Our Water Ways

Photographic portrait of Chris Dunagan

Puget Sound Institute senior writer Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related. As the very first environmental reporter for the Kitsap Sun, he has been a respected voice in the region for more than 25 years. He has been covering science-related stories for the Puget Sound Institute since 2015.

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Understanding the cold-water needs of salmon and helping them to survive (12/20/2021) - Salmon need cold water. This general statement is something I’ve been hearing since I first began reporting on these amazing migrating fish years ago. Cold water is a fact of life for salmon, known for their long travels up and down streams, out to saltwater and back. But colder is not always better. Questions about why salmon need cold water and how their habitat might grow too warm or too cold led me into an in-depth reporting project. I ended up talking to some of the leading experts on the […]
Recovery of Puget Sound species could hinge on better understanding of ecosystems (11/19/2021) - A recent report from the Puget Sound Partnership helps us understand the difficulty of restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem. What caught my attention in the State of the Sound report was that after 20 years of protecting and restoring streams, wetlands, shorelines and estuaries, we have not increased overall fish and wildlife populations, and some remain in a downward spiral. (Our Water Ways, Nov. 3). Several reasons have been given for the disappointing findings, including ongoing habitat losses from an increasing human population in the Puget Sound region. Clearly, there […]
Puget Sound fish and wildlife populations fall short of 10-year recovery goals (11/3/2021) - A final report on the 2020 ecosystem-recovery goals for Puget Sound outlines habitat improvements for some streams, shorelines and wetlands, but it also describes ongoing declines among fish and wildlife populations that use those habitats. The latest State of the Sound report, released this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, summarizes the status of 52 individual ecosystem indicators used to measure the health of Puget Sound. While 11 indicators point in a positive direction, suggesting that conditions are getting better for Puget Sound, 22 indicators tell us that things are […]
Puget Sound meets 2020 bulkhead-removal goal; new indicators will chart the future (10/28/2021) - In a turnabout that offers hope for Puget Sound’s nearshore ecosystem, old bulkheads are now being removed faster than new bulkheads are being constructed, according to permit figures provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In fact, officials with Puget Sound Partnership recently announced that the agency’s 2020 goal for reducing shoreline armoring had been reached — just barely — by the end of last year. Specifically, the goal, or target, was to remove more bulkheads, seawalls and other armoring (measured in length) than what was added from […]
Orca census shows some improvement, but many whales still die before their time (9/21/2021) - The annual census of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, submitted yesterday to the federal government, shows three births and one death from mid-2020 to mid-2021. Along with the new census report, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research sadly confirmed the death of L47, a 47-year-old female named Marina, who has been apparently missing since early summer. Marina was last seen by CWR biologists on Feb. 27 in Swanson Channel, north of the San Juan Islands, Ken told me. She was later missing from observations by Canadian biologists […]
Plunging into a jungle of weather statistics to find the footprints of climate change (9/16/2021) - “Augusts in Seattle are getting hotter, leading to a change of 3.5°F since 1970.” This was the sentence that caught my eye while reading an email from Peter Gerard, director of communications for Climate Central, an organization that prides itself on helping news reporters tell an accurate story of climate change. I wondered immediately: Is there something special about the month of August? It turns out that there is, at least for Seattle and most areas around Puget Sound, but I needed to see the evidence for myself. Thus began […]
Discovery of tire-related chemical that kills coho salmon sparks widespread response (8/26/2021) - Scientists, legislators and manufacturers are responding in various ways to the recent groundbreaking discovery of a deadly chemical derived from automobile tires, a chemical that can rapidly kill coho salmon swimming in urban streams. Researchers are trying to better describe the chemical signature and biological function of the newfound chemical, 6PPD-quinone, along with related compounds. One major goal is to find an alternative chemical that can prevent dangerous cracking in tires without poisoning the environment. Tire manufacturers acknowledge that they had no idea that 6PPD-quinone even existed, although the chemical’s […]
Can biologists estimate the massive loss of shellfish caused by low tides, high temps? (7/13/2021) - The putrid smell of rotting shellfish on some beaches in Puget Sound and elsewhere along the West Coast were a clear sign that large numbers of clams, mussels, oysters and other intertidal creatures were killed from exposure to extreme low tides, record-breaking temperatures and a blazing hot sun. The total losses of shellfish that perished late last month may be difficult to estimate, but experts are beginning to piece together evidence from shoreline residents, state and tribal biologists, and commercial shellfish growers. Their goal is to describe what took place […]
Young orcas appear to develop friendships, not unlike primates — including humans (7/1/2021) - UPDATE, FRIDAY, JULY 2: K pod arrived in the San Juan Islands yesterday, so the wait is over for the Southern Residents to arrive this summer. The whales came south through Rosario Strait yesterday morning, according to reports, and then they traveled along the south side of Lopez Island and over to the west side of San Juan Island. How long the K pod whales will stay in inland waters — and when they might be joined by J and L pods — is anyone’s guess. (See “Orca census” below, […]
Puget Sound Partnership takes closer look at human well-being and environmental justice (6/21/2021) - Amid the struggle to save salmon and orcas and restore the Puget Sound ecosystem comes a renewed effort to consider not only how humans affect the environment but how the environment affects the lives of humans. The Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the recovery of Puget Sound, has been developing a series of strategies to acknowledge and enhance the cultural, economic and psychological values that can come from a healthy natural environment. These new strategies, along with related actions, are to be incorporated into the 2022-26 Puget Sound Action […]
Voluntary removal of BPA from food cans leaves state regulators with a key decision (6/10/2021) - As Washington state regulators contemplate a ban on the chemical BPA from food and drink cans, a manufacturers organization insists that BPA has already been removed voluntarily from nearly all food cans. Washington Department of Ecology is engaged in Phase 3 of the Safer Products for Washington program, which is evaluating five groups of chemicals known to cause health effects. Agency toxicologists are studying whether safer alternatives are practical and should be required as a matter of state law. One of the compounds under review is bisphenol A (BPA), which […]
Mercer Island student honored in national art contest for her painting of Arctic char (5/28/2021) - A 16-year-old Mercer Island High School artist, Jingyi “Alana” Yang, received multiple awards this month in the annual Art of Conservation Fish Art Contest, sponsored by the conservation group Wildlife Forever. Her painting showed an Arctic char in its natural cold-water surroundings. Alana said she was inspired to paint the colorful fish during a family trip to Alaska, where a tour guide told her about the unique Arctic char, a migratory fish related to salmon and trout that resides in the northern regions of the world. “I thought it was […]
As in a pandemic, the battle against invasive species may well depend on early actions (5/24/2021) - As Americans, we have become all too familiar with the spread of a deadly virus and the terrible consequences of a delayed response to an outbreak. As a result of our experience, I’m wondering if some of us might have a more visceral sense about the need to control invasive species. I’m not saying that the ecological, economic and cultural disturbances wrought by invasive species are on par with a massive loss of human life. But the common denominator is a biological perturbation that occurs suddenly and threatens to expand […]
A mile of shellfish beach near Hoodsport has been declared safe for harvesting (5/12/2021) - Efforts to clean up the waters near Hoodsport in southern Hood Canal are paying off with increased shellfish-harvesting opportunities for the Skokomish Tribe, private property owners and recreational harvesters. The final step in the cleanup effort involved tracking down sources of pollution, including eight failing septic systems, which then were either repaired or replaced. After four years of improving water quality, the Washington Department of Health has upgraded 66 acres of tidelands from “prohibited” to “approved,” certifying that the clams and oysters near Hoodsport are now safe to eat. That’s […]
Rep. Derek Kilmer expresses optimism about future funding for Puget Sound recovery (4/28/2021) - Federal support for Puget Sound recovery is on the rise, and there is growing hope that the Sound’s ecological problems will receive increased consideration and funding, according to U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. “With a (Democratic) majority in the House and the new Senate majority, and the White House, I think that we are going to see some progress,” Kilmer said, speaking Friday at the annual “Puget Sound Days on the Hill.” In support of his optimism, Kilmer pointed out that his PUGET SOS bill, which would create a […]
State agencies will focus on improving environmental justice under new law (4/23/2021) - A person’s health should not be determined by their income, race or ethnic background nor by the neighborhood in which they live, according to basic principles of environmental justice. Yet studies have shown that these demographic groups tend to suffer from a disproportionate share of environmental problems — from toxic waste to air pollution to water quality. The HEAL Act, approved and ready to be signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, is designed to address the problem in some ways. The legislation, Senate Bill 5141, requires state agencies to look […]
Environmental justice on the move: a few personal observations about change (4/16/2021) - I recently completed a much-involved writing project focused on environmental justice. It has been one of the most challenging, yet for me enlightening, efforts in my 45 years of covering the environment. My initial idea was to report on a plan by the Washington Department of Ecology to rewrite the regulations for the Model Toxics Control Act, the law that prescribes the cleanup of all kinds of contaminated sites. One of Ecology’s goals in rewriting the rules has been to pay more attention to the demographic makeup of populations around […]
Washington’s Water Quality Assessment offers insights into status of pollution (4/9/2021) - More than 2,000 segments of streams, lakes and marine waters have been added to the state’s massive list of water-quality data, allowing more Washington residents to take stock of pollution levels near their homes. The latest Water Quality Assessment for Washington waters, released for public review this week, covers 9,279 miles of streams, 434 lakes and 619 square miles of marine waters. One can use the statewide Draft Water Quality Atlas to zoom in on places of interest and review available information on a given water body. This vast database, […]
Invasive mussel triggers widespread talks, increased coordination with pet stores (3/29/2021) - Baby zebra mussels, no bigger than a grain of rice, provoked an emergency response across the country in early March, and now state and federal officials are contemplating changes to protect the Northwest from an invasive species that some people have unknowingly invited into their fish tanks. Nothing official has been proposed, but experts are looking at possible procedures and import restrictions on certain brands of aquarium “moss balls,” which have been found to harbor invasive zebra mussels. Wyoming has already imposed a ban on imports of moss balls, and […]
Low-interest loans could help shoreline property owners finance improvements (3/9/2021) - As ongoing research confirms the importance of shoreline habitat throughout Puget Sound, experts are looking for new ways to help shoreline property owners pay for bulkhead removals. One emerging idea, which could be established as a formal initiative within a year, consists of a special shoreline loan program that could provide low-interest loans to residential property owners. The owners could then make payments over decades with less strain on their family budgets. A soon-to-be-released report examines the possibilities of a state-sponsored revolving-fund loan program. This type of program would begin […]
Salmon experts predict more wild coho but fewer Chinook in Puget Sound this year (3/2/2021) - Greater numbers of wild coho salmon are expected to return to Puget Sound later this year, according to forecasts released last week, but threatened Puget Sound Chinook stocks are likely to see another decline. The 2021 salmon forecasts were announced Friday during an online video conference with sport and commercial fishers and other interested people (TVW telecast). The annual meeting serves to launch negotiations that, when completed in April, will prescribe fishing seasons for the coming summer and fall. Protecting so-called “weak stocks” from fishing pressure continues to be a […]
Winding down Puget Sound’s 2020 targets, as approved shellfish acreage keeps going up (2/22/2021) - In 2020, state health authorities upgraded six shellfish-growing areas in various parts of Puget Sound. Now, thanks to improved water quality, the harvest of clams and oysters can take place on these 309 acres for the first time in years, adding to an ongoing gain in harvestable acreage. While efforts to upgrade shellfish growing areas will continue into the future, these new results for 2020 represent the last time that state shellfish managers will be working toward a specific acreage goal set for the year 2020. Now, with 2020 in […]
New sewage-treatment permit would be a step to curbing nitrogen in Puget Sound (2/12/2021) - In an effort to stem the flow of excess nitrogen into Puget Sound, Washington Department of Ecology has proposed a new type of permit for some 60 sewage-treatment plants operating throughout the region. The flexible permit, called the Puget Sound Nutrient General Permit, aims to hold nitrogen releases close to or below their current levels at most of the treatment plants while offering plant operators options for how to meet those goals. It’s a temporary solution, because the long-term goal is to make significant cuts in the total amount of […]
Settlement agreement tackles water pollution caused by farming practices (2/1/2021) - As part of a legal settlement, state officials have agreed to develop “best management practices” for agricultural operations, while encouraging Washington farmers to take actions to improve water quality in streams and bays. The agreement, which includes provisions for stream buffers, was approved by the Washington Department of Ecology and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Signed by a judge, the agreement effectively ends a four-year lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates, which accused the agencies of violating the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit alleged that […]
Puget Sound Partnership proposing ‘Desired Outcomes’ for ongoing ecosystem recovery (1/20/2021) - Puget Sound Action Agenda, often referred to as Puget Sound Partnership’s blueprint for ecological recovery, continues to evolve. The next Action Agenda — scheduled to go into effect a year from now — will incorporate an expanded long-range vision for Puget Sound, complete with broad-based strategies, not just near-term actions. “Desired Outcomes,” the first major component of the next Action Agenda, will be unveiled tomorrow (Thursday) before the Ecosystem Coordination Board, the wide-ranging, 27-member committee that advises the Leadership Council in its recovery oversight and strategic planning. A live video […]
Repairs of bulkheads, docks and other structures now involve habitat assessment (1/14/2021) - In a major policy shift by federal authorities, waterfront maintenance and reconstruction projects are undergoing increased scrutiny — not only for their environmental impacts during and after construction but for effects that ripple through time. The change, imposed by NOAA Fisheries to protect threatened and endangered species, requires compensation for environmental damage calculated over the life of a shoreline structure. So compensation comes into play even where a structure is merely replacing an old one. Previously, in most cases, the agency did not require environmental compensation for repair and replacement […]
Hotly debated national permit for shellfish farms could be passed to Biden administration (12/31/2020) - Legal protections for marine shorelines, streams and wetlands could be revised just before President Trump leaves office, as the Army Corps of Engineers updates 52 “nationwide permits” that allow for a variety of water-related projects. Of particular interest in Washington state is a nationwide permit proposed for shellfish farms that would, purportedly, help to resolve an ongoing court battle over the effects of aquaculture on the shoreline environment. In June, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik invalidated permits for an estimated 900 shellfish farms, saying the environmental impacts had not been […]
New video focuses on salmon lifestyles in an ongoing series called “Tales of the Sound” (12/24/2020) - For newcomers to the Puget Sound region — or anyone who wishes to learn about salmon — check out the new video by my friend and former colleague Josh Farley of the Kitsap Sun. Like many print journalists who have expanded into multimedia, Josh became recognized for his quick-hit news reports. Especially popular was his weekly video “Bremerton Beat Blast,” in which he counted down the top stories of the week in Kitsap County. Now, with a goal of going much deeper into regional topics, he has launched a new […]
Sunflower sea stars certified as ‘critically endangered’ by international organization (12/11/2020) - The magnificent sunflower sea stars, pushed to the edge of extinction by sea star wasting disease, have been declared a “critically endangered species” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The listing, announced yesterday, is supported by new studies that show a 90-percent decline in the overall population of sunflower stars. The species (Pycnopodia helianthoides) has been essentially wiped out in Oregon and California, with numbers greatly diminished from Puget Sound to Alaska. Ecologists say sea stars are a key component of the complex marine food web. Among other […]
Discovery of toxic chemical in tires spurs scientific and regulatory interest (12/4/2020) - The discovery of a mysterious chemical that kills coho salmon in urban streams is expected to spawn new research throughout the world while possibly inspiring new demands for protective regulations. The deadly chemical, associated with automobile tires, was identified by researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters, which is affiliated with the Puget Sound Institute. The findings were published yesterday in the journal “Science.” I wrote about this discovery and more than 20 years of related scientific investigations in PSI’s online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” “This is […]

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