Category Archives: Research

World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

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

Peter Harris

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

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

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

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

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Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

There’s nothing like spending some relaxing time in a natural environment. It does a body good — mentally and physically — to go into new or familiar surroundings while basking in the full-bodied sights and sounds of a forest, a stream or a marine shoreline.

We are fortunate in the Puget Sound region to have easy and free (or low-cost) access to all sorts of natural places. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of wildlife and incorporate the sighting into our memory of that place.

What we don’t normally see, however, are the natural behaviors of wildlife away from people, because the presence of humans often changes what they are doing — nor would we want to impose on their lives any more than we already do.

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Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

Jeff noted that the guidelines have been endorsed by every commercial whale-watch operator who regularly takes people out to see whales. Every whale-watch boat captain must pass a test to certify personal knowledge of the guidelines, which were adopted in March, he added.

Jeff said his organization would like all boaters to understand and follow the guidelines. Going further, he hopes the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines and its website can be updated as well.

“One of the most important things in there — and we have been doing this for some time — is the slow speed around the whales,” he said. “That minimizes the sound coming from our vessels.”

He explained that new studies show that boats moving at high speed produce far more engine noise than boats moving slowly. Lower underwater sound levels might help the whales communicate better and improve their ability to locate fish through echolocation.

The new guidelines extend the go-slow zone around whales from 0.25 mile to 1 kilometer (0.62 mile). In this zone, boats should never go faster than 7 knots.

Time limits are a new provision. No vessel should ever be around a group of whales more than an hour, according to the guidelines, or 30 minutes when more than 10 commercial whale-watch boats are nearby.

Years ago, the Southern Resident orcas were the only show in town, Jeff said. Now there may be transient orcas, humpback whales and gray whales at various times, along with other wildlife. That offers a variety of viewing opportunities. Unfortunately, he added, it is now rare to see a Southern Resident, which means they are not finding food in their traditional areas.

In fact, he noted, so far this month the whales have not been seen in areas around the San Juan Islands. If we go through the month of May without a single Southern Resident sighting, it will be the first year ever that whales were not seen in May — going back to at least the 1970s, when researchers started keeping records.

Communication, coordination and respect for other whale-watch boats is emphasized in the new guidelines. For example, when approaching an area where whales are being watched, boat operators should move to the outside of vessels in the area and adopt a course of travel parallel to that of the whales.

The distance from all killer whales remains 200 yards on the U.S. side of the border, consistent with state and federal regulations. The distance is 100 yards from other whales. In Canada, the prescribed distance is 200 meters from the Southern Residents and 100 meters from other whales. In all cases, additional distances should be added if warranted by the whales’ behavior, according to the guidelines.

Special provisions are imposed near the Race Rocks Marine Protected Area and the west side of San Juan Island. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently asked all boaters — including sport fishers — to voluntarily stay at least one-fourth mile off the west side of San Juan Island and a half-mile from Lime Kiln Lighthouse. (See Water Ways, May 9.) That distance to shore has been in the guidelines, although the no-go area was extended south along the shoreline.

As always, sonar, depth sounders and fish finders should be shut off when a vessel is in the vicinity of whales, according to the guidelines, but new research suggests that this issue should be emphasized more than ever, Jeff said.

He said some of the guidelines should be incorporated into regulations or state law, as proposed by Sen. Kevin Ranker’s Orca Protection Act,. The proposed legislation underwent multiple lives during the last legislative session but failed to make it into law, as I described in Water Ways, Feb. 23. Now, potential legal changes are under consideration by the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

As for the Canada’s upcoming fishing restrictions, partial closures are being proposed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands and areas near the mouth of the Fraser River. Additional measures along the coast of British Columbia may include harvest limits, size limits and size restrictions as well as area closures, according to a news release issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In announcing the restrictions, Minister of Fisheries Dominic LeBlanc, made this statement:

“Southern Resident Killer Whales need our help in order to survive and recover. Together with my colleague, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, we have determined that the species faces an imminent threat to its survival and recovery, and we need to keep taking concrete action.

“Today I am pleased to announce new fishery management measures to increase prey availability and reduce disturbances to these whales and we continue to work hard on additional actions to be put in place soon.”

In a separate announcement, the government said it would provide $9.5 million for eight projects to restore habitat for chinook salmon to help Southern Resident killer whales. The funding is part of a $1.5-billion effort to protect Canada’s coasts and waterways called the Oceans Protection Plan.

Amusing Monday: Methane emissions from a moo-ving source

My wife Sue and I just returned from a two-week vacation that included a road trip through several western states. In addition to wildlife, we noticed thousands of little methane factories scattered across public and private lands.

I’m talking about cattle, of course, and their role in climate change. I have to admit that gaseous emissions from cows seems like a often-told joke. (Question: What do you call a cow fart? Answer: dairy-air.) But methane from cattle is a serious problem with worldwide effects. The millions of dollars in research being conducted to reduce bovine emissions is strong testimony to the level of concern.

Stories I have read on this topic often relate the amount of gases coming from a single cow to the effects of driving a car.

In fact, so much has been written about cow farts and climate change — mainly for the sake of humor — that I thought that the rear of the cow was the source of the biggest problems. It turns out that far more methane gets released from the other end, in the form of gaseous burps from the mouth.

A recent study, funded by NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, concluded that the worldwide problem of methane from cattle is 11 percent worse than estimates reported in 2006 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The new study involved more precise estimates of methane production in a cow’s gut as well as that produced during manure management.

In the U.S. and Canada, methane production from total cattle operations was found to be 24 percent higher than previous estimates, largely because of open-air manure management. In Europe, more farmers are using methods that contain the methane, often using it for energy. The study was published in the journal “Carbon Balance and Management” and reviewed in “Popular Science.”

As greenhouse gases, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide, yet the amount released into the atmosphere is far less. The international goal is to reduce emissions of both gases to slow the average warming of the planet.

Researchers have found that feeding cattle different types of grains or silage can reduce the amount of methane produced by bacteria in the stomachs of cattle. Feedstocks effective in reducing methane include garlic and onions, but a major problem for dairy farmers is that those products can change the taste of the milk that cows produce.

One farm in Vermont began supplementing its cattle feed with cooked flax. The result was not only less methane coming from the cows, but the milk itself contained a higher level of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids.

Ongoing research is finding that a diet for cattle high in carbohydrates and/or fats can result in less methane production. Using ground or pellet forms of forage may reduce the time of passage through the cow, thus reducing methane production. See news release from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

A story published last week in the online “Feed Navigator” discusses the complexity of the issue. Changing feedstocks can affect cattle and their emissions in different ways. One must account for the effects of growing the feedstocks, handling the manure generated and the health for both the cattle eating the forage and the humans consuming the milk or meat, according to the article by Aerin Einstein-Curtis.

“We have it very tight where we follow the diets, and we know the diets produce a certain type of manure, with certain emissions, and this is what you get out of it,” said Michael Wattiaux, professor of dairy systems management at the University of Wisconsin, who was quoted in the article. “One thing that I could see in terms of practical recommendations is maybe you want to have the agronomist and soil scientist and nutritionist all in the same room at the same time.”

Rainfall pattern returns to normal across the Kitsap Peninsula

After two years of near-record rainfall across the Kitsap Peninsula, precipitation has returned to a more normal pattern.

Halfway through the water year, which begins in October, rainfall in Hansville, Silverdale and Holly are all within 10 percent of the average for this time of year, according to weather instruments managed by Kitsap Public Utility District.

This near-average total for the first half of the year comes about despite a very wet November, when Hansville broke the all-time record for precipitation for that month. Since then, the monthly rainfall numbers have been mostly below average, except for a wet January when Holly nearly broke the record for that month.

As we’ve seen time and again, the amount of rainfall decreases dramatically as one travels from south to north on the Kitsap Peninsula. That’s the general pattern for all times of the year, although the amount of precipitation can vary wildly.

Hansville received 25.5 inches for the six months ending April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 23.1 inches for that period. Last year, the six-month figure was 7 inches higher at 32.5 inches, and the first half of 2016 went down in the record books with a total of 37.0 inches.

Silverdale posted 35.1 inches of rain by April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 38.1 inches for this time of year. Last year, this Central Kitsap area received 51.7 inches by April, and in 2016 the number was 52.3 inches, second only to 1999 with 69.8 inches.

In rainswept Holly, residents experienced 68.7 inches by April 1, compared to a 27-year average of 65.0 inches. By April 1 last year, Holly was practically swimming with 95.9 inches, driven by 24.0 inches during the month of October 2016 and 21.8 inches the next month. But nothing compares to the first half of water year 1999, when Holly received 120 inches for the first half of the year. Following a fairly dry summer, water year 1999 in Holly ended with 127.5 inches of precipitation.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has projected somewhat higher-than-average rainfall through the end of this month in the Pacific Northwest, followed by fairly average conditions going into summer. Forecasters rely heavily on observations about temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which influence a natural cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. See video this page.

A very strong El Niño during 2015 and 2016 (associated with the much-discussed “blob”) shifted into a weak La Niña in 2017. Conditions have now reversed course again and seem to be headed toward neutral. La Niñas are generally associated with cooler and wetter weather for our region of the country, while El Niños suggest warmer and dryer conditions — although it does not always turn out that way.

Neutral conditions are expected to arrive by summer, and some forecasters predict that the warmer El Niño could arrive toward the end of the water year in September, according to information released today by the Climate Prediction Center.

“Some of the computer models are forecasting development of El Niño by next fall,” noted research scientist Emily Becker in a new post on the ENSO Blog, “but there are a number of reasons why we’re not completely taking the bait right now.

“First, forecasts made this time of year tend to be less successful,” she continued. “Another reason is that, while elevated subsurface heat content in the spring sometimes precedes the development of El Niño in the fall, some recent studies have found that this relationship has not been very reliable over the past two decades.”

Researchers observed a warming trend in March among subsurface waters in the Eastern Pacific. Those waters are expected to rise to the surface over the next few months to potentially neutralize any cool surface waters that remain. The outcome is likely to be the end of the current La Niña and possibly the beginning of a new El Niño, featuring warmer ocean conditions.

Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      1. whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing of baby orca raises questions about whales’ social structure

By now, you may have heard about the male transient killer whale who attacked and killed a newborn orca while the baby was swimming next to its mother.

A newborn transient orca swims next to its mother shortly before being attacked by an unrelated adult male orca. // Photo: Jared Towers

Jared Towers, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, witnessed the killing. He said he was both “horrified and fascinated” by the event, which he described as the first case of infanticide ever reported among killer whales. The incident took place in Canadian waters near the north end of Vancouver Island.

Jared told reporter Bethany Lindsey of CBC News that the distressing scene is something that he will never be able to unsee, but he did his best to observe and record the rare incident.

This killing of a tiny calf by an unrelated male orca has been troubling me since I first heard about it more than a week ago — and that’s what I told longtime orca researcher Ken Balcomb when I called him on the phone.

“I was shocked, as was Jared,” Ken told me. “It is very unusual. The interesting thing is that we know the individual who killed the baby. We don’t know why it happened. It could have been just a squabble of some sort.”

It wasn’t just the male orca involved. The attacker’s mother also played a role in keeping the mother of the calf at bay and ultimately dragging the dead baby away.

In the animal world, infanticide occurs in a myriad of situations among terrestrial species, including lions, rodents and even primates, Jared recounted in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The practice of killing infants of the same species has also been observed in three types of dolphins.

The situations are too rare to identify specific causes, Jared noted, but several hypotheses have been put forth. The leading suggestion is that the death of the infant causes the mother to stop lactating and makes her fertile again. That means the attacking male may have a chance to integrate his genes into the population, as opposed to a competing male.

Less likely reasons, at least in this situation, involves the goal of reducing the number of mouths to feed when food is scarce for a given population. In some species, an infant may be cannibalized for food. But in this case food is not especially scarce for transients, which eat seals and sea lions. Also, there was no evidence of feeding, such as oil on the water or birds in the air, Jared reported.

“Lastly,” Jared writes, “non-adaptive explanations for infanticide purport that it is a socially pathological behavior that may be conducted accidentally or as a result of environmental stressors.”

Killer whales as pathological killers? That’s something to ponder. But, again, there is no evidence to point to a particular cause in this case.

I can’t help but wonder if transient killer whales, which eat marine mammals, may be more prone to committing infanticide than resident killer whales, which eat only fish. No doubt the male transient would know the technique for killing an orca calf, which is about the size of a sea lion.

Ken Balcomb has observed teeth marks on some of the Southern Resident killer whales, sometimes the result of juveniles playing too rough.

“Usually it’s a young whale biting a big whale,” he said. “They don’t have any hands, so they just bite. We’ve seen young whales tussling around together.”

On rare occasions, Ken has also observed serious wounds on some whales, including one adult male whose dorsal fin was bent over during an apparent attack by another orca. The size and shape of the teeth marks, known as rakes, provide clues to the size of the attacker. But since nobody sees most of the serious attacks, the cause or behavior leading up to the incidents will never be known.

In the recent case, which occurred in December 2016, Jared and his fellow researchers went out to observe a group of transients, whose calls had been picked up on hydrophones. When the researchers got to the area just north of Johnstone Strait, they saw an older female, known as T068, swimming with her 32-year-old son, T068A. The two were following a group of three orcas swimming unusually fast.

In that second group was a 13-year-old mother with a 2-year-old calf along with her 3-year-old sister, who exhibited bleeding wounds on her sides and loose flesh on her dorsal fin. About a mile ahead was the 28-year-old mother of the two sisters, T046B, who was accompanied by three young whales, an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a newborn.

The entire group of related whales came together just before noon near Haddington Island, while the two unrelated whales were about 200 yards behind and still following.

The attack apparently began about 20 minutes later with observations of splashing and erratic movements, then the male attacker was seen to move away from the group. The other whales followed. When they all came together, they began circling vigorously. That’s when the researchers caught up with the whales and noticed that the baby was no longer with its mother.

The male attacker “swam close past the research boat, and the fluke of the neonate could be seen in his mouth with the body intact trailing underneath his lower jaw,” states the report.

The baby’s mother seemed to chase the male attacker, while the attacker’s mother attempted to block her way.

“Intense vocal activity could be heard through the hull of the boat, so the hydrophone was deployed,” the report says. “A wide variety of excited discrete and aberrant pulsed calls, whistles, and percussive sounds were recorded….

“At 12:35, (the baby’s mother) rammed (the male) near the surface with sufficient force to cause a noticeable undulation through his body, sending blood and water into the air,” the report says.

The event was over about as quickly as it began, with the male carrying away the dead baby. Later the male’s mother was seen carrying the lifeless calf. The larger family group followed the two, staying about 200 yards behind and off to one side.

The researchers followed for another hour and a half, when underwater video showed that neither the male nor his mother had the baby. A short time before, they were seen circling as if paying attention to something below them. As darkness fell, the researchers broke off the observations and headed home, but not before noticing that the male had the intact baby in his mouth again, as he and his mother continued on.

Jared said it is not surprising that the attacker’s mother assisted her son, “because bonds between maternally related killer whales can be particularly strong.” After all, orca moms are known to help their sons find food and even share food with them. The mother’s bloodline would be continued through her son by the killing, provided that the dead infant was not his offspring and that he could later mate with the baby’s mother.

Killer whales are top predators and complex creatures. Their actions cannot always be explained. I remember being surprised to learn that resident orcas occasionally kill harbor porpoises, but they never eat them. See my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

My discussion with Ken brought me back to the harsh reality of our world. Maybe we can’t fully explain why a male killer whale would attack a newborn of his own kind. But who can explain why a human being would abuse and sometimes kill his own child or take a gun and kill a large number of strangers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Water Ways posts:

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: