To upgrade the plant to tertiary treatment would require that new equipment be installed elsewhere, with the sewage piped to the new plant.

Nina Bell said if the state declared that tertiary treatment was “known, available and reasonable” under the AKART requirement, then individual treatment facilities could seek a variance for such hardships, or at least be given adequate time to design and install the equipment.

“It may be difficult,” she said, “but difficult translates to using different approaches to the problem. Getting a rule change is the first step to making this a priority. The state makes all sorts of decisions that cost large amounts of money, including stadiums and such. It takes leadership to get something done.”

When the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, secondary treatment became the requirement for most facilities across the country. New sewage-treatment plants were required in many areas. At first, the federal government offered grants of 90 percent for construction, leaving local governments to pick up the remaining 10 percent. Later, when those grants expired, Washington state launched its own program with 50 percent grants.

The value of fish, shellfish and recreation that results from having a healthy Puget Sound cannot be overlooked, Nina said. “Like all things, Puget Sound requires maintenance.”

Tertiary-treatment systems are designed to remove nitrogen, Nina said. But studies have shown that they can also remove some level of toxic chemicals, including medicines, personal-care products and other “contaminants of emerging concern” that currently go unregulated.

She cited an Ecology study (PDF 9.7 mb), which showed that secondary treatment systems were able to reduce 21 percent of the 172 compounds tested to levels below reporting limits. But advanced nutrient-removal systems, such as tertiary treatment, were able to clean up 53 percent of the chemicals.

Reducing those toxic compounds in Puget Sound would provide benefits for all species, including highly contaminated salmon and orcas, she said.

The AKART standard, adopted as state policy in 1945, was envisioned to keep the waters of the state clean, Nina said. It only makes sense to use the latest technology in a reasonable way. At this point, she added, it would be better late than never.

Amusing Monday: Colorful sea slugs reveal evolutionary strategies

In conjunction with National Sea Slug Day last Monday, the California Academy of Sciences released colorful photographs of 17 newly identified nudibranch species.

Striking colors and unusual color patterns were given a special focus in a genetic study that is helping to group the nudibranch species and understand how they evolved. Hannah Epstein, affiliated with the California Academy, was the lead author on the research paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

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Salmon migration on display during Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours

Recent rains are bringing chum salmon into numerous streams on the Kitsap Peninsula, according to Jon Oleyar, biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. But more rains are needed to help the salmon reach the upper tributaries and fully seed the system, he added.

Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek on Thursday (11-1). // Photo: Emma Jeffries

“The fall fish are right on schedule,” Jon told me, “but I wish they had more water, especially for the tributaries.”

Folks attending the Kitsap Salmon Tours this Saturday should be able to see fish in most locations on this year’s list. Read on for details.

The fall chum themselves seem larger than average this year, Jon said, which means the streams need a little more water than usual for the fish to easily swim upstream.

Salmon can move quickly upstream and become stranded in too-shallow water after a downpour followed by a dry period, he said. In a worst-case scenario, fish may die before spawning. Once the rains have saturated the soil, the risk of low flows is reduced, but as of today we’re not at that point yet. Heavy rains last Saturday brought many fish into the streams, he added, but streams levels have dropped somewhat since then.

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Starfish continue to baffle researchers with mysterious disease

Five years after a mysterious disease began killing millions of starfish and turning their tissues to mush, the decimated population has yet to recover. Meanwhile, researchers continue to struggle to identify a cause for the disease, which appears to have uncertain ties to viruses and possibly environmental conditions.

In Puget Sound, it’s not as easy as it once was to find a diseased sea star, which seems to be a promising sign until you consider how many have died. As I learned last week during an outing to Lofall in North Kitsap, the total number of starfish remains low compared to four years ago, and recovery has been minimal, if at all.

Under the Lofall dock, volunteers have observed that the number of sea stars is still low, but sick ones are no longer common.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Local volunteers have been observing sea stars at Lofall since the beginning of 2014. I first visited the site the following summer with three retired women who lead the monitoring effort there. (See Water Ways , June 17, 2014.) They are still making regular trips at low tide, counting and measuring the starfish and looking for signs of disease.

“The numbers are way down,” noted volunteer Barb Erickson as we stood beneath the Lofall dock last Friday, “but we haven’t seen many sick ones. We also aren’t seeing the little ones.”

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More than one way to join the battle against European green crabs

I’ve received a good response regarding my blog post on Friday, “Green crabs entrenched at Dungeness Spit, but new issues are emerging,” which covered a variety of issues — from where the invasive crabs did NOT come from to new detection methods for invasive species.

I heard some legitimate questions about how to identify European green crabs and what to do if you find one. The main thing is to get a photograph and send it to the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team, which is leading the war on green crabs. I’m reminded that it is illegal to possess a green crab without a permit.

Here are some links from the Crab Team website that could be helpful:

I’m also pleased to see the announcement of a free online webinar on July 10 to help people identify European green crabs. The two-hour “First Detector Training Webinar” is co-sponsored by the Crab Team and Washington Invasive Species Council. Register ahead of time to get information about the event.

Nautilus submarine ‘can send your soul to the bottom’ — Bob Ballard

It is rather amazing to watch live video from a submarine creeping along along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast, and I wanted to remind everyone that this is something they can experience right now via the Nautilus Live webfeed. The live commentary from the operators can be amusing at times, but I didn’t want to wait until Monday to let you know what’s going on.

Exploration Vessel Nautilus, with its remotely operated submarines Hercules and Argus, has been exploring deep-sea vents off Oregon the past few days, marking the beginning of a six-month expedition along the West Coast and around Hawaii. The ROVs were launched Sunday as the weather allowed, and the mother ship is now moving up the coast. I’ve embedded the video on this page, but more information and alternate channels are provided on the Nautilus homepage. One can also send questions to the research team.

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Green crabs entrenched at Dungeness Spit, but new issues are emerging

Dungeness Spit on the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sequim remains a hot spot for the invasive European green crab, which first showed up in Puget Sound during the fall of 2016.

This small male crab is one of the European green crabs caught last year in traps at Dungeness Spit.
Photo: Allen Pleus

The green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species in the world, brings with it the potential to destroy shellfish beds and disrupt key habitats essential to native species in Puget Sound.

Thankfully, except for the Dungeness Spit, new findings of green crabs have been almost zero since a massive volunteer trapping effort resumed in April throughout most of Puget Sound.

I do have some additional news about green crabs to share, so please read on for a discussion of these topics:

  • Green crabs on Dungeness Spit
  • New findings on Whidbey Island
  • Where the crabs are NOT coming from
  • New efforts with Canada
  • First scientific paper on the green crab program
  • New assessment tool on the horizon
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New bridges provide improved habitat in two Kitsap County creeks

Contractors are putting the final touches on two new bridges in Kitsap County, both of which are expected to improve the local environment.

A new bridge over the Carpenter Creek Estuary near Kingston helps to restore the upper salt marsh.
Photo; Stillwaters Environmental Center

One is a 150-foot bridge that crosses the Carpenter Creek Estuary on West Kingston Road near Kingston. The other is a 50-foot bridge that crosses Big Anderson Creek on Seabeck-Holly Road near Holly.

Among local residents, the Carpenter Creek bridge may best be known as the bridge that blocked traffic and forced a detour near Kingston for more than a year — much longer than originally planned. (Recall reporter Nathan Pilling’s story in the Kitsap Sun.) While contract issues remain in dispute, the environmental benefits are clear, according to Joleen Palmer of the nearby Stillwaters Environmental Center.

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Getting little respect, kelp could be the key to survival for some fish

It is all too easy for us to forget about Puget Sound’s productive kelp forests, which have been slowly vanishing from numerous places where masses of vegetation once proliferated.

I never fully appreciated the value of kelp until I began writing about the complexity of the Puget Sound ecosystem. While scuba diving years ago, I came to understand that kelp harbored a vast variety of fish, crabs and other creatures. Still, mostly out of fear of becoming entangled in kelp, I never ventured into the middle of a kelp forest. The stories I heard about divers becoming entangled are real, but they may have been overblown. (Read the story by diver/writer Eric Douglas.)

I will never know what I might have seen as a diver in the middle of a dense kelp forest, but I have always understood that kelp was generally a good thing. As a boater, however, I tended to think of the floating kelp balls and blades as a nuisance to get around or through.

Now I realize that our vanishing bull kelp has been vastly undervalued. Knowing that kelp continues to disappear leaves me with a nagging feeling of despair. I cannot conceive of the ecological loss of a single kelp bed, let alone the dozens of kelp forests that have vanished from Puget Sound.

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Amusing Monday: Octopuses, the aliens we can encounter on Earth

Octopuses are among the coolest creatures on Earth. Not only are they dexterous, with an amazing ability to grasp and manipulate objects, they also seem to know what they are doing.

In tests, octopuses have proven that they can solve puzzles, and they certainly have some sort of memory. They can tell people apart, even if dressed in the same uniform. This may be surprising, especially since octopuses don’t really have a brain like that of humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Not having a backbone — or any bones for that matter — allows octopuses to escape from places where much smaller invertebrates would get stuck. Check out the first video on this page, a popular clip taken by Chance Miller, an Alaskan fishing and tour guide for Miller’s Landing near Seward.

Chance tells his skeptical passengers that the large octopus slithering around his deck would escape out a tiny drain hole, that is if and when the creature decides to go.

No way, says one man heard on the video. “That’s like trying to get my wife in her wedding dress; it ain’t gonna happen.” But, of course, it did.

As for intelligence, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith says it is not so much a question of which animals among all the species are smarter in an formalistic sense. It’s about which animal best uses its intelligence to solve problems that relate to survival and success in other ways. The octopus is thus worthy of attention.

In his new and highly acclaimed book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Godfrey-Smith talks about how octopuses and other cephalopods have a disbursed nervous system with neurons throughout their bodies. In some ways, a single tentacle may think for itself.

Mammals and birds have long been regarded as the smartest animals on Earth, but that may reveal a bias based on our similar patterns of thinking. After all, mammals and birds are closely related to us in an evolutionary sense, compared to all the invertebrates in the world.

Looking back in time, it is difficult to come up with a common ancestor to both humans and octopuses, Godfrey-Smith said. “It was probably an animal about the size of a leach or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.” Check out the fascinating article in Quartz magazine by Olivia Goldhill.

This line of reasoning suggests that intelligence evolved on Earth in two very different ways. Studying the octopus could be the closest encounter that humans have with an alien creature, according to Godfrey-Smith. I may never think of an octopus quite the same way again.

Other interesting findings about octopuses are revealed in a 2009 Scientific American article, in which writer Brendan Borrell interviews Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

The second video on this page shows an octopus solving a real-world problem of grabbing a meal by taking advantage of a human, while the third video is a 43-minute Planet Earth documentary released last summer about the intelligence and alien nature of the octopus.

I leave you at the end with a brief clip from the Cirque du Soleil performance of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles.