What makes stormwater toxic?

A dying female coho salmon in the Lower Duwamish spotted by Puget Soundkeeper volunteers in October 2017. Photo: Kathy Peter

A dying female coho salmon in the Lower Duwamish spotted by Puget Soundkeeper volunteers in October 2017. Photo: Kathy Peter

Stormwater may be Puget Sound’s most well-known pollutant, and at the same time its least known. While the state has called stormwater Puget Sound’s largest source of toxic contaminants, scientists are still having a tough time answering two basic questions about it: What is stormwater, exactly, and what does it do?

Our magazine Salish Sea Currents looks at efforts by researchers to identify toxic chemicals in stormwater that may be killing large numbers of coho salmon in Puget Sound.


The perils of holiday glitter

Glitter photo from a New York Times story that quotes PSI Director Joel Baker.

“All That Glitter? It’s Not Good, Critics Say” Photo courtesy of New York Times.

You might want to think twice before adding that extra bit of holiday sparkle this season. A growing number of environmental activists and scientists are saying it’s time to hold the glitter.

PSI Director Joel Baker is quoted this week in The New York Times on the connection between glitter and harmful microplastics.

Some groups, including most recently a chain of child care centers in Britain, are proposing a ban on the shimmery plastic saying it can be easily consumed, causing unknown health effects. But concerns go well beyond the potential ingestion by young children during craft time. Scientists confirm that glitter, as with most microplastics, has a tendency to find its way into the ocean and other waterbodies where it can be passed through the food chain from invertebrates and fish on up to humans.

The New York Times reports:  “Joel Baker, a marine pollution expert at the University of Washington Tacoma, said glitter was just one of the many, many types of plastics that pollute waterways. But one thing sets it apart from other pollutants: It sticks around, conspicuously, in the most unwanted places.”

“A little bit of glitter goes a long way,” he told the paper. “Weeks after a kid’s birthday party, there’s still glitter all over your car.”

Baker and his colleagues at the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters are among the leading experts on the occurrence of microplastics in the world’s oceans and have conducted numerous related studies around the Puget Sound region.

Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 millimeters. They are typically created when larger pieces of plastic debris break down into smaller pieces in the environment, but some types of microplastics such as scrubbing beads in toothpastes and exfoliating products that were manufactured to be small have recently been banned. Could glitter be next?

Fans of certain types of glitter need not worry, however. The Times reports that some manufacturers are now creating biodegradable versions of glitter to ensure a sparkly, but healthy holiday season.


PSI social scientist receives EPA early career award

PSI and OSU social scientist Kelly Biedenweg

PSI and OSU social scientist Kelly Biedenweg

PSI visiting scholar and lead social scientist Kelly Biedenweg has received a $400,000 EPA early career award to study the connection between human wellbeing and ecosystem health in Puget Sound. Biedenweg is currently an assistant professor at Oregon State University and the award continues some of the work she began at PSI to establish Human Wellbeing indicators for the Puget Sound Partnership.

In addition to her early career award, Biedenweg is a partner in a collaborative grant with PSI to support an improved understanding of how humans interact and engage with the Puget Sound ecosystem. She will work closely with community groups in Puget Sound to develop cost-benefit frameworks and other decision-making tools.


Seals and sea lions may be slowing salmon recovery, hurting orcas

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, WA. Sept 2017. Image obtained under NMFS permit #19091. Photo by John Durban (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Holly Fearnbach (SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute). (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/21wV8rV

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, WA. Sept 2017. Photo by John Durban (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Holly Fearnbach (SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute). (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/21wV8rV

Increased consumption of Chinook salmon by seals and sea lions in the Salish Sea “could be masking the success of coastwide salmon recovery efforts,” according to a new study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports. Endangered resident orcas are said to be declining in part due to a lack of available Chinook, the orcas’ preferred prey.

Read the article by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan in Salish Sea Currents.


The State of the Sound: Looking ahead to 2020

2017 State of the Sound report cover

2017 State of the Sound report cover

Ten years ago, then-governor Christine Gregoire set an ambitious goal to clean up Puget Sound by 2020. The discourse of that time is still familiar. Puget Sound’s gorgeous blue waters were in trouble then as they are now. Our resident orcas had diminished to dangerously low population levels and contaminants like PCBs and stormwater were well-known threats to the ecosystem.

Now, with 2020 less than three years away, we are learning that Puget Sound faces even more extensive problems than Governor Gregoire may have imagined. Ocean acidification was a mere blip on the radar in 2007. New climate change studies show a suite of increasing threats, from higher than expected sea-level rise to low creek flows for salmon. Population growth in the region has since accelerated to an astonishing 1000 new residents per week.

Talk has started to change from “cleanup” to “resilience.” The state’s Puget Sound Partnership, designated by Governor Gregoire to lead the cleanup efforts, now says “many 2020 recovery targets will not be met,” and the Puget Sound Leadership Council says it’s time for “an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed.”

The Partnership’s 2017 State of the Sound report released last week outlines the latest progress on the state’s designated indicators of Puget Sound health, or “Vital Signs.” Targets for shoreline armoring, shellfish beds and floodplains have seen mild improvement, but are not expected to meet 2020 goals. Stormwater results are “mixed” while key indicators like orca and Chinook populations have lost ground, as have Pacific herring and marine birds like the marbled murrelet.

That’s the bad news, but the report also points to important progress. After ten years, managers and scientists know a great deal more about what we are up against. New implementation strategies are being designed to take what has been learned and apply it. There is renewed urgency on some fronts such as Chinook and orca recovery, with expected announcements from Governor Jay Inslee and acceptance of a series of “bold actions” proposed by area tribes. There is also a healthy acknowledgement that a recovery project of this scale takes time.

The Puget Sound region is as large or larger than some small states. It is twice the size of Connecticut and includes thousands of species and about 2500 miles of winding shoreline. The 13-year timeframe proposed by Governor Gregoire was often seen as aspirational and according to the report is shorter than timelines for other ecosystem recovery efforts of similar scale.* The report puts Chesapeake Bay’s coordinated efforts at 42 years and counting, and San Francisco Bay’s at 35 years.

*[Blog update 11/9/17: Founder and former Executive Director of the group People for Puget Sound Kathy Fletcher offers a different perspective, writing in a blog for Salish Sea Communications that “the [2020] goal was set more than 30 years ago by Washington State, in 1985 legislation that created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.” It is a fair point that Puget Sound recovery efforts have extended well beyond the past 10 years. Much of the language of 1985 and prior is echoed in the language of today, and you can see some of the origin and evolution of the state’s thinking in our collection of archived reports available in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.]

That doesn’t mean we should take the foot off the gas, say state leaders. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory,” the Leadership Council writes. Given the current rate of habitat destruction and the growing threat of extinction for some species like Puget Sound’s resident orcas, there is an acknowledgement that managers don’t have the luxury of taking their time. The 2020 goal may have been aspirational, but the situation is no less urgent.


Plans being developed to save both orcas and Chinook salmon

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

Actions that could save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction have been placed on a fast track by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Puget Sound Partnership, which operates under a legal mandate to restore the health of Puget Sound.

Hand in hand with an intensified effort to save the whales comes a revised strategy to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, the primary food supply for the endangered orcas.

In a special meeting Wednesday, the Puget Sound Leadership Council committed itself in a formal resolution to “both accelerate and amplify” efforts to recover Chinook runs on behalf of the orcas while meeting treaty obligations to native tribes.

The Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — also approved a list of “regional priorities,” which will direct specific projects to protect and restore Puget Sound over the next four years. The priorities include recommendations for “bold actions” for Chinook recovery developed by Puget Sound tribes and later approved by the multi-jurisdictional Salmon Recovery Council.

The Leadership Council approved a few changes to the draft priorities, such as eliminating a controversial proposal dealing with water rights and streamflows. The original language from the tribes would favor water in streams to help salmon over water rights for new wells — essentially the same issue that stirred up a legislative battle following the controversial Hirst decision by the State Supreme Court.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council, said the resolution on orcas approved Wednesday is “one small action” to be followed by a major initiative from the governor, who he described as “shocked and alarmed” by recent reports highlighting the growing risk of extinction for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Governor’s plan

The governor’s plan of action will address the major risks to orcas, including the lack of Chinook salmon, the number of ships and boats that produce excessive noise and disrupt the orca’s feeding efforts, toxic pollutants that can contribute to their poor health, and other concerns, Manning said.

“It will be issued in short order,” he said, “and we are excited to be part of what will be a strong action-oriented approach from the governor. Our job is to restore and protect Puget Sound. If we lose the Southern Resident orcas, we will have failed in our job, and we have no intention of doing that.”

During the meeting, held via telephone conference call, Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers employee, reiterated his position that breaching dams on the Snake River would be the quickest way to provide more Chinook salmon for the orcas. The whales feed at times off the mouth of the Columbia River.

Jerry Joyce, who served on a marine mammal advisory committee for the Partnership, said the key is to move quickly to address the known threats to killer whales and perhaps even some speculative threats before it is too late.

“If we wait for scientific certainty, we will have no whales left to protect,” he said.

Regional priorities approved Wednesday will provide ideas and guidance to agencies, nonprofit groups and others that wish to submit proposals to improve the Puget Sound ecosystem. The priorities grew out of 10 implementation strategies focused on restoring various ecological attributes, including freshwater quality, shellfish beds and toxic chemicals in fish.

Nearly 40 ideas have been proposed to implement the strategy for rebuilding Chinook runs, widely believed to be a critical step in the recovery of the orca population. The Chinook implementation strategy and regional priorities underwent an extensive review involving technical teams, tribal officials and the Salmon Recovery Council. The SRC includes representatives of federal, state and local governments, tribes and watershed councils, along with business and environmental groups.

Discussion of Hirst ruling

Language approved by the Leadership Council acknowledges the need to restore streamflows but stays away from the issue of water rights.

That may have cost the Leadership Council a vote from Council Member Russ Hepfer, a tribal official with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Hepfer said denying permits for water withdrawals should be a “no-brainer” when the effect would be to harm salmon runs.

Manning said he knows it will be necessary to tackle “the most difficult problems” — including adequate streamflows. But the Leadership Council must balance many interests. As for the Hirst ruling, Manning said a plan is being developed to restore streamflows where necessary without affecting water rights or new individual wells.

If successful, the plan could clear a legislative logjam that has blocked passage of the state’s capital budget this year. Republican senators refused to approve the budget without a legislative response to the Hirst court ruling. As a result, the budget remains in limbo.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Meanwhile, a major focus of the Chinook Implementation Strategy is to improve salmon habitat through various means — from scientific studies to improved regulations to incentives for property owners.

The regional priorities approved Wednesday also include a provision to develop management options for controlling seals and sea lions, which are known to eat both juvenile and adult Chinook throughout Puget Sound.

Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute. 


Draft shoreline armoring strategy now available for public comment

Former feeder bluff with sediment impounded by armoring. Photo by Hugh Shipman.

Former feeder bluff with sediment impounded by armoring. Photo by Hugh Shipman.

A group led by two state agencies is asking for public comment on a draft strategy for removing hundreds of miles of seawalls and other structures along Puget Sound’s shoreline.

More than 27% — or about 675 miles — of Puget Sound’s shoreline is covered with anti-erosion structures known as shoreline armoring that scientists say diminish food and habitat for salmon and other species.

The EPA-funded strategy was developed by a group led by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Partners in the effort include the Puget Sound Partnership, the Puget Sound Institute, and an interdisciplinary team of experts.

The Puget Sound Partnership has named shoreline armoring one of its ‘Vital Signs’ for Puget Sound health, and the state has set a target of removing more armoring than the amount constructed during the period 2011 to 2020. Progress toward reaching that target has so far been slow — declines in armoring have only occurred since 2014 and have been measured in mere feet per year — but the “Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy” as it is dubbed is an effort to accelerate the process. A draft of the strategy will be available for public review and comment from October 30 through November 30. For more information, visit the interagency Implementation Strategy website.


With sea-level rise, waterfront owners confront their options

A house and bulkead (circa 2013) before it was moved to make room for sea-level rise. Photo courtesy: John Vechey

A house on Orcas Island (circa 2013) before it was moved back to make room for sea-level rise. Photo courtesy: John Vechey

Climate change could cause sea levels to rise more than four feet in some parts of Puget Sound, leaving shoreline residents with some tough decisions. Experts say fighting the waves with conventional seawalls may not be the answer.

Read the story in our online magazine Salish Sea Currents


New EPA administrator appointed for Puget Sound and Region 10

New Region 10 Administrator for EPA Chris Hladick. Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development

New Region 10 Administrator for EPA Chris Hladick. Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development

The Environmental Protection Agency last week announced the appointment of Alaskan Chris Hladick as new head of its Region 10 office based in Seattle. Hladick was appointed by EPA chief Scott Pruitt to serve as regional administrator overseeing environmental protection efforts in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington including Puget Sound.

Hladick is currently commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development for the State of Alaska, and earlier served as city manager for Unalaska and other cities within the state. According to a press release from the EPA, Hladick was a member of the Alaska Legislature’s Arctic Policy Commission and Northern Waters Task Force. Both groups were formed to explore economic development such as oil and gas drilling as well as resilience in response to “the opening of Alaska’s Arctic waters” due to global warming.

Hladick replaces interim Acting Regional Administrator Michelle Pirzadeh who took over for Dennis Mclerran earlier this year. Mclerran had served under the Obama administration and resigned on January 19th just prior to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

EPA Region 10 oversees a variety of cleanup efforts in Puget Sound including several Superfund sites and regional tribal programs. It also distributes local research grants through the EPA’s National Estuary Program, which includes funding for the Puget Sound Institute.


Salmon council approves new priorities for Chinook recovery

The Puget Sound Partnership Salmon Recovery Council has posted a list of recommended priority actions for Chinook salmon recovery. The measures were proposed last spring by area tribes hoping to see stronger efforts to protect the region’s threatened Chinook populations.

The document summarizes nine recommendations approved by the Council at its September 28th meeting, including broad language on habitat protection, water quality, water quantity and management of predation of salmon by seals and sea lions. The actions are meant to inform state and federal implementation strategies for Chinook salmon recovery.

“Identifying these priority actions is only the first step,” reads the document. “Next steps will include working with a wide variety of partners – including but not limited to local governments, regulatory agencies, and other decision-makers – to identify responsible parties for many of these actions, and determine how to implement the actions and how to pay for them.”

While many of the actions involve more general recommendations such as standardization of habitat assessments and strategies for improved communications and fund-raising, some touched on legal issues like water rights and instream flows — topics that have been in the news due to the recent Hirst Decision. The recommendations call for “No authorization of new appropriations (including permit-exempt appropriations) if they would impair senior water rights (including state instream flow rights adopted by rule) or adversely affect fisheries resources.”

The document also recommends the creation of a white paper on recent scientific findings around predation of juvenile salmon by seals and sea lions, as well as modification of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “As science continues to demonstrate the impact on salmon by marine mammals, modification of the Act to allow targeted management of pinnipeds on salmon should be pursued,” reads the Council’s document. That item follows recent scientific studies that show seals and sea lions are eating more Chinook salmon than previously known, in particular a high number of juvenile fish. Scientists say juvenile mortality is a major factor in Chinook declines, but federal law prohibits the harassment or killing of protected marine species like seals and sea lions.

The regional priorities are now under consideration for adoption by the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council. We’ll be following these actions more closely in our Salish Sea Currents series.


Puget Sound’s growing nutrient problem

An algae bloom covers a huge section of Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA.

An algae bloom covers a huge section of Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA.

First there was “The Blob” that fed last year’s massive algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean. Now there is another monster getting our attention. You might call it “The slime that ate Lake Erie.”

The incredible images of Lake Erie’s expanding blanket of green show the familiar effect of nutrient pollution. Nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen have been flowing into the giant lake primarily from sources like agricultural fertilizer and wastewater. This has led to a 700-square-mile algae slick, alarming officials worried about potential buildups of dangerous algal toxins or areas of low oxygen known as “dead zones.”

This sort of thing is well-known in the Pacific Northwest. Decades ago, Lake Washington faced a similar problem due to unchecked dumping of human waste that made the lake un-swimmable and prone to green slime and bacteria. At one point, an estimated 20 million gallons of sewage per day flowed directly into Lake Washington. Then, in the 1960s the city of Seattle initiated tighter pollution controls that diverted sewage to treatment plants, cutting the amount of raw sewage entering the lake to virtually zero.

Lake Washington is often touted as a pollution control success story, and other water bodies like Puget Sound have followed suit. Despite occasional high profile overflows like last year’s massive sewage spill at the West Point Treatment Plant, most of the wastewater that flows into Puget Sound is now treated in some way. (The state is also taking comments on a rule that would make it illegal for boats to discharge treated or untreated waste into Puget Sound.) Parts of Canada still release raw sewage into our shared waters to the north, although Victoria, B.C. finally approved development of a tertiary sewage treatment plant last year.

Scientists will be quick to tell you that, at the very least, some sewage treatment is better than no treatment. It filters many of the potential pathogens that can come with raw sewage, and a whole lot more. But what about those nutrients?

What most of Puget Sound’s sewage treatment plants don’t remove — at least to a significant degree — are nutrients. At most normal levels, these nutrients are natural and essential for the health of the ecosystem. However, when there are too many of them, problems can occur not unlike the situation in Lake Erie.

Image from the Salish Sea Model. Courtesy of the Pacific Northwest National Lab, the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Image from the Salish Sea Model. Courtesy of the Pacific Northwest National Lab, the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For a long time, Puget Sound was thought to be big enough to handle the nutrient load from its wastewater treatment plants and other sources. Now, a new mathematical model shows that we are coming up against the limits of the system. The region is expected to grow by more than 1.5 million residents within the next two decades, putting huge strains on wastewater infrastructure. Add to that climate change that may lower stream flows that normally help to circulate and mix the water in Puget Sound. The model says these two factors will contribute to nutrient build-up and will likely mean increasing problems with water clarity and dissolved oxygen throughout the Sound.

The region is once again at a turning point. Officials say current levels of sewage treatment are not enough.

“Puget Sound’s health is degrading due to increasing levels of nutrients that are adversely affecting water quality,” reports the Washington Department of Ecology on its website. “We are finding that nutrients in Puget Sound are out of balance altering some of its fundamental physical, chemical, and biological functions.” The imbalance could affect sensitive plants like eelgrass as well as salmon and forage fish sensitive to low oxygen, Ecology says.

Ecology is now working on a nutrient source reduction project, and in 2018 is expected to use that research to help guide a collaborative “implementation strategy” related to the state’s Marine Water Quality “Vital Sign”. Watch for more coverage of nutrients here and in our online Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as the story develops.


PSI will host a wide variety of sessions and panels at the 2018 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference logo

Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference logo

The announcements are in and Puget Sound Institute researchers will be chairing or co-chairing at least five different special sessions at next year’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle. The sessions will include subjects as varied as Contaminants of Emerging Concern, microplastics, Pacific herring, ecosystem modeling and the potential influence of the region’s technology industry on Salish Sea recovery. Watch this space in the coming months for more details on these sessions and for in-depth coverage of the conference as it develops.