U.S. EPA commits funding to support PSI’s role in Puget Sound science

The Puget Sound Institute and Puget Sound Partnership are located at the Center for Urban Waters on the eastern shore of Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway.

The Puget Sound Institute and Puget Sound Partnership are located at the Center for Urban Waters on the eastern shore of Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway.

A collaboration between the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute (PSI), Oregon State University, Northern Economics, and the Puget Sound Partnership has been selected by the Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate the region’s science program. The four-year cooperative agreement provides an anticipated $7.25 million to create and communicate timely and policy-relevant science to support and enhance new recovery strategies. The collaboration also strengthens monitoring and modeling programs and identifies and promotes regional science priorities.

The Puget Sound Partnership will receive and administer the primary award and other partners will receive sub-awards from PSP over the four-year project period.

“As Puget Sound continues to feel the impacts from a changing climate and a rapidly growing population, it is more important than ever that policy decisions are grounded in solid and accessible science” said PSI Director Joel Baker. “We will need the creativity and energy of the region’s diverse science community to meet the challenges of restoring and protecting Puget Sound.”

In addition to contributing targeted technical support, this award provides PSI and its partners the capacity to explore emerging issues, to combine thinking across topics, and to connect with other regional, national, and international ecosystem recovery efforts.

The new funding continues work already underway at PSI to connect the dots between scientific findings around the region. “The goal is to combine big picture, ecosystem-scale thinking with practical solutions,” Baker said. “Given the thousands of scientists and practitioners working to understand the health of Puget Sound, synthesis and analysis is a critical need.”

A strong area of focus will include the region’s newly established Implementation Strategies, a series of inter-agency recovery plans funded by the EPA’s National Estuary Program. The Puget Sound Partnership will help to integrate these strategies across a broad range of agencies and other groups.

The grant also expands the role of social science and communications in the Puget Sound recovery process. Partnerships with Oregon State University and Northern Economics will support an improved understanding of how humans interact and engage with the Puget Sound ecosystem. Social scientists with those organizations will work closely with Puget Sound’s Local Integrating Organizations to develop cost-benefit frameworks and other decision-making tools. Funding for communication supports continued development of informative science articles in PSI’s Salish Sea Currents magazine series on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Funding for the collaboration begins in October 2017 and is slated to run through 2021.

The Puget Sound Institute was established at the University of Washington Tacoma in 2010 to identify and catalyze the science driving Puget Sound and Salish Sea ecosystem recovery. Since its founding, PSI has advanced our understanding of the region through synthesis, original research and communication in support of state and federal agencies, tribes and other organizations working in the region.


Interview: Can ’Silicon Valley North’ change the way we think about Salish Sea recovery?

South Lake Union Streetcar, August 2017. Photo: SDOT (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdot_photos/36924152151/

South Lake Union Streetcar, August 2017. Photo: SDOT (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdot_photos/36924152151/

A strong economy propelled by a world-leading technology industry is expected to draw millions of new residents to the Salish Sea region within decades. This changing population brings with it new strains on the environment but also new perspectives. Incoming residents may not see Puget Sound the same way as previous generations. Many will have different relationships to the natural world or come from other cultural backgrounds and traditions.

Technology will also play a role, not just as an economic driver, but as an influence on the way that people receive and share information. Our smartphones and digital lifestyles will have their own geography, and some say we will have to navigate and understand that virtual world as surely as we understand the bays and inlets of Puget Sound. Given this changing landscape, can Puget Sound recovery efforts adapt and keep pace? Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel member Robert Ewing says it’s absolutely critical.

Ewing is currently a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and is actively involved with strategic training for members of Seattle’s technology industry through the organization Pathwise, where he is Director of the group’s Fellows Program. He will be co-chairing a special panel with PSI at next year’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference titled “Can ‘Silicon Valley North’ change the way we think about Salish Sea recovery?” PSI spoke with Ewing earlier this year and asked him how he thinks the Puget Sound science community can reach the region’s changing population — particularly its technology sector — and why it matters.

PSI: In the broadest sense, who do we need to bring to the table?

Robert Ewing (RE): I think everybody who lives in the region is a potential constituent as well as visitors and others. I think we ought to be able to articulate the region’s importance in terms of the quality of life here, the reason that businesses locate here — the [conditions] that allow us to live in a healthy, natural environment. All those things are part of what we’re trying to accomplish and should have resonance for everybody in a sort of a civic, nonpolitical frame of mind.

PSI: How important do you think the technology sector and its economic engine are to the equation?

RE: If you really were doing some business model development and you looked at the distribution of brainpower and wealth in Puget Sound, you would quickly come to a conclusion that those are the people you should be talking to. And the management council for the [Puget Sound] Partnership is part of that community — Bill Ruckelshaus certainly was — so it’s not like there hasn’t been contact or thinking there. But if you were an objective observer looking at who lives in the Puget Sound region, you’d want to know how to deal with all those people and bring them to the table.

PSI: Do you think those folks — the Bill Gates’s and the Jeff Bezos’s — really care about the environment? Or do they care more about making money and building software?

RE: I’m doing some work with a leadership training group called Pathwise. I’m managing their fellowship program. Most of their students are Microsoft, Expedia, Gates Foundation professionals and engineers. And in dealing with them I find that most of them don’t think about the environment very much. But you don’t have to talk very long until they get quite interested.

I’ve been in a class with engineers [whose] whole world is about getting a search a nanosecond faster than Google. Just giving them a few minutes to think about where they are in the world with their family and so on can open a path to environmental discussions.

We are all so much more capable through intuition and emotion to understand the world we live in and that we are part of the natural world, but we don’t communicate in that way. That’s something Pathwise is trying to do and is doing pretty successfully. I’m not saying I’m an expert in these things, but I see it working.

PSI: So what should we do to bring these people in?

RE: There are a lot of people struggling with exactly how to do this. I think there’s a way of not putting all the action items within a bureaucratic framework. There are ways to think more experientially, and organically, about how to move forward. [We should] try more things. Be more open to ideas and changes. Be more adaptable. One of the reasons that I’ve wanted to be active on the science panel is I think we have to be able to answer the question you just posed. That’s going to take a collaborative effort, an open source effort if you will. This is where the brainpower of the region comes in. I mean, we have Amazon, the University and a variety of start-ups and a lot of smart people walking the streets. Collectively, I think the answer is there. We just need to figure out how to bring it all into action. My goal is to be around the people who can figure this out. And hopefully it’s younger, higher powered people with a lot of energy with some guidance from people with experience. My main goal is to try to have this dialogue go forward and find the resources we need to collectively involve the people who will give us the answer.

About Robert Ewing:

Robert Ewing was trained as an economist and holds a PhD in Wildland Resource Science. He has worked in both the private and public sectors and was Director of Timberlands Strategic Planning for Weyerhaeuser for 20 years. Before that, he was head of resource assessment and strategic planning at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He is currently a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and is Director of the Pathwise Fellows Program.

Related article: Urban lifestyles help to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem

See also: Land Development and Land Cover Implementation Strategy.


New project searches for contaminants of emerging concern

PSI research scientist Andy James

PSI research scientist Andy James

PSI research scientist Andy James has been funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program to identify contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in the waters of Puget Sound.

There are literally thousands of man-made chemicals known as CECs circulating in local waters, but very little is known about their impacts on wildlife. They are often found in tiny concentrations and can include residuals from pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are flushed through treated wastewater.

James’ project will extend through May 2019 and will focus on the non-targeted sampling of marine waters and shellfish, as well as selected streams in Puget Sound. James will use mass spectrometry to analyze samples with an eye toward identifying CECs that might have the potential to cause risk to aquatic organisms.

Collaborators include researchers at the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters, the Department of Ecology and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Funding Amount: $200,000.

Project duration: Now through May 2019.


Detecting organic contaminants in highway runoff and fish tissue

This much we know: Stormwater is nasty stuff. The state of Washington has called it one of the leading threats to the Puget Sound ecosystem. It can kill salmon within hours and it contributes to all kinds of health problems for species ranging from orcas to humans. What we don’t know, however, is exactly what’s in it.

Rain and snowmelt wash an untold number of toxics into our waterways, but there is no such thing as typical stormwater. Its chemical makeup varies from place to place and depends on local pollutants, from petroleum to PCBs.

That’s a problem for scientists who want to understand how the chemicals in stormwater affect area wildlife. Knowing what’s in a particular mix of stormwater could help explain exactly which chemicals are lethal, or why some species of salmon die after exposure and not others. It could also provide a better understanding of where the chemicals come from. How much do automobiles contribute to the problem? Do the nastiest chemicals then come from leaking oil or car tires, or the asphalt from the roads themselves? Or somewhere else? The questions are seemingly infinite.

To meet this challenge, several scientists at the Puget Sound Institute and the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters are developing new techniques for analyzing stormwater’s chemical composition.

They recently published a paper outlining some of these techniques in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts. The paper was co-authored with collaborators from NOAA and the Washington Stormwater Center. The authors used “time-of-flight” mass spectrometry to identify novel compounds in runoff and fish tissues that were present in amounts as small as the parts per billion. Work is still underway, but so far the authors have found compounds ranging from the usual suspects like petroleum products to DEET and caffeine. “Further characterization of highway runoff and fish tissues,” the paper reads, “suggests that many novel or poorly characterized organic contaminants exist in urban stormwater runoff and exposed biota.”


Du, B., Lofton, J. M., Peter, K., Gipe, A. D., James, C. A., McIntyre, J. K., Scholz, N.L., Baker, J.E. & Kolodziej, E. P. (2017). Development of Suspect and Non-Target Screening Methods for Detection of Organic Contaminants in Highway Runoff and Fish Tissue with High-Resolution Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.


Measuring health and happiness in Puget Sound: A case study

The story of how PSI social scientist Kelly Biedenweg and her collaborators put together a list of human wellbeing indicators for Puget Sound is outlined in a new paper in the journal Ecology and Society. The paper is co-authored by Biedenweg with Kari Stiles of the Puget Sound Partnership and Haley Harguth of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. It is written as a case study of the indicator selection process and examines how human wellbeing is connected to the health of the environment.


Biedenweg, K., H. Harguth, and K. Stiles. 2017. The science and politics of human well-being: a case study in cocreating indicators for Puget Sound restoration. Ecology and Society 22(3):11. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09424-220311


Increasing adult mortality in Puget Sound herring may contribute to population declines

PSI’s lead ecosystem ecologist Tessa Francis is co-author of a 2017 paper linking increasing adult mortality of Puget Sound herring with regional population declines in the species. The authors report that natural mortality among herring four years and older has doubled in Puget Sound since 1973, suggesting a possible connection to declines at spawning sites near Cherry Point and Squaxin Pass.

The article is published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science and is co-authored by Margaret Siple (lead author) of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington (UW SAFS), Andrew Shelton of NOAA Fisheries, Tessa Francis of PSI, Dayv Lowry and Adam Lindquist of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Tim Essington of UW SAFS.


Margaret C. Siple, Andrew O. Shelton, Tessa B. Francis, Dayv Lowry, Adam P. Lindquist, Timothy E. Essington; Contributions of adult mortality to declines of Puget Sound Pacific herring, ICES Journal of Marine Science, , fsx094, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsx094


New website focuses on Puget Sound Implementation Strategies



Over the past year or so, the EPA has begun funding a new effort to speed up and prioritize Puget Sound recovery. A coalition of state agencies and other partners is developing a series of plans known as Implementation Strategies that take on some of the practical considerations and next steps for the Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda.

We wrote about this last year in our magazine Salish Sea Currents, and have continued a series of stories about some of the science driving the process. We’ll be writing more stories in the coming year with funding from the EPA, and Puget Sound Institute scientists are among those collaborating in the overall effort.

In a sense, the Implementation Strategies are a prescription for Puget Sound health. While there are still many unknowns, scientists say we now understand — at least to some degree — many of the major problems facing the region. Those are being monitored as so-called “Vital Signs” established by the state, and range from the health of endangered orcas to water quality and human wellbeing. Knowing where to prioritize recovery efforts is a huge step forward, agencies and partners say. Now these groups want to apply the medicine where they can.

The leaders of the new Implementation Strategies include several state agencies. Among them are the Department of Ecology, the Department of Health, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources. The Puget Sound Partnership continues its role as a facilitator and organizer in the process, and other partners include regional tribes, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force and a variety of stakeholders and nonprofits.

If you want to get a better handle on just what the Implementation Strategies are and who is behind them, we recommend visiting the coalition’s new website at https://pugetsoundestuary.wa.gov/. The site launched earlier this month, and will include regular updates including blogs detailing the latest steps in the process.

The site’s most recent blog post is a great overview of the process and describes many of the priorities for the group over the next four years.


PCBs in fish remain steady while other toxics decline

English Sole (Parophrys vetulus) in Puget Sound. Photo: biodiversityguy https://biodiversityguy.smugmug.com/Underwater/Reference-List-Photos-of/i-3GgD5hB/A

English Sole (Parophrys vetulus) in Puget Sound. Photo: biodiversityguy https://biodiversityguy.smugmug.com/Underwater/Reference-List-Photos-of/i-3GgD5hB/A

A new study shows a surprising decline in some toxic chemicals in Puget Sound fish, while levels of PCBs increased in some cases. Scientists say the study shows that banning toxic chemicals can work, but old contaminants remain a challenge as they continue to wash into Puget Sound.

Read our story in Salish Sea Currents. 


Puget Sound science from A to Z

A screenshot of the EoPS homepage.

A screenshot of the EoPS homepage.

These days, you may know the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as a news source. Our magazine stories and blogs cover science as it happens across the Salish Sea, from research on salmon recovery to toxic chemicals in the food web.

There is no other publication focusing strictly on Puget Sound science, and — we’ll be bold here — we strive to provide the best such coverage in the region. Not because we have the most stories or the biggest staff (we don’t), but because we report the news that you need to know.

We work closely with the scientists on the ground and often hear what’s happening before the major media outlets. We work hard to get the stories right, and we provide context that other publications can’t.

That context is one of the most important parts of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We are a news source, but we are also a resource — an encyclopedia. If you want to know how scientists and policymakers view the ecosystem and how they are working to protect it, we have organized it from A to Z.

This August, as the dog days settle over Puget Sound and forest fires rage in the distance, we’ll continue to build the encyclopedia behind the scenes. Do you want to know more about toxic algae blooms or zooplankton? How about floodplains or the impacts of shoreline armoring? There’s plenty to discover. You can use the encyclopedia in your classes. Share it with policymakers. Identify thousands of species. Find out the age of a rock fish. Scope out local beaches. The website continues to get better every day, and we are glad to bring it to you.


Are we making progress on salmon recovery?

Dean Toba, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

Dean Toba, a scientific technician with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

In recent decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to restore habitat for Puget Sound salmon. This month, PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan looks at how scientists are gauging their progress. Are environmental conditions improving or getting worse? The answer may depend on where you look and who you ask.

Read the article in Salish Sea Currents. 


Salmon council debates new priorities proposed by tribes

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council last Thursday gave preliminary approval to six of the seven proposed recovery priorities known as “bold actions” to improve Chinook salmon numbers in Puget Sound. One of the actions calling for “a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity” for salmon was tabled for ongoing discussions in August and September.

The actions were proposed last May by regional tribes dissatisfied with a state-proposed salmon plan known as the Chinook Implementation Strategy. Tribes felt that the strategy didn’t go far enough and called for a series of seven specific actions designed to stem the ongoing decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Two of the action items, one responding to high amounts of predation of juvenile Chinook by seals and sea lions and another on climate change appeared to pass through the council unchanged, but several of the proposed priorities are undergoing a series of amendments that were debated at the council meeting. The Puget Sound Partnership is now sharing an edited version of the actions among members of the council for refinement in “mid to late August,” according to the Partnership’s deputy director Laura Blackmore. Versions of the proposed actions can also be found in a new solicitation of funding by the Puget Sound Partnership (starting on page 19).

In all, the seven proposed actions include protection of habitat, improvements in water quantity and water quality, predation and mortality of young salmon, funding, communication, climate change and oil spill preparedness.

Council member Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe expressed frustration over the delay in approving all of the items, but said he remained optimistic about the efforts. “I feel like we know what the issues are,” he said. “If we can act on these, we have a fighting chance.”

The proposed action concerning habitat protection remains up for debate and may be the most controversial item among those discussed on Thursday. The item would protect “all remaining salmon habitat by implementing land use policy changes that optimize a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity.” It would also “build a region-wide accountability system,” according to a briefing document presented to the council.  Representatives of the agricultural community have called the language in the provision too broad and say it puts too many burdens on farmers that are already dealing with legal challenges and environmental regulations. Tribal representatives say the provision is central to salmon recovery.

“We are still losing ground faster than we are restoring it,” Herrera said. “We have been putting all of our eggs in the restoration basket, but we’re not going to restore our way out of this. We can’t keep up with what we’re losing.”

The council also tabled for later discussion water quantity issues in one of the actions potentially impacted by last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The Salmon Recovery Council is scheduled to meet to continue its discussion of the proposed priorities on September 28th in Edmonds. 


House committee approves funding for Puget Sound cleanup

Bucking a proposed White House budget that would have cut EPA’s Puget Sound funding entirely, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted to approve $28 million for Puget Sound in fiscal year 2018. The amount matches last year’s appropriation for the region, although the bill still faces a vote on the House floor. The Senate will consider its own spending plan and may further revise the numbers.

House Democrats Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus earlier said that they were encouraged by the budget after successfully fending off a proposed $3 million cut that appeared in the original version of the bill. (You can read their amendment on page number 8 of the bill’s Committee Markups. The original allocation for Puget Sound is shown here.)

The budget is part of a $31.4 billion appropriations bill for several federal agencies, including the EPA and the Interior Department. While the House committee voted to maintain Puget Sound cleanup at its current level of EPA funding, the EPA as a whole fared less well. Overall, the bill would cut EPA’s yearly budget from 8.06 billion to 7.5 billion. That’s less than the 31% cut proposed by the Trump administration, but still steep according to some Democrats who wrangled over the proposed legislation.

“A cut of this magnitude endangers our nation’s natural and cultural resources,” said Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the Interior and environment subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, who spoke to EE News. “Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency is hardest hit by the cuts recommended in this bill. The EPA is slashed by $528 million, shouldering a whopping 64 percent of the subcommittee’s overall cut.”

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey disagreed, saying in a press release that the cuts were responsible. “This legislation responsibly supports the agencies and offices we rely on to preserve our natural resources for future generations,” he said. He added that the funding “prioritizes our limited funding to programs that protect environmental safety,” and will “rein in the federal bureaucracy… to stop many harmful and unnecessary regulations that destroy economic opportunity and hinder job creation.”

Puget Sound is one of several Geographic Programs that depend heavily on EPA funding from the proposed legislation. Among them is Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, which received a proposed cut in the bill of $13 million from its $73 million fiscal 2017 allocation. The Puget Sound Institute is among the organizations that would receive funding from the legislation, which is directed through EPA’s National Estuary Program.