Category Archives: Planning

Offshore drilling plan moves quickly into the political arena

UPDATE: Jan 12

News was breaking yesterday as I completed this blog on offshore oil drilling. I doubt that anyone was surprised by the reaction of outrage that followed Secretary Ryan Zinke’s apparently offhanded and arbitrary decision to exempt Florida from an otherwise all-coast leasing plan.

All U.S. senators from New England states, Democrats and Republicans, signed onto legislation to exempt their states from the drilling plan, while U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, says he has unanimous bipartisan support for a similar bill in the House. Now, if they move to include the rest of the East Coast and the West Coast in the bill, they might have enough votes to pass it. (See statement from Rep. David Cicilline.)

Meanwhile, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, set the stage yesterday for the inevitable lawsuits that will follow if Zinke maintains his present course of action. Cantwell said in a statement that Zinke may have violated the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Others have said that he may have violated the Administrative Procedures Act as well (Washington Examiner).

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The Trump administration’s announcement of an open season on offshore oil drilling all around the edges of the United States has put some congressional Republicans on the hot seat during a tough election year.

Opposition to the proposed oil leases along the East Coast is reflected in the negative comments from Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maine, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida. None want to see drilling anywhere off their shorelines.

“Of course I oppose drilling off of New Hampshire’s coastline,” Gov. Sununu said in a statement made to New Hampshire Public Radio.

Just days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his plan to issue leases for oil and gas exploration and development nearly everywhere, he decided to let Florida off the hook — to the relief of Gov. Scott, who is said to be a close friend of the Trump administration.

Zinke’s exemption for Florida was announced in a tweet posted on Twitter, in which he called Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted.”

“President Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke tweeted. “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott’s (sic) and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration of any new oil and gas platforms.”

It appears that Zinke is admitting that oil and gas development can harm the local tourism industry. Needless to say, the other Republican governors also would like a piece of that “support” from Zinke, as reported in a story by Dan Merica of CNN News.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Democratic governors and many members of Congress also oppose the drilling plan — with the exception of Alaska, where Gov. Bill Walker supports expanded drilling anywhere he can get it — even into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I discussed the ANWR drilling proposal in Water Ways on Nov. 16, before approval of the Republican tax bill.

Democrats in Washington state’s congressional delegation are unified in their opposition to offshore drilling, and most of them support legislation that would take the entire matter off the table for good. They are joined in their opposition by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from the Eighth District.

“This moves America in the wrong direction and has the potential to have a negative lasting effect on our oceans as well as the shorelines of states on these coasts,” Reichert said in a statement. “Our country is at the forefront of developing efficient and cost effective alternative energy technologies and we should continue to support innovation in this area.”

Congressional districts in Western Washington.
Graphic: govtrack

Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents the Third District — including coastal areas in Southwest Washington — was a little more low-key.

“I don’t support offshore oil and gas exploration in states that don’t want it, and Washington’s citizens have never indicated any desire to have oil and gas activity off their coast,” she said in a Facebook post. “I’m not aware of any active plan to drill off Washington or Oregon, but I will act to protect our citizens and our coast if any such effort does arise.”

Other comments on the plan:

  • Letter in opposition (PDF 974 kb) from 109 U.S. representatives, including Washington’s Suzan DelBene, 1st District; Derek Kilmer, 6th District; Pramila Jayapal, 7th District; Dave Reichert, 8th District; Adam Smith, 9th District; and Denny Heck, 10th District.
  • Letter in opposition (PDF 997 kb) from 37 of the 50 U.S. senators, including Washington’s Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
  • Rep. Derek Kilmer, Sixth District: “For decades, Democrats and Republicans have agreed that opening our waters up to drilling would be shortsighted and wrong. Doing so could threaten our fisheries, shellfish growers, tourism, and jobs in other key sectors of our economy.”
  • Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell: “This draft proposal is an ill-advised effort to circumvent public and scientific input, and we object to sacrificing public trust, community safety, and economic security for the interests of the oil industry.”

With substantial opposition from all sides, the looming question is whether Congress will allow the leasing program to move forward before expiration of the existing five-year plan for offshore drilling (PDF 34 mb), which ends in 2022 and focuses mostly on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the California Coast remains a key target for oil companies, it is unlikely that we will ever see oil rigs off the Washington Coast, no matter what happens with the leasing program. Oil and gas resources simply aren’t known to be there, according to all published data.

During the 1960s, 10 exploratory wells were drilled with no significant finds off the coast of Washington and Oregon, according to a 1977 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (PDF 10.2 mb). Some 14 other wells were drilled without result offshore near Vancouver Island in Canada. Many more onshore wells have been drilled without major success throughout the region.

In 2008, I explored the idea of offshore drilling in Washington state when the George W. Bush administration attempted to lift the offshore-drilling moratorium.

“We would probably be last, or next to last,” state geologist Ray Lasmanis told me in a story for the Kitsap Sun. “The geology is too broken up, and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.”

Officials told me at the time that even if oil companies were given free rein, they would not line up to drill off our coast.

“It is important to note that, at least here on the West Coast, that it will take more than lifting the congressional moratorium,” said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. “In addition to state and local constraints, a number of marine sanctuaries would restrict development.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, who was a U.S. representative at the time, said offshore drilling was a diversion, because much better alternatives exist on land. Because of climate change, Inslee was pushing Congress to encourage renewable energy sources, as he continues to do today as governor.

“Drilling offshore,” he told me, “is doomed to failure. I’m not opposed to drilling. We accept massive drilling on federal land. But the danger is we’ll get wrapped around the minutia of the drilling issue … and we’re still going to be addicted to oil.”

The latest proposal by the Department of Interior is subject to public hearings, including one scheduled in Tacoma on Feb. 5. Check out the full schedule of 23 hearings.

Other related documents:

Carbon emissions and nitrogen releases alter Puget Sound’s chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of Puget Sound may be as important as understanding the biology. Let me put that another way: Biology as we know it in Puget Sound wouldn’t exist without the right chemistry.

Tiny krill, one of many organisms affected by ocean acidification, demonstrate how water chemistry can affect the entire Puget Sound food web. For example, krill are eaten by herring, which are eaten by Chinook salmon, which are eaten by killer whales.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ocean acidification is altering the chemistry of the oceans on a worldwide scale, but the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound are being hit with some of the most severe problems, as experts point out in a new report by the Washington State Marine Resources Advisory Council.

For years, I have written about the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and other areas of Puget Sound. Of course, oxygen is essential to life as we know it. Major fish kills, in which dead fish float to the surface, have generated a lot of attention. At the same time, it has been harder to report on the animals dying from lack of oxygen when their carcasses are at rest in deep water. And it has been nearly impossible to keep track of the “dead zones” that come and go as conditions change.

It wasn’t until more research was conducted on the effects of ocean acidification that researchers realized that low-oxygen conditions — which were bad enough — had a dangerous companion called low pH — the increased acidity that we are talking about. Low pH can affect the growth and even the survival of organisms that build shells of calcium, including a variety of tiny organisms that play key roles in the food web.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, we see an increase in carbonic acid in the water, which has an effect on the ability of organisms to take up calcium carbonate. For a more complete explanation, check out “What is aragonite saturation?” on page 17 of the report.

Increased acidification is a special problem for Washington and the West Coast of North America, where deep acidified water in the Pacific Ocean hits the coast and rises to the surface.

“By accident of geography, we have this upwelling that … forces us into dealing with ocean acidification before almost anywhere else on the planet,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council. “I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Washington is leading the world in terms of science and monitoring…”

Jay, who serves on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, was quoted in a story I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute, later republished by the Kitsap Sun. The story describes some of the problems resulting from ocean acidification in Puget Sound, where an entirely different mechanism connects ocean acidification closely to low-oxygen conditions.

Researchers have concluded that an excessive growth of plankton in Puget Sound can be triggered, in part, by the release of nutrients from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and the heavy use of fertilizers. When plankton die and decay, bacteria use up oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide, thus increasing acidification.

Although the details still need to be sorted out, it is clear that some creatures are more sensitive than others to low oxygen, while low pH also affects animals in different ways. This “double whammy” of low oxygen and low pH increases the risks to the entire food web, without even considering the added threats of higher temperatures and toxic pollution.

Ongoing actions emphasized in the new report fall into six categories:

  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Cut back on nutrient releases into the water
  • Improve adaptation strategies to reduce the harmful effects of ocean acidification
  • Invest in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Inform, educate and engage Washington residents and key decision makers
  • Maintain a coordinated focus on all aspects of ocean acidification

“The updated report reinforces our federal, state and tribal partnership to combat ocean acidification by working together, modifying and expanding on approaches we have developed through ongoing research,” said Libby Jewett, director of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program in a news release (PDF 166 kb).

“For instance,” she continued, “in the new plan, scientists in the state of Washington will be asked not only to test hands-on remediation options which involve cultivating kelp as a way to remove carbon dioxide from local waters but also to explore how to move this seaweed into land agriculture as a way of recycling it.”

I thought Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the MRAC, said it well in an introduction to the report (PDF 39 kb):

“Global and local carbon dioxide emissions, as well as local nutrient sources beyond natural levels, are significantly altering seawater chemistry. We are the cause for the rapid accumulation of 30 to 50 percent of the enriched CO2 in surface waters in Puget Sound and 20 percent of enriched CO2 in deep waters off our shores. Washingtonians understand what is so dramatically at stake. We are not standing by waiting for someone else to inform or rescue us.”

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.

Plan to drill for oil is one step closer for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A 40-year tug of war between oil wells and caribou in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could soon end with active drilling in one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, argues that the focus should be on climate change, not more oil.
Photo: Congressional video

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources endorsed legislation yesterday that would require the federal government to sell leases for at least 800,000 acres of land over the next decade. The measure, which divided Republicans and Democrats in the committee, could pass the full Senate with a 50-percent vote as part of a budget bill.

The committee discussion, shown in the video on this page, was quite revealing, as Democrats offered amendments to the Republican legislation. The hearing begins 24:05 minutes into the video.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said developing oil wells in the northern part of ANWR was always the intent of the 1980 law that expanded the wildlife refuge. The drilling could generate more than $1 billion in federal revenues over the first 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Murkowski said oil development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable, reduce foreign oil imports and ensure national security. Drilling is supported by Alaskans of all political persuasions, including most public officials, she said.

Murkowski insisted again and again that the environment would be protected during any future oil production. No environmental laws would be waived, she said, and new oil-drilling technology will allow a much smaller footprint of development than in previous drilling projects in Alaska.

Democrats, led by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, voiced indignation over the language in the legislation as well as the idea of drilling in a wildlife refuge.

Even though the legislation leaves the door open for environmental reviews — including an assessment of harm to endangered species — it clearly mandates drilling, regardless of the damage to any species or their habitats, the Democrats maintained. Attorneys for the committee concurred in that assessment.

In fact, the new legislation would the alter the original law that created the wildlife refuge by adding a new purpose: oil production in the 1.5-million-acre northern region, known as the 1002 Area. Leased areas would essentially become a petroleum preserve, governed by the National Petroleum Reserve Act.

“The purpose of the refuge was to protect the wildlife that live there,” Cantwell said. “You are taking a wildlife refuge and turning it on its ear.”

If approved, the legislation would remove lands to be developed from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put them under the Bureau of Land Management.

Cantwell mentioned a letter signed by 37 scientists familiar with ANWR who objected to oil exploration and development in the refuge. They raised concerns for the wildlife that occupy the coastal plain where drilling is proposed.

“Decades of biological study and scientific research within the Arctic Refuge have confirmed that the coastal plain specifically is vital to the biological diversity of the entire refuge,” the letter says. “In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain contains the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected area above the Arctic Circle.”

Included in that diversity, the letter says, are “polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, caribou, muskoxen, Dolly Varden char, Arctic grayling, and many species of migratory birds.”

Cantwell also discussed a letter written by primate expert Jane Goodall that was sent to every U.S senator. The letter begs the senators to “demonstrate your commitment to the natural world and to future generations and stand with me to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Other Democratic and Independent senators on the committee also spoke out forcefully against the measure.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, raised the issue of climate change and the hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. must spend because of more intense storms and hurricanes. In that context, the $1 billion to be raised from ANWR is insignificant, he said.

“I think that our children and our grandchildren are going to look back on meetings and markups like this, and they are really going to be shaking their heads and asking, ‘What world was the United States Senate living in when … responsible people were talking about more exploration for fossil fuels and not addressing the planetary crisis of climate change?’

“What this committee should be doing, working with people all over the world, is saying, ‘How do we transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, away from coal, oil and gas to sustainable energy?’” he added.

Sanders’ comments come at 2:02:38 in the video.

“This isn’t BLM land,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, offering an amendment to protect wildlife. “This is a national wildlife refuge. … Does wildlife come first? You would think so from the name. But if we don’t make this change to the legislation, what we are saying is that oil and gas development comes first. That is a very, very dangerous precedent to make.”

Heinrich’s comments come at 2:17:30 in the video.

Information about the legislation can be found on the website of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to download the new report

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Leadership Council identifies four overriding problems:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: celebrating the nation’s wild and scenic rivers

The value and enjoyment of rivers throughout the United States will be highlighted over the next year, as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approaches its 50th anniversary on Oct. 2, 2018.

Some 12,700 miles of rushing waters are protected on 208 rivers designated in 40 states plus the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A Wild and Scenic River designation is the strongest protection for rivers in our country, safeguarding clean water, recreation, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage, according to American Rivers, an environmental group focused on river protection. Check out the webpage “Why do we need wild rivers?”

“Free-flowing rivers create natural riparian areas that foster healthy, abundant, and diverse wildlife and are the centerpieces of rich ecological processes,” according to a news release from the National Parks Service. “Recreationally, free-flowing rivers offer unparalleled inspirational experiences from challenging whitewater to placid fishing. Through the arterial connections of rivers to communities, we all live downstream of a Wild and Scenic River.”

The first video on this page, called “Make Your Splash,” celebrates a family enjoying water recreation. It was produced by the Park Service in conjunction with three other federal agencies and several nonprofit organizations.

To call attention to the importance of wild rivers, American Rivers has launched a program called “5,000 Miles of Wild” with the goal of putting an additional 5,000 miles of wild rivers into protected status.

As part of the effort, the organization is working to collect 5,000 stories from people around the country who have a place in their hearts for special rivers, as explained in “About the campaign.” The second video, “5,000 miles of wild,” promotes the campaign.

I think you will enjoy the personal stories about rivers and the photos submitted to the page “My River Story.”

I would like to see more submissions from people in Washington state, because we have some of the most beautiful and productive rivers in the U.S., and I know there are many personal connections to these special places. Among the Washington folks submitting stories is Paul Cain of Bow, who applauds the efforts of state fish and wildlife officers in an encounter along Samish River in North Puget Sound. Also, Peggy File talks about growing up on the Skagit River, one of the rivers designated wild and scenic.

Former President Jimmy Carter offers a testimonial about taking his own life into his hands on the Chattooga River, which flows from North Carolina into Georgia. The powerful river, he said, “kind of opened my eyes to a relationship between a human being and a wild river that I had never contemplated before.”

As president, Carter said he vetoed about 16 different dam projects throughout the country, because he believed they were counterproductive to the well-being of Americans.

American Rivers has compiled a list of rivers that warrant protection on its page “What is the 5,000 Miles of Wild campaign?” In Washington, protections are proposed for 688 miles of rivers in the North Cascades, including the Nooksack River, and 454 miles of rivers in the Olympic Mountains (Wild Olympics Campaign).

Fiftieth anniversary water bottle, Cafe Press

For existing wild and scenic rivers, take a look at the U.S. map or the map of Washington state. Other information is compiled on a government website called “National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.” The website also has a page with information about the 50th anniversary celebration. One can even purchase a variety of clothing and products showing off the 50th anniversary logo from Cafe Press.

An audio project by American Rivers was composed by intern Annemarie Lewis, who worked this past summer in the Colorado River Basin. She talks about culture, history and science of rivers, as related by a variety of people closely connected to this issue. The project is called “We are rivers: Conversations about the rivers that connect us.”

Speaking of American Rivers projects, I got a kick out of a video completed in 2015 called “50 Favorite Things We Love about Rivers.” See Water Ways, Feb. 23, 2015.

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”