Category Archives: Stormwater

U.S. Supreme Court justices raise questions about culvert damage

As state and tribal attorneys faced off yesterday in the 20-year battle over culverts, justices for the U.S. Supreme Court drilled both sides about numbers.

A coho salmon tries to leap into a culvert on Gorst Creek where water discharges from fish-rearing ponds. // Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

The culvert case is not about the 50-50 sharing of the annual salmon harvest. The courts ruled years ago that treaties with Puget Sound tribes guarantee Indians half the total salmon harvest, to be shared equally with non-Indians.

The culvert case is about the environment, specifically the idea that culverts are capable of blocking the passage of salmon, reducing the salmon population to a meaningless number and making the treaty right worthless.

From the transcript of today’s Supreme Court hearing, I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting and legally relevant questions.

Opening the hearing and speaking for the state, Assistant Attorney General Noah Purcell said the lower courts have essentially established a new treaty right with the ruling under appeal. If culverts must be replaced as a result of the treaty, then consider what could happen to dams and virtually any development that has ever had an impact on salmon runs, he said.

In legal briefs, state attorneys have argued that the treaties work both ways, that tribes gave up the right to manage the lands they ceded to the U.S.

Justice Samuel Alito noted that the treaty describes the right of Indians to take fish. “What do you think that means?” he asked Purcell.

Three rights come from that language, Purcell said. They are the right to fish in historical places, the right to a fair share of the available fish and a “right to be free of certain types of state actions that are not justified by substantial public interest.”

The tribes, he added, need to show that state culverts specifically are responsible for a “large decline” on a particular river. There are many other causes of salmon declines as well, and the state is trying to work on all of them, he said.

Alito said he doesn’t understand the meaning of “large decline” or even “substantial decline,” the term used by the federal government, which is a party to the case on behalf of the tribes.

“Well,” Percell said, “it has to be more than a fraction of 1 percent of historic harvests or 5 percent of recent harvest. We think, for example, certainly a decline of half the salmon would certainly easily qualify …”

Asked Justice Elena Kagan, “I mean, do you have a number in your head?”

Justice Neil Gorsuch wanted to know whether a 5-percent reduction in the salmon runs would be adequate to support the tribes’ position. “If they could show that 5 percent is attributable to the culverts, would that suffice to satisfy you?” he asked. “And, if not, I guess I’m where Justice Kagan is. What’s your number.”

Purcell said he thought that half would obviously quality but not 5 percent.

“Suppose,” said Alito, “that there were more than salmon than anybody knew what to do with, and then the state did something that caused a decline. Would that be a violation of the treaty?”

“I don’t think that would be a violation even under the respondents’ (tribes’) theory, Your Honor,” Purcell replied. “… and that recognizes the crucial other piece of language… The treaties ceded control of the off-reservation land to future government to regulate in the public interest. And so the government has to have the ability to make some types of decisions, even if they affect the treaty fishing right when there are substantial interests involved.”

Gorsuch said he is struggling with that concept, the idea that state government could pursue other public interests and balance them against treaty rights.

“The point of a treaty, I would have thought, would have been to freeze in time certain rights and to ensure their existence in perpetuity, regardless of what other social benefits a later municipality might be able to claim,” he said.

Purcell said the treaty must recognize interests other than the fishing rights of the tribes, and that includes actions to protect natural resources and public health.

“But where does this public interest theory come in in the treaty?” asked Kagan. “I thought this was an agreement. I give you my land. You give me the right to take fish. And — let’s make it narrower here — I have the right that you will not put up obstructions on these streams such that I can’t take fish.”

“Well, Your Honor,” said Purcell, “if the rule is narrowly limited like that, it’s much less problematic for the state, but the findings would not support that rule and it would outlaw every dam in the Northwest. So it’s inconsistent with the parties’ long-standing behavior.”

Alito asked federal prosecutors in the case whether federal dams also violate the treaties.

Assistant Solicitor General Allon Kedem of the U.S. Department of Justice said that issue was never part of the case and the legal issues have never been developed. Still, he added, many dams are built with fish ladders. In other cases, the U.S. government has compensated the tribes monetarily.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the original language of the treaties, which “gives the tribes the right to take fish in common with all citizens.” One could simply interpret that to mean that nobody should discriminate against Indians, she said.

Kedem said the state had argued that point years ago, but the courts considered representations made by federal officials to the Indians when the treaties were signed. The conclusion, upheld by the Supreme Court, was that the tribes have access to fish in perpetuity.

Justice Kagan returned to the issue of numbers, asking Kedem if he has an idea how much habitat damage constitutes “substantial” degradation — the term used to define a treaty violation.

“So we don’t have a number,” Kedem said, adding that the lower courts used a habitat approach, the idea that loss of habitat would reduce the salmon population.

Later, Justice Alito turned to Attorney William Jay, representing the tribes.

“I hate to keep asking the same question,” he said, but does ‘substantial degradation’ mean a number or “significant degradation’ mean a number?”

“I don’t think it means a hard and fast number,” Jay said. “I think it is something that you would look at in context, in context of the particular species, in context of the strength of the species at a particular time.”

Without giving a number, Jay said, the court found that the state’s culverts are so numerous and reduce access to such a large spawning area that the impact on the fishery is significant.

“I just don’t see how that can mean anything other than a number,” Alito said, “and I still haven’t gotten an answer that seems to give any substance to this.”

Jay said the idea that the local, state or federal government could disregard the intent of the treaty while balancing their own perceived public interests is not consistent with promises made by the president of the United States and ratified by the Senate.

“If the promise made by the United States in exchange for millions of acres of the tribes’ land means anything … it protects against a threat to the fishery like these, a threat that obstructs fish from getting to the usual and accustomed fishing grounds where the tribes have a right to fish.”

For further reading:

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.

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.

Amusing Monday: Animations describe stormwater problems

Contaminated stormwater has been identified as the greatest threat to Puget Sound water quality, and state and federal governments are addressing the stormwater problem in numerous ways.

The animated videos on this page are part of an educational program established as part of the “Puget Sound Starts Here” outreach. This past summer, these videos were posted on YouTube as part of a school curriculum called “Drain Rangers.”

I spotted the videos this past week while working on a blog post about how well local governments in the Puget Sound region are embracing stormwater regulations mandated by state and federal permits. See “Stormwater Report …,” Water Ways, Dec. 15.

The first video on this page is a general introduction to the stormwater problem, based on the idea that it takes 15 minutes for pollution to reach a river. Two videos in the series are similar, although one includes more solutions. I’ve chosen the longer one, called “Video Two.” The third video discusses some basic solutions, while the last goes into more advanced treatments. Others can be found on the Drain Rangers Channel on YouTube.

The story of how “Drain Rangers” became a full-fledged elementary school curriculum is explained in a paper written by Pacific Education Institute (PDF 15.1 mb). Outlines of the school programs can be found on the Puget Sound Starts Here website.

“Polluted stormwater runoff is one of many environmental problems our students will face,” the paper states. “By equipping our students at a young age with the problem-solving tools of the engineer and the verbal and written skills of an effective communicator, we are preparing these students to solve the difficult and challenging environmental issues that affect our present and our future.”

The lessons are designed to meet state requirements for science, literacy and other educational standards. The curriculum addresses the problem of pollution as well as solutions.

“This curriculum introduces students to a problem-solving model where they think like an engineer and explore ways to solve the problem of polluted stormwater runoff,” according to the final report (PDF 965 kb) on the project funded by the Washington Department of Ecology.

According to the report, the grant project produced 15 teacher trainings, pilot projects in nine schools, four videos, six illustrations, 13 facts sheets and five posters. At least 34 schools signed up to implement the curriculum during the current school year, with about 70 schools expected to participate in 2018-19.

Stormwater report urges cities and counties to get up to speed on rules

In Kitsap County, stormwater has been a major issue — and the subject of ongoing newspaper stories — for a very long time.

As a local reporter working for the Kitsap Sun, I followed the prolonged struggle among engineers, developers, planners and environmentalists to approve new rules for reducing toxic runoff washing into Puget Sound. After the legal battles were over, local governments were called on to update their stormwater codes, and many key provisions went into effect last year.

Click for a PDF (1.7 mb) version of “Nature’s Scorecard.”

It was with some surprise that I read a new report called “Nature’s Scorecard,” which reveals that more than half of the 81 cities and counties around Puget Sound have failed to follow through in a meaningful way to encourage low-impact development, which is required by state rules. Low-impact development, or LID, involves techniques that filter rainwater into the ground as close to the source as possible.

According to the report, 15 percent of the local governments failed to update their codes, and an additional 38 percent made only minor changes. Out of 81 local governments, 20 were forced to file a “notice of noncompliance” admitting they had not met the new standards.

The scorecard is a joint effort by two environmental groups involved in water quality, Washington Environmental Council and Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. It was nice to know that the authors of the report contacted local officials in advance where deficiencies were noted. Some officials offered explanations, and others moved quickly to fix the deficiencies, according to Mindy Roberts of WEC.

Mindy told me that she hopes the scorecard and discussions with local officials will result in LID improvements without going to court.

The scorecard also calls out municipalities that have done exceptionally well on the LID front. Named as “green star leaders” for going beyond the minimal standards are Kitsap County and the cities of Lacey, Oak Harbor, Olympia, Port Orchard, Renton, Seattle and Tacoma. See the news release on WEC’s website.

The softer approach also paid off in Fife, where stormwater officials apparently were not aware of the state requirement to make LID the primary method of stormwater management, Mindy said. After city officials were contacted, they jumped into action and now have a code that will reduce stormwater pollution.

Stormwater officials in Mountlake Terrace were on schedule to meet the state mandate, Mindy said. But the City Council, under pressure from developers, failed to pass the code language when it was presented to them. Now city officials are again working to come into compliance, she noted.

The website for “Nature’s Scorecard” includes information about the impacts of stormwater, the need for LID regulations and the status of various cities and counties. Scores in the report come from compliance with five key LID strategies: reducing impervious surfaces, protecting native vegetation and soils, supporting pervious pavement, planting native vegetation, and protecting natural buffers along streams, wetlands and shorelines.

Puget Sound residents are encouraged to review the report’s findings and support their elected officials in the implementation of LID to protect Puget Sound. Contact information for city and county stormwater officials is provided for each listed municipality.

One of the reasons that Kitsap County is a leader in stormwater management is the support from residents of unincorporated areas. Each property owner pays an annual fee to monitor water quality, assess pollution problems, develop appropriate solutions and construct regional stormwater systems in already-developed areas. Anyone can review the current five-year stormwater capital plan (PDF 1 mb).

The Kitsap County commissioners recently approved new stormwater fees for the coming years. It was interesting to hear the testimony of supporters at the meeting. Check out the video (above), beginning at 25:09 minutes. A fact sheet on the fees (PDF 1.6 mb) can be found on the county’s website.

Like Kitsap County, the city of Auburn has fully embraced stormwater management to address flooding and reduce pollution. Information, including an in-depth comprehensive storm drainage plan, can be found on the city’s Storm Drainage website.

At the national level, Kitsap County and Auburn received awards last year from the Water Environment Federation Stormwater Institute, which promotes innovative stormwater solutions. They were among six award winners nationwide for both large and small municipalities that go beyond regulations. Auburn was recognized for its stormwater innovation, while Kitsap was recognized for its management. See the news release from WEF.

Other related information:

  • “What makes stormwater toxic?”: The dangers of road runoff and possible solutions are examined in an in-depth story by reporter Eric Wagner. The piece was published Dec. 4 in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
  • U.S. Government Accountability Office (PDF 4.7 mb): In a survey of 31 municipalities, the GAO found that green infrastructure — another term for LID — was more challenging than traditional pipes and ponds. GAO learned that collaboration among nearby governments is important and should be supported through documented agreements.
  • Kitsap County’s news release on Nature’s Scorecard: “A low-impact development approach allows us to work with the rain, rather than against it,” said Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido. “This approach protects, restores, conserves, and reclaims our water — and this scorecard helps us know exactly where we stand in our region.”
  • “Are you planning for LID?”: Association of Washington Cities provides information resources and videos.
  • Building Industry Association of Washington: BIAW offers information on specific LID techniques, manuals and guidelines, technical articles and reports, and links to government requirements.

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.

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

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

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