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.

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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.

 

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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.

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

Young adult herring from Puget Sound.Margaret Siple/University of Washington

Young adult herring from Puget Sound.Margaret Siple/University of Washington

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.

Citation:

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

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Identifying chemical suspects in stormwater

Adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning, as indicated by female carcasses with nearly 100% egg retention. The above example is an adult female that returned from the ocean to spawn in Longfellow Creek (West Seattle) in the fall of 2012. Photo credit: Jenifer McIntyre.

Adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning, as indicated by female carcasses with nearly 100% egg retention. The above example is an adult female that returned from the ocean to spawn in Longfellow Creek (West Seattle) in the fall of 2012. Photo credit: Jenifer McIntyre.

Researchers know that stormwater can be extremely toxic. It can kill exposed fish such as coho salmon within hours. But figuring out exactly what is in stormwater has been a complex puzzle that has so far confounded scientists. Many of the chemical compounds in it remain unidentified.

Is there such a thing as typical stormwater, or is it so variable that patterns can’t be detected? That has been the subject of research by Center for Urban Waters research scientist and PSI collaborator Ed Kolodziej, who will be presenting some of his findings at the Northwest Fishery Sciences Center on May 18th. New analytical techniques using time of flight mass spectrometry are making it easier to identify and localize sources of contaminants.

When and where:

Thursday, May 18, 2017 at 11:00 AM in the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Auditorium: 2725 Montlake Blvd. E., Seattle WA 98112.

Visit the Northwest Fisheries Science Center website for more information. 

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Herring talk May 15th at UWT

Herring eggs. Photo by Tessa Francis.

Herring eggs. Photo by Tessa Francis.

PSI’s Tessa Francis will be presenting a lecture on Puget Sound’s Pacific herring as part of the University of Washington Tacoma Environmental Seminar series on May 15th. The seminar is open to the public and will be held from 12:30 P.M. to 1:30 P.M. on the UWT campus in the Science Building in room SCI309. The talk will look at why some local herring stocks are in decline and what might be done to protect Puget Sound’s herring in the future.

View a poster for the talk. 

 

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Study of eelgrass shows populations steady across Puget Sound

Eelgrass provides critical habitat for many Puget Sound species. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Seattle Times

Eelgrass provides critical habitat for many Puget Sound species. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Seattle Times.

Although eelgrass populations have declined in some parts of Puget Sound, overall numbers for the aquatic plant have remained steady ecosystem-wide, according to an analysis of 41 years of data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The study, published in the Journal of Ecology, was co-authored by Puget Sound Institute lead ecosystem ecologist Tessa Francis and was aided by a team of University of Washington student assistants who sorted through more than 160,000 notebook entries to parse out survey findings.

The data comes from long-time surveys of Pacific Herring, which also included the detailed observations of eelgrass abundance. (We first wrote about this treasure trove of hand-written notebooks in a PSI blog focusing on its implication for herring studies.) The paper was co-authored by a team of scientists from NOAA, PSI, Earth Resource Technology, The Nature Conservancy, WDFW and the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

The researchers say the findings give some hope that eelgrass meadows may be more resilient than expected to pressures such as climate change, but they caution that sharp declines in some areas are a source of concern.

“The fact that eelgrass has been stable over the last 40 years tells you that things are probably not getting worse, but it doesn’t mean that things are good,” study co-author Phil Levin, of the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy told the Seattle Times today.

PSI’s Francis was also quoted in the Seattle Times story and called the findings “promising in terms of recovery, because it’s a lot easier to think of what we might do on a local scale, than to think of what we might do on a grand, ecosystem scale.”

Eelgrass is an aquatic flowering plant that provides important habitat for young salmon, herring, Dungeness crabs and many other species. You can read about efforts to restore eelgrass beds in Puget Sound in our magazine series Salish Sea Currents.

Read more about the new eelgrass paper in The Seattle Times and UW Today.

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Year in review: 2016

Winter sunset alpenglow on Mt Baker and the North Cascades. Copyright: LoweStock

Winter sunset alpenglow on Mt Baker and the North Cascades. Copyright: LoweStock

This year has been as busy as any we have had since our founding in 2010. As we look forward to year seven (!) of our organization, we have put together a sort of highlight reel of accomplishments.

At various points, PSI scientists worked to prioritize emerging contaminants in our waterways. We studied the health of forage fish populations, analyzed eelgrass abundance and brought together key scientific findings for Puget Sound’s marine and nearshore. 

Most recently, our team began helping to develop new state and federal Implementation Strategies that will prioritize future Puget Sound cleanup efforts (you can read more about the Implementation Strategies in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound).

Through it all, we have kept you informed with dozens of articles in our magazine Salish Sea Currents, as well as many new papers in scientific journals. After a strong 2016, we believe that science is more vital than ever to Puget Sound recovery. We look forward to building on our accomplishments in 2017.

View some of PSI’s research and products.

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Implementation strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’

Implementation strategies are a framework to improve the heartbeat of Puget Sound

Implementation strategies are a framework to improve the heartbeat of Puget Sound

When a scientist wades into an eelgrass bed or measures the weight of a Chinook salmon, their connection to the environment is clear. Much of what we know as the ‘scientific process’ takes place on the ground at a local scale. Measurements and observations are made and extrapolated. Scientists get their feet wet.

But what do you do when you are studying an entire ecosystem? In the case of Puget Sound, you can’t wade — or even see – the whole thing. To some degree, such a large system is an abstraction. It is infinitely complex and unknowable, with thousands of species and countless other variables.

Here at the Puget Sound Institute, our scientists conduct plenty of on-the-ground research, but we also look at this big picture. In the fall of 2016 our team began working closely with other scientists funded by the EPA to establish what are known as Implementation Strategies. These strategies will identify and apply solutions to improve Puget Sound’s overall Vital Signs, a series of indicators established by the Puget Sound Partnership to measure the region’s health.

It is part of a “learn and adjust” approach known as adaptive management (read more about adaptive management on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound). Adaptive management is gaining traction for ecosystem conservation worldwide and has played a central role in state and federal Puget Sound cleanup efforts since 2007.

PSI’s role will help to synthesize and analyze the state of the science for many of the Vital Sign indicators, and will provide recommendations for science-based solutions aimed at improving them. Watch for stories about the process in our Salish Sea Currents series in the coming weeks and months.

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New funding for Salish Sea herring research

Rhinocerus auklet with sand lance by Phil Green/The Nature Conservancy

Rhinoceros auklet with sand lance by Phil Green/The Nature Conservancy. Photo courtesy of SeaDoc.

PSI’s Tessa Francis is co-leader of a joint US and Canadian team that has received funding to analyze threats to Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea. Funding of just over $89,000 was granted by the SeaDoc Society and will help the group develop a comprehensive Salish Sea herring conservation and management plan.

Francis teams up with project co-leader Dayv Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Additional collaborators include USGS, NOAA, Oregon State University, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Lummi Tribe, the Cowichan Tribe, The Nature Conservancy, and Q’ul-lhanumutsun Aquatic Resources Society.

Read more about the project at SeaDoc’s website. 

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CUW scientists among first to receive Amazon Catalyst grants

geekwire_story_screenshotCenter for Urban Waters engineers are among the first to receive a University of Washington Amazon Catalyst Grant. Dr. Andy James (also a member of the Puget Sound Institute) and Alex Gipe received $50,000 from Amazon to improve a process to remove phosphorous from stormwater pollution. Phosphorous can cause increased algal growth in lakes and ponds which in turn can poison fish and other species.

The Center for Urban Waters is the Puget Sound Institute parent organization and is affiliated with the University of Washington Tacoma.

The Amazon Catalyst program began in 2015 and 12 projects across the University of Washington have been selected for grants so far. The program supports innovation at universities, and encourages “people in all fields to think big, invent solutions to real-world problems, and make a positive impact on the world,” according to the program’s website.

Read more about the grant in GeekwireAmazon ‘Catalyst’ program reveals the first university projects it’s backing.

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In the news: Radiolab event will feature PSI’s water detectives

TacomaNewsTribuneLogoThere is a nice story in The News Tribune today on the upcoming Radiolab event in Tacoma. The January 22nd show at the Pantages Theater will focus on Northwest water issues and features a panel of environmental leaders, including PSI Director Joel Baker. The paper calls Joel and his lab “the ‘CSI’ of water science” and highlights some of their research into the high prevalence of household chemicals in local waterways.

“What we find in the water is by and large what you find in your house, from refrigerators to medicine cabinets,” Baker told the paper. The article describes how Baker and his group at the Center for Urban Waters are finding everything from artificial sweeteners to long-banned substances like DDT in nearby Puget Sound. Known as emerging contaminants, these substances often escape filtration systems and can be found in levels that, although tiny—sometimes in the parts per billion or even trillion—can still be potentially harmful.

Baker will be one of several panelists interviewed onstage by Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich. Other panelists include Ryan Mello of the Pierce Conservation District, Puget Sound Partnership’s Sheida Sahandy, and Jennifer Chang of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative. The event will focus on local water issues and will also go behind the scenes of the popular Radiolab podcast and radio series.
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