Category Archives: Pollution and spills

Orange plankton bloom is not a good sign for ecological health

If you notice an orange tint to the waters of Central Puget Sound, it’s not your imagination. It is a dense plankton bloom dominated by the dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans.

Noctiluca scintillans bloom comes ashore at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines on Monday of this week.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Noctiluca is often seen in some numbers at this time of year, but it may be a bit more intense this time around, according to Christopher Krembs, an oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology. Christopher tells me that the orange color may stick around awhile.

The orange-colored species does not produce any toxins found to be harmful to humans, but it is not exactly a friendly organism either. It often shows up in marine waters that are out of balance with nutrients or impaired in some other way. It can gobble up other plankton that feed tiny fish and other creatures, but it does not seem to provide a food supply that interests very many species — probably because of its ammonia content. Consequently, Noctiluca is often referred to as a “dead end” in the food web.

A plankton bloom at the north end of Vashon Island gets a distinct edge from the tidal currents flowing through Colvos Passage.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Ecology

I had a lot of discussions with Christopher and other plankton biologists earlier this year while writing a series of articles about the importance of plankton to the entire Puget Sound food web — right up to orcas. A primary point to the series was to describe how excessive nitrogen from human sources may be upsetting the balance in Puget Sound.

For a deeper dive into plankton, please take a look at this package of stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound titled “Nutrient Pollution,” with a special focus on plankton in the second story in this list:

Christopher Krembs manages a program that assesses water conditions throughout Puget Sound, including aerial views of the surface waters, where he often observes different types of plankton, as well as jellyfish and other creatures that provide clues to water quality. See the webpage Eyes Over Puget Sound, where he expects to post his latest report next week.

The waters in Budd Inlet turned green from a plankton bloom near Olympia.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Ecology

His flight on Monday revealed intense blooms of Noctiluca throughout Central Puget Sound, including the waters near Vashon Island.

“What is striking is the very high phytoplankton biomass in Central Sound and not so much in South Sound and other places from the air,” Christopher said in an email. “The jury is still out when the monitoring data come in.”

He’s not sure why the Noctiluca bloom is occurring right now. May was a record-dry month, he noted, and rain-fed rivers are running low. On the other hand, snow-fed rivers are running fairly high, while the mighty Fraser River in British Columbia has dropped down from its previous levels.

Rivers can bring nitrogen down from the uplands to feed the phytoplankton, which capture the energy of the sun to grow and multiply rapidly.

As Christopher points out, we need more studies focused on the base of the food web, which supports our salmon populations and ultimately thousands of species in and around Puget Sound. Clues that could help us understand how to recover Puget Sound are likely to be hidden in the water, where basic biological responses result from water chemistry and circulation patterns throughout Puget Sound.

As a result of the current Noctiluca bloom, the Department of Ecology has posted a discussion as part of its “Puget Sound Nutrient Watch” series on the blog ECOconnect. Efforts to reduce nutrient loading in Puget Sound are being discussed in a workgroup called the Puget Sound Nutrient Forum, which anyone can follow online or in person.

World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

The last time I spoke to Peter was in 2004 (Kitsap Sun, Jan 31,2004) when he was working for Geoscience Australia and presented his latest findings on coral reefs to audiences in Kingston and Poulsbo. His dad, Alfred Harris, still lives in Poulsbo, while his mom, Sydney Cotton, lives in Silverdale.

For the past four years, Peter has been working in Norway as managing director at GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. He heads a staff of about 30 people, including experts from various countries.

By the way, GRID stands for Global Resource Information Database, and Arendal is a community about the size of Bremerton, where Peter has purchased a home and agreed to stay on with GRID another four years.

I asked him what his team concluded about the three biggest problems facing the world’s oceans. He said the group, after much consideration, decided that what rose to the top —above ocean acidification, chemical contamination, noise pollution and others — were coral reefs, plastics and overfishing.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” he said. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress. They will keep dying off.”

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

Warm water causes the coral colonies to reject their symbiotic algae, leaving them white in a process called coral “bleaching.” They can recover if cooler water returns and there is enough time between bleaching events, he said. But it takes about 10 years for corals to recover, and the Great Barrier Reef has undergone bleaching for three years in a row. Vast areas may never recover.

Coral reefs provide habitats for huge numbers of marine species, and their loss will be an environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. Even if humans eventually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological diversity may be lost in many areas.

“The only solution is to try to preserve coral reefs in locations where they are less susceptible,” Peter said.

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

“More and more people are using more and more plastic,” he said, and some of it eventually reaches the ocean. It can come from stormwater, litter, fishing activities, garbage picked up by the wind and outright dumping. Much of it comes from developing countries with inadequate waste-treatment systems.

“It seems like many people and countries see this as a problem that can be addressed, like the ozone problem,” he said. “It all comes down to how you deal with plastic in your own life.”

The third problem he mentioned was overfishing, which has the potential to drive some populations to the brink of extinction.

While some countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are doing much better in managing their fisheries, many developing countries are stuck in a cycle of needing more fish to feed a hungry population while generating revenue from fisheries, he said. Taking more and more fish from the ocean will lead to population collapse.

Some of the greatest concerns are on the high seas, where there is little control over what anyone does, he said. Some fishermen are targeting seamounts, where large numbers of various fish species congregate.

“When fishermen find a good spot out in the ocean it is usually a spawning aggregation,” he said, adding that removing those fish can affect growth of entire populations.

“One solution is to put a moratorium on high seas fishing altogether,” he said, adding that it would take a major international effort, but people should recognize that the high seas is the least productive part of the ocean.

GEO-6, the U.N. report on the world environment, is scheduled for publication before the end of the year.

Through GRID-Arendal, Peter keeps in touch with many environmental issues, which can be reviewed on the foundation’s “Activities” page as well as its “Publications” and “Graphics” pages.

Peter’s world travels are as interesting as his research. After graduating from North Kitsap High School in 1976, he went on to receive an oceanography degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

“I think I have always had an interest in the ocean,” he said, noting that his father built sailboats as a hobby and raced them on Puget Sound.

At the age of 12, he took a course at the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (now SEA Discovery Center). After that, he took advantage of every opportunity to visit the marine animals in tanks at the center and to go out on tide-pool walks on Puget Sound.

“I was really captured by the image of how this place was formed,” he said. “I came to understand that there is a reason for everything you see. Puget Sound was once under an ice sheet. The gravel is glacial till. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”

While other places, such as Chile and Norway, have waterways that look similar to Puget Sound, they often lie over rocky outcroppings rather than gravelly substrate. Puget Sound is truly unique, he added.

“When you travel the world, you realize how rare and precious it is,” he said. “There are no other places like it.”

At the UW, one of Peter’s professors, Dick Sternberg, convinced him to do his graduate work at the University of Wales in Great Britain, where he could work under the late Michael Collins, co-editor with Sternberg of the journal “Continental Shelf Research.”

While there, Peter met his future wife Ellen, an Australian native, and he decided to take a job at the University of Sydney, where he taught oceanography and conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef. When he joined the Australian government, he was required to become an Australian citizen, though he maintained his American citizenship. He worked for Geoscience Australia for 20 years, becoming head of the Antarctic marine and coastal programs, before moving to Norway in 2014.

He and his wife have three grown children, two still living in Australia. Eleri, the oldest, recently took a job with the online political cartoon magazine “The Nib” in Portland, Ore. With a grandchild now on the way, Peter says he has even more reasons to return to the Northwest.

Amusing Monday: ‘Raw water’ craze strikes a nerve with comedians

While world health officials are trying to bring clean drinking water to sickly communities around the globe, there appears to be an upstart movement promoting so-called “raw water,” which is said to be considerably better for your health than pure clean water.

Raw water, by definition, is left untreated and reported to contain living organisms that provide health benefits. One brand, aptly named Live Water, is selling for more than $6 a gallon. You are advised to drink it within a month to prevent it from turning green, presumably from the growth of organisms.

The movement, which seems to encourage people to go out in search of natural springs, grew rapidly in California with the help of a guru-like character who changed his name from Chris Sanborn to Mukhande Singh. The whole story has been just too good of a setup for comedians to ignore.

There are some very amusing lines in the videos shown on this page, but I thought I should begin with a video that actually puts the issue into a serious context. Reporter Gabrielle Karol of KOIN-TV in Portland produced an investigative report two weeks ago. She found that the source of “Live Water” is a bottling and distribution plant in Oregon.

The raw water craze is a concept that can be shaped to any comedic style — from (in order of videos on this page) Jordan Klepper, Desi Lydic of The Daily Show and Steven Colbert.

The fifth video shows a costumed Jeff Holiday, appearing as Hemlock Moonwolf. Jeff is a YouTube regular who describes himself as a “humble neuroscience student using his free time to debunk bad science, discuss current issues with logic and have a good time.”

Even NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” radio show got in on the humor with a limerick:

I head to the spring with a straw,
Sip a glacier that’s fresh off the thaw.
No fluoride or filter
Will throw me off kilter.
I only drink water that’s ___.

Guest participant Andrea Chabot: “Raw? … What?”

Host Peter Sagal: “Move over, kombucha and turmeric powder; there’s a new reason to hate millennial hipsters. It’s called raw water. Unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized water. Who hasn’t had a glass of water and thought, this is nice, but it needs more E. coli?

“You see, these risk-taking, hip millennials do not want boring, safe tap water. No, they want to know that every sip might be their last. Apparently, they say taste is a big factor here. One person said, quote, “it has a vaguely mild sweetness, a nice smooth mouthfeel, nothing that overwhelms the flavor profile,” unquote. Not to worry — I want to assure you that person was immediately slapped in the face.”

Tamar Haspel, who writes the blog “Unearthed” for the Washington Post, says, “I think the biggest reason that people are willing to pay $6 a gallon for water that comes straight to them from deep in the earth’s bowels is that they are suspicious of the water that comes straight to them from the kitchen faucet. It’s the chemicals and the drug residues and leached lead and the duck poop…”

She goes on to discuses what can be found in raw water and the potential health benefits or lack thereof.

If I can offer one final video, check out at the bottom by ZDoggMD, who is a physician and “purveyor of the finest medical satire.” He puts a personal spin on the issue before relating the raw water movement to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological term defined as “a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is (Wikipedia).”

Whoa there, Dr. Zogg. That’s getting a little deep, but I do like the line he offers on his website: “Drinking raw water? Let’s party like it’s 1699!”

ZDoggMD admits that he actually grew up drinking raw water, like many people in Kitsap County who drink untreated water from a private well or a small water system. Well water meets the definition of “raw,” I guess, but water that comes from a deep underground supply is unlikely to have much of the algae, viruses and bacteria that some people seem to crave.

Amusing Monday: Wacky steelhead return for new ‘Survive the Sound’ game

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that features cute little fish swimming for their lives, is back for a second year with some new additions, including free participation for students and teachers in the classroom.

The basics of the game remain as I described them last year. You pick out a wacky cartoon steelhead and then receive daily reports as the fish makes its way through a perilous Puget Sound over a 12-day period. The journey starts May 7, and signups are now open. See Water Ways, April 29, 2017.

As in real life, many fish will not make it to the ocean because of the effects of disease and pollution along with the constant risk of predation. But a few lucky steelhead will survive, and the winners will be recognized.

Individuals join the game with a $25 donation to Long Live the Kings, which will use the money to further research, ecosystem restoration and education. This year, anyone can start a team and encourage others to participate, sharing the joy or heartbreak of the salmon migration. Prizes will be awarded to the winning teams.

This year, teachers can sign up their classrooms for free and play the game while learning about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Extensive educational materials have been developed to go along with the game. Check out “Bring ‘Survive the Sound’ to your Classroom!”

The game is based on the real-life travels of steelhead, which have been tracked using implanted acoustic transmitters. Some fish swim faster than others and some even reverse course. This year, participants will be able to watch the progress of all of the fish making the journey, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings.

Last year, more than 1,100 people joined the game, and organizers hope for even greater participation this year.

If nothing else, you should check out the cartoon fish and the clever things they have to say by clicking on the individual steelhead in the “Survive the Sound” fish list.

If you would like to learn more about the person who turned the concepts for these odd and wonderful fish into creative works of art, check out “Meet the Artist Behind Survive the Sound.” To see more of Jocelyn Li Langrand’s work, go to her website, her Instagram page or Facebook.

Can people distinguish the taste of tap, bottled and recycled water

If you are thirsty and someone hands you a glass of water, you might or might not ask where the water came from. If you trust the person, you probably don’t worry much about the health risks of drinking the water.

On the other hand, if you are told that the water comes from highly treated sewage effluent, you might think twice about taking a drink — even if you are assured that the water is cleaner than tap water, bottled water or any other source.

It’s a matter of perception, which is why some people drink only bottled water. They think it must be more pure than water from the faucet. But studies have shown that much of the bottled water on the market is just someone else’s tap water, and often the source is unidentified.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, conducted a taste test to see if people’s perceptions about drinking treated wastewater has any connection to the actual taste of water. Findings were reported in the journal “Appetite.”

The 143 participants were provided three samples of water in a blind taste test, meaning that there were no clues about the source of water. One was a brand-named bottled water, which had been purified through reverse osmosis; another was tap water from a groundwater source; and a third was tap water that came from an indirect reuse (IDR) source. IDR processing, which is used in at least six California water systems, involves treating the water to a high degree through reverse osmosis and putting it into the ground, where it mixes with existing groundwater. From there, it is pumped back out and treated as a normal groundwater source.

Many of the findings of the study were surprising to the researchers. For example, the IDR water and bottled water were preferred over the groundwater source by many of the tasters.

“We think that happened because IDR and bottled water go through remarkably similar treatment processes, so they have low levels of the types of tastes people tend to dislike,” said co-author Mary Gauvain, professor of psychology at UC Riverside in a news release.

The groundwater source had the highest amount of sodium and carbonate, while the IDR source had more calcium. Concentrations of chloride and bicarbonate were similar for all three.

Another interesting finding: Women were twice as likely as men to prefer the bottled water.

Individuals who described themselves as more nervous or anxious than others had less preference for the IDR water, perhaps because of the higher mineral content. Individuals who described themselves as more open to new experiences showed a somewhat greater preference for the IDR water.

In describing the tastes, individuals often said their preferred choices had “no taste” or “no aftertaste,” which may be related to the mineral content. The IDR process may remove some unpalatable minerals during filtering, the authors said. Since IDR water goes into the ground, it may pick up other minerals that improve the taste.

The authors acknowledge that the preferences in the study may be more related to mineral content of each source than to the process that the water goes through before it gets into the drinking glass.

The taste of water involves many factors, starting with the makeup of a person’s own taste buds and saliva, as I described in a story last year in the Kitsap Sun:

“Experiments have shown that when a group of people with normal taste buds is given pure distilled water to drink, most people do not believe the water tastes normal,” I wrote. “Some even say it is slightly bitter or sour, perhaps because it contains less salt than saliva, or perhaps because it is totally lacking in minerals that people come to expect.”

As for mixing highly treated sewage effluent into the water supply, there are two hurdles to overcome. The first is convincing people that the water really is safe, such as by providing a clear assessment of the water content — including minute constituents that can make it through the treatment process, such as some pharmaceutical drugs.

Beyond an honest assessment of water quality, water managers need to address the emotional response of people when it comes to anything dealing with sewage. Revulsion is a deep-seated emotion designed to help people avoid contamination and disease.

One way to make treated effluent more palatable is to “naturalize” it by putting it into the environment, such as infiltrating it into the ground — even if that process makes it less pure before it goes through another step in purification. Removing or adding minerals may improve the taste.

Water itself — the H2O molecules — are no different in sewage than they are in bottled water or coffee. Water cycles through people, plants, clouds, soil, the ocean, and on and on. It gets used over and over again. The only real issue is the other chemicals that may go along for the ride.

Alex Spiegel of National Public Radio did a nice job analyzing the psychology behind the aversion people have to using treated wastewater and why people are more accepting of indirect use. Read or listen to “Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds.”

So far in Washington State, nobody is talking about using highly treated sewage effluent (“reclaimed water”) as a direct supply of drinking water — or even as an indirect supply where injection wells are close to extraction wells, as done in some areas of California.

Nevertheless, people’s concerns about the quality of their water may impair the acceptance of reclaimed water for irrigation, groundwater recharge, stream restoration or even industrial uses. Addressing both factual and emotional aspects of this issue should help get us over those hurdles.

Related Water Ways posts:

Amusing Monday: World Water Day addresses natural purification

World Water Day, coming up this Thursday, is an annual worldwide event designed to focus attention on the importance of water to all living things.

Promoted by the United Nations, the 25-year-old World Water Day has always raised concerns about the 2.1 billion people in the world who don’t have easy access to clean water, creating a major health crisis in some communities.

This year’s theme is “nature for water” — although the discussion remains focused mainly on humans. Human actions have contributed to increasing flooding, drought and water pollution — and humans are able to use natural systems to help reduce the problems.

So-called “nature-based solutions” include protecting and improving water quality by restoring forests and wetlands, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains and creating vegetated buffers along lakes and streams, even in urban areas.

A fact sheet (PDF 2 mb) put out by UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) lays out the arguments on behalf of nature-based solutions. A larger 150-page report, titled “Nature Based Solutions for Water” (PDF 42.7 mb) can be downloaded from the UNESCO website.

A series of posters and cards related to this year’s theme can be downloaded from the World Water Day website. For the creative, I’m intrigued by the idea that you can create your own collage, using individual elements taken from the four posters. See “collage kit” on the same resources page.

Considering that this is the 25th World Water Day, I anticipated more events and celebrations. The one event listed for Washington state is a guided tour of Edmonds Marsh, one of the few urban saltwater estuaries still remaining in the Puget Sound region. Details of the walk are provided in a brief article in Edmonds News.

The first video on this page is a promotional piece by UNESCO.

Official poster of World Water Day
Source: UNESCO

I found the second video, filmed in Istanbul, Turkey, to be revealing about people’s attitudes about water. I imagine the reaction might be the same in some U.S. cities — although the specific location probably makes a lot of difference. The video, produced in 2015, was created for Standart Pompa, a manufacturer of water pumps.

The video shows a video screen next to a water faucet with a dying tree depicted on the screen. When passersby turned off the water faucet, the tree suddenly transformed into a healthy green condition. Although the weather was cold during the filming, nearly a third of the people going by took their hands out of their pockets and turned off the water, which was actually recirculating from the drain so that no water was wasted.

The third video is a cartoon designed to drive home a message about the importance of water, beginning with the simple act of brushing your teeth. It was produced by TVNXT KIDZ.

Plans coming together for recycling wastewater from town of Kingston

All the pieces are falling into place for an upgrade of Kingston’s sewage-treatment plant to produce high-quality reclaimed water for irrigation, stream restoration and groundwater recharge.

Kingston Wastewater Treatment Plant
Photo courtesy of Golder and Associates

By the end of this year, a study by Brown and Caldwell engineers is expected to spell out the location and size of pipelines, ponds and infiltration basins. The next step will be the final design followed by construction.

When the project is complete, Kingston’s entire flow of wastewater will be cleaned up to Class A drinking water standards. During the summer, the water will be sold to the Suquamish Tribe for irrigating White Horse Golf Course. During the winter, most of the flow will drain into the ground through shallow underground pipes. Some of the infiltrated water will make its way to nearby Grover’s Creek, boosting streamflows and improving water quality in the degraded salmon stream.

Another major benefit of the project will be the elimination of 42 million gallons of sewage effluent per year — including about 3,000 pounds of nitrogen — which gets dumped into Kingston’s Appletree Cove. I wrote about the effects of nitrogen and what is being done to save Olympia’s Budd Inlet in five stories published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, as I described in Water Ways on Thursday.

The Kingston project, estimated to cost $8 million, has been under study for several years, and Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder said he’s pleased to see the effort coming together.

“The Kingston Recycled Water Project is pivotal, and I’m very happy to be partnering with the Suquamish Tribe,” Rob said in an email. “The best thing we can do for our environment and to enhance water availability is to not discharge treated flows into Puget Sound. We are uniquely positioned to benefit from strategic investments of this nature in the coming years.”

The Kitsap Peninsula is essentially an island where the residents get 80 percent of their drinking water from wells. North Kitsap, including Kingston, could be the first area on the peninsula to face a shortage of water and saltwater intrusion — which is why new strategies like recycled wastewater are so important.

The latest feasibility study was launched last October under a $563,000 contract with Brown and Caldwell. The work includes a detailed study of soils and analysis of infiltration rates, according to Barbara Zaroff of Kitsap Public Works who has been coordinating the project. The location of the pipeline and ponds for storing water near White Horse Golf Course also will be determined.

Funding for the study includes a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with $150,000 from the Suquamish Tribe. Kitsap County recently received a loan for up to $558,000 to support the study.

I last wrote about the Kingston Recycled Water Project in Water Ways three years ago, when I also discussed a similar project in Silverdale, where recycled water will come from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories:

Federal waters rule gets batted around endlessly in the courtrooms

Confusion is nothing new when it comes to figuring out whether federal agencies have jurisdiction over certain wetlands and intermittent streams under the Clean Water Act. And now the Trump administration has guaranteed that confusion will reign a while longer.

Meanwhile, lawsuits — also nothing new to the Clean Water Act — continue to pile up at a rapid pace.

Some argue that the confusion begins with the 1972 Clean Water Act itself, which requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits for any filling or dredging — which covers most development — within the “navigable waters” of the country.

Congress defined “navigable waters” in a way that has generated much confusion and many lawsuits through the years: “The term ‘navigable waters’ means the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas,” the law states.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court couldn’t figure it out and ended up adding to the confusion. In a 4-4-1 split ruling, half the justices focused on “navigable waters” with a narrow definition to include major waterways but avoid federal protection for many wetlands and intermittent streams. The other half of the justices supported a broader definition, which would protect downstream waters by also protecting upstream sources of water.

Writer Steve Zwick of Ecosystem Marketplace does a nice job explaining the legal and historical context for the confusion in a four-part series of articles. Zwick relies on, and gives credit to, the writings of William W. Sapp and William M. Lewis, Jr.

Under the previous administration of Barack Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency worked together to draft a new rule to more clearly define federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands, as outlined by the broader Supreme Court opinion. It became known as the “Clean Water Rule” or “WOTUS” for Waters of the U.S.

Some potential opponents applauded the certainty of the proposed rule, even if they disagreed with some details. (See Water Ways, March 25, 2014.) But others believed that the states, not the federal government, should be in charge of protecting streams and wetlands. It became a common theme to argue that the new rule would regulate the tiniest ditches and farm ponds — something the Obama administration denied.

One of the opponents of the 2015 rule was Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general who ended up suing the Obama administration on behalf of his state. In all, 31 states joined various lawsuits against the rule, with separate lawsuits brought by farmers and industry.

Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator
Photo: EPA official portrait

“President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency currently stands poised to strike the greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen,” Pruitt declared in an opinion piece co-authored by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky. The piece was published in The Hill.

Pruitt, of course, is the man that President Trump later named to head the EPA, the same agency he was suing in multiple lawsuits. Pruitt said early on that he would not allow Obama’s WOTUS rule to go into effect.

Before it took effect, the WOTUS rule was tied up in the courts, including an injunction issued by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Under the Clean Water Act, appeals courts can take primary action under certain conditions, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed unanimously (PDF 923 kb) on Jan. 22 that the WOTUS rule is not one of these conditions.

And so the rule, originally scheduled to go into effect in August 2015, was put back into a confusing status, ready to go into effect in 37 states where it was not blocked by an injunction that covers 13 states under an order of the U.S. District Court in North Dakota.

“This is just all-out war. All-out litigation,” Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau was quoted as saying in an article by Ariel Wittenberg in E&E News. “This is good news for lawyers, but it is not going to be settled at all.”

Pruitt’s EPA then moved to finalize the Obama WOTUS rule on Jan. 31 but with an “applicability date” set for two years away. The announced intent was to overhaul the rule by pulling back federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands.

“Today, EPA is taking action to reduce confusion and provide certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers,” Pruitt said in a news release. “The 2015 WOTUS rule developed by the Obama administration will not be applicable for the next two years, while we work through the process of providing long-term regulatory certainty across all 50 states about what waters are subject to federal regulation.”

In the interim, the EPA has announced that it will revert to previous policies and guidelines drafted following the confusing Supreme Court ruling.

You can guess what happened next. On Feb. 6, a total of 10 states, including Washington, plus Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit in New York, claiming that Pruitt’s delaying tactics were illegal. The state officials, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, argued that the federal government ignored the federal Administrative Procedures Act by adopting the revised rule without a meaningful comment period and in disregard of the Clean Water Act’s underlying intent of protecting the nation’s waters.

“The agencies have now suspended the Clean Water Rule without consideration of the extensive scientific record that supported it or the environmental and public health consequences of doing so,” the lawsuit (PDF 1.9 mb) says.

On the same day, the implementation delay was challenged in a separate lawsuit (2.6 mb) by two environmental groups, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation.

“The Agencies’ only proffered rationale for the suspension is that it will promote regulatory clarity and certainty,” the lawsuit says. “In light of the administration’s open antipathy for the rule’s provisions, that rationale rings hollow. But it is also belied by the record. There is no evidence that suspending the rule will promote clarity or certainty, and ample evidence that suspending the Rule will create confusion and uncertainty.”

In Ariel Wittenberg’s story in E&E, Georgetown Law professor William Buzbee talks about how messy things have become.

“If the administration had taken the time to put out proposals that truly and fully engaged with the merits of the Clean Waters Rule and tried to come up with a new read, then it would be ordinary days in the courts,” he was quoted as saying. “But anything they do now, given their proposals, is likely to be legally vulnerable.”

Now the possibility exists that some courts could delay implementation of the original WOTUS rule while others reject the two-year delay. In any case, there is no end in sight to the legal battles, and nobody can be certain about what kind of projects will require federal permits.

Kitsap streams getting generally cleaner, but storms have an effect

Kitsap County’s streams are getting generally cleaner when it comes to bacterial levels, according to an annual water-quality report issued by the Kitsap Public Health District. But streams can have good years and bad years — and 2017 was not so good.

Let’s compare the annual report for 2016 to the newly released report for 2017, both found on the health district’s website. Reporter Tad Sooter offered a nice overview of the new report in a Kitsap Sun story on Friday.

Graph: Kitsap Public Health District

Before getting to the findings, it’s important to understand that there are two bacterial water-quality standards that must be met for a stream to get a clean bill of health. The first part calls for an average of no more than 100 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water (or no more than 50 bacteria if the water body has been designated “extraordinary”). The second part states that, regardless of the average, no more than 10 percent of the samples taken can exceed 200 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water (or 100 bacteria for “extraordinary” water).

It came as a surprise to me that in water year 2017 a total of 23 streams — or 35 percent of the 66 streams sampled — failed both water-quality standards. That’s worse than in water year 2016, when 25 percent of the 64 streams on the list failed both standards. (A water year goes from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the next year.)

One reason that water quality got worse in 2017 was that rainy weather at times was more conducive to washing bacteria into the streams, according to Shawn Ultican, a water-quality expert with the health district.

“Bacterial levels were higher in general than we have seen them in the past few years,” Shawn said of the 2017 data. “We had more intense rainfall at times. We don’t think that suddenly more pollution sources have become a problem.”

Similar patterns also were seen in 2009 and 2010, he said.

More streams were deemed clean in 2016 than 2017. In 2017, 21 streams — 32 percent — met both of the water-quality standards, compared to 30 streams — 47 percent — the year before.

For discussion, I took a look at reports in 2008, when 38 percent met both standards, and 2013, when 29 percent met both standards. So it really does vary from year to year. And whether a stream is considered clean or polluted depends on recent rainfall and other fleeting factors. Consequently, much depends on when a water sample is taken, which is why health officials choose their sampling dates randomly.

Because weather plays an important factor in the bacterial counts, health officials tend to focus on long-term trends rather than on the results of individual water samples. Trends result from a statistical exercise using data collected each month over many years. For most streams, sampling has been going on for 22 years.

If the bacterial counts stay relatively the same over many years, the health of the stream is listed as “stationary.” If the numbers show a statistical trend, a stream will be listed as “worsening” or “improving.”

In 2017, five streams were listed as worsening: Coulter Creek in South Kitsap; Lofall and Kinman creeks in North Kitsap; and Stavis Creek and the Tahuya River, which drain into Hood Canal. You might consider Stavis Creek and Tahuya River to be statistical anomalies, because they are so clean that it takes only a few additional bacteria to result in an unwelcome trend.

Stavis Creek met both part 1 and 2 of the water quality standards in 2017, while the Tahuya River failed part 2 because of a few high counts. In 2016, both streams met both water-quality standards, so health officials aren’t worried about either stream at this point.

In 2016, 21 streams were listed as improving, compared to 18 streams in 2017. Olalla, Wilson, Barker and Chico creeks are among those that went from improving to stationary. Barker and Chico creeks are pretty clean, meeting both parts of the water-quality standards.

Tad’s story in the Kitsap Sun includes an interactive map that provides the status of each stream in Kitsap County monitored by the health district.

Lofall Creek, which includes drainage from the community of Lofall as well as upstream areas, has been giving health officials fits for years. Bacterial counts are high and getting worse, despite successful efforts to eliminate sources of pollution, such as failing septic systems and pet wastes.

Special tests are planned to see whether pollution in the stream is coming from pets, birds or ruminants, such as cows and deer, according to Ian Rork, an environmental health specialist with the health district who is assigned the cleanup of Lofall Creek and nearby Kinman Creek.

Health officials have long suspected that raccoons may be a source of the pollution, but they have no strong evidence. Raccoons are known to deposit their wastes in communal areas. As new development takes over uplands, these small animals may be pushed into remaining vegetated areas along the streams.

Last year, Ian began a new effort to work closely with residents of the community to see if they could take steps to discourage raccoons and other wildlife from congregating near Lofall. Steps people can take include making sure animals don’t have access to garbage, keeping barbecue grills clean and avoiding the intentional feeding of raccoons.

“The local residents have been so gracious and good to work with,” Ian told me, adding that most people are committed to solving the problem if only there were a clear answer.

For the 2017 report, Lofall Creek remains the most polluted stream in the county, followed by Ostrich Bay Creek in Bremerton; Olalla Creek and Burley Creek, both in South Kitsap; and Kinman Creek and Vinland Creek, both in North Kitsap.

The cleanest streams are Dewatto Creek, followed by Anderson Creek, Stavis Creek, Seabeck Creek, Salmonberry Creek, Big Beef Creek and Wright Creek. All drain into Hood Canal, except Anderson and Wright creeks, which drain into Sinclair Inlet, and South Kitsap’s Salmonberry Creek.

Climate change is expected to bring more intensive rainstorms, but how that will affect long-term trends in water quality is yet to be seen.