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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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 […]
Young orca calves take part in fall excursions into South Puget Sound with their mothers (11/27/2020) - The two orca calves born to J pod in September are still alive and doing well, according to Mark Malleson of the Center for Whale Research, who spotted J pod on Monday near the Canadian city of Victoria. (Check out Mark’s encounter report.) This is good news, of course, for the highly endangered southern resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. But winter months still lie ahead, so we hope that they can find enough food to make it through their first winter, a challenging time […]
New online magazine focuses on the stories behind Puget Sound recovery efforts (11/13/2020) - “Making Waves,” a new online magazine from the Puget Sound Partnership, promises to bring us the stories behind the many efforts to protect and restore the Puget Sound ecosystem. The first issue of “Making Waves” — published this week — contains five stories. Jon Bridgman, communications manager, conceived of the magazine format and pushed the idea forward. “This was Jon’s brainchild; he believes in the power of storytelling,” said Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Partnership, a state agency created by the Legislature to coordinate the ongoing recovery of Puget […]
Copper is being phased out of brake pads to reduce harm to salmon, other creatures (11/6/2020) - Manufacturers of automobile parts are facing their first deadline for removing copper from brake pads. Most seem to be well prepared to meet the new requirements under Washington state law. In 2010, Washington was the first state in the nation to outlaw copper in brake pads, after scientists discovered that the metal can severely affect the behavior of salmon. California soon followed, and by 2015 the industry came together with a nationwide agreement to phase out copper in brake pads. By the end of this year, new brake pads must […]
Puget Sound Restoration Fund meets 10-year, 100-acre goal for restoring native oyster beds (10/30/2020) - A heartfelt congratulations goes out to Betsy Peabody, her staff at Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and the dozens of partner organizations working to restore our native Olympia oyster to Puget Sound. PSRF recently fulfilled its ambitious 10-year goal of enhancing habitat for the petite, succulent oysters across 100 acres of Puget Sound tidelands, establishing a foothold for future regeneration of even greater populations. I first met Betsy as the Olympia oyster project was getting off the ground in 1999. Her enthusiasm and vision for the future caused me to fall […]
Controversy flares up over proposed policy revisions for state salmon hatcheries (10/23/2020) - UPDATE: NOV. 10, 2020 Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is seeking comments on a slightly revised draft of a new Hatchery and Fishery Reform policy. For details, please read the news release issued yesterday. —- A state policy revision that could boost salmon production at fish hatcheries in Washington state has raised red flags among scientists and environmental groups worried about potential damage to wild salmon runs. The proposed hatchery policy (PDF 264 kb), under review by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, could derail a 20-year effort to implement […]
Minor bridge modifications could help young steelhead escape from Hood Canal (10/16/2020) - Help could be on the way for migrating steelhead and salmon in Hood Canal, where many young fish are killed each year by seals and other predators that lie in wait at the Hood Canal floating bridge. As many as 50 percent of the steelhead migrants perish as they arrive at the bridge, where predators pick them off one by one. The bridge is supported by floating concrete pontoons, forming a nearly solid barrier across the waterway. Young steelhead generally swim near the surface, making them especially vulnerable to predation, […]
Do we know enough to do anything about all the seals and sea lions in Puget Sound? (10/1/2020) - Scientists have known for years that Chinook salmon are important to southern resident orcas, but Chinook are not the only fish the whales eat. At the moment, chum salmon are returning to Puget Sound, and recent orca sightings suggest that the whales may now be feeding on chum. Harbor seals also eat Chinook salmon, but also chum, coho and other fish. They seem fond of smaller fish like herring and juvenile salmon. Oh, what a tangled food web we weave… Can we really say that seals are stealing the lunch […]
Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September (9/15/2020) - UPDATE, Oct. 6 The newest calf among the Southern Resident killer whales was officially designated J58 after being seen alive and healthy on Sunday. The calf is the offspring of J49, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, J51 or Nova. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had been withholding the official designation until CWR staffers could be sure the newborn had survived and was healthy. In Sunday’s encounter off San Juan Island, CWR staffers Dave Ellifrit and and Katie Jones reported, “Both J41 and […]
Western Washington avoids community-leveling conflagration — for now (9/8/2020) - Yesterday evening, high winds out of the east brought unwelcome smoke to the Puget Sound region. Living in the woods — which are very dry at this time — I became somewhat alarmed; I won’t deny it. This past spring, I wrote about the historic wildfires of Western Washington and the likelihood that climate change could bring massive destruction to thousands of homes built in wooded areas. I did not want to see an affirmation of my story’s title, “Fire danger returning to Western Washington.” Did we have the ingredients […]
A look at future ocean conditions and how they could affect coastal communities (9/3/2020) - Scientists tell us that climate change is probably increasing the frequency of extreme events, such as hurricanes, droughts and wildfires. As time goes on, we might expect even more dramatic shifts in the ecosystem, as some species move to more suitable locations and others die out. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing along the West Coast, has launched an effort to become more nimble and responsive to changing conditions with regard to estimating fish populations and approving sport and commercial fisheries. One effort is to describe how the […]

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