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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Does the public have a right to walk across a private beach? The answer is still unresolved (8/21/2020) - Even before Washington became a state in 1889, Puget Sound beaches had been exploited as log dumps, farmed for shellfish, occupied as homesites and enjoyed for recreation. But today, after 131 years of statehood, residents of this region still don’t know if they have a legal right to walk across a privately owned beach at low tide. That’s because neither the Washington State Supreme Court nor the Legislature has ever clearly spelled out the limits of the Public Trust Doctrine — an ancient legal principle that provides for common citizens […]
Art contests help to carry the clean-water message to people around Puget Sound (8/8/2020) - I’m impressed with artists who combine their passion for nature with a message about protecting the environment and how we all have a role to play. This week, I’d like to share winning artwork from two recent contests. One is a poster competition inspired by the “We are Puget Sound” (Water Ways) book and campaign. The other is a project that involves placing whimsical pictures of sea life on storm drains in Kitsap County. The “We are Puget Sound” poster contest, which received dozens of entries from King County residents, […]
Safe hiking and other outdoors activities could improve mental health in pandemic (8/3/2020) - Outside seems to be the answer, in more ways than one. Virologists tell us that, aside from isolation, we are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 if we go outdoors and stay away from crowds. Psychologists have known for decades that getting out in nature can improve our mental health, something that many of us need at this time. Taking a hike can be a great cure for cabin fever. But to maintain safety in a pandemic, we must be careful not rush out to the most popular locations […]
BPA debate rages, while state program seeks safer chemicals for many common products (7/24/2020) - Ongoing findings about the chemical Bisphenol A has further inflamed a debate about whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is adequately protecting people’s health when it comes to products containing BPA. Meanwhile, a year-old state program, called Safer Products for Washington, may avoid some of the regulatory pitfalls people are seeing at the FDA by simply asking whether safer chemicals are available and whether it would be reasonable to use them instead. BPA, which can disrupt normal hormonal function, has been a concern of mine since 2008, when I […]
‘Outdoors Act’ would repair national parks, protect land and address recreation needs (7/10/2020) - UPDATE: July 23 The Great American Outdoors Act passed the House yesterday on a 310-107 vote. See Associated Press and news release from U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. —– It appears that the political stars are lining up for what some people are calling the most significant environmental legislation in decades. Billions of dollars have been laid upon the table for parks, recreation facilities and environmentally sensitive lands across the country. The U.S. Senate has already passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which pairs two previous spending proposals: the […]
Absent orcas: Most of the whales simply are not around to be counted at this time (7/2/2020) - UPDATE, JULY 3: Two new reports worth checking out: Center for Whale Research Encounter #31 Orca Network Whale Sighting Report, July 2 —– “So far, no new babies to report.” That’s the latest word from Ken Balcomb regarding the southern resident orcas, the three pods of endangered whales that once frequented Puget Sound but lately seem hard to find. July 1 marks the date of the annual killer whale census, a project carried out by Ken and his fellow researchers at the Center for Whale Research. Each year, Ken accounts […]
State officials scramble to protect streams and wetlands in wake of federal rule (6/24/2020) - Federal protections for millions of small streams and wetlands across the country were eliminated on Monday, following an unsuccessful legal effort to block new regulations that redefine “waters of the United States.” Officials with the Washington Department of Ecology are scrambling to make sure that nobody proceeds to fill wetlands or damage waterways, now protected solely by state law. A major concern is the potential need for many more staffers to write permits and enforce state water-quality laws, according to Curt Hart, spokesman for Ecology. “We’re still in the process […]
Everything counts when helping young salmon survive their risky journey to the sea (6/16/2020) - When considering the amazing migration of salmon, we often talk about their long journey from the ocean, guided by smell, to the very stream where they first emerged from the gravel. But if we’re talking about salmon recovery — such as avoiding extinction for Puget Sound Chinook — we must focus equally on the first leg of their journey — from stream to ocean. That’s when vulnerable young fish die by the millions. The survival rate for juvenile salmon depends to a large extent on the physical condition of the […]
Funding for Puget Sound projects envisioned as part of a national stimulus package (6/8/2020) - Puget Sound recovery efforts could get a boost from a newly proposed five-year, $494-billion economic stimulus package, according to U.S. Reps. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. The two Washington congressmen, known for their efforts to help restore the Puget Sound ecosystem, spoke online Friday to more than 160 people during the first Virtual Puget Sound Days on the Hill forum. The event was sponsored by the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency coordinating the recovery of Puget Sound. While the bill’s future is uncertain, this so-called “Invest in […]
Hornets, crabs and rodents: setting traps to locate and contain invasive species (6/5/2020) - While media reports were raising alarms about an invasion of dangerous “murder hornets,” Washington state entomologists were quietly planning a trapping program, which will mark the beginning of a search-and-destroy mission against the Asian giant hornets. Trapping has become a primary tool in the early detection of invasive species. Traps are often used to control or reduce breeding populations of destructive pests — from insects such as the gypsy moth to rodents such as nutria to aquatic organisms such as the European green crab. Officials with the Washington Department of […]
‘Days on the Hill’ will go online this year, widening audience for Puget Sound talks (5/29/2020) - Folks who care about salmon, killer whales and the Puget Sound ecosystem will get a chance to participate in the annual discussion known as Puget Sound Day on the Hill. But this year the event will be called “2020 Virtual Puget Sound Days on the Hill,” as the talks go online. Online meetings with Washington’s congressional lawmakers will be held each Friday in June. Putting the meetings online will allow anyone interested to listen to the discussion, which generally focuses on upcoming legislation and funding for Puget Sound. Loved by […]
Western Washington wildfire: What are we facing this year and beyond? (5/22/2020) - Trying to predict the likelihood that Western Washington will be scorched with severe forest fires this summer must be an overwhelming job for our region’s meteorologists. In the midst of a pandemic, fire managers and fire crews desperately would like to know what kinds of fire conditions they will face this year, not only in Western Washington but wherever they might be sent. Will firefighters be able to ward off the COVID-19 disease as they battle one blaze after another? How many times might they be called out to fight […]
New steelhead strategy would include increased fishing and more hatcheries (5/15/2020) - Strategies to keep steelhead fishing alive while restoring steelhead populations to rivers in Puget Sound are spelled out in the “Quicksilver Portfolio” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document unveiled today before the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. After three years of study, the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group announced that it was ready to solicit public and political support for an experimental approach that includes monitoring the effects of fishing and increased hatchery production as part of a steelhead-recovery effort. “Together, we can conserve wild steelhead, restore fishing opportunities, provide economic […]
Young artists show creativity in a plea to reduce harmful trash in the ocean (5/7/2020) - Student artists from across the country are calling attention to the hazards of human trash that washes into the ocean, killing sea creatures large and small. Each year, hundreds of young artists submit colorful drawings and paintings in the annual Marine Debris Art Contest, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. I’ve selected a few of my favorite pictures for this page, including one from a young Seattle artist, but you can see all 13 winning entries on the Art Contest Winners page. To enlarge, click […]
Washington has received big money from federal wetlands grants program (5/1/2020) - A little-known funding program to protect and restore coastal wetlands across the United States has been very, very good for Washington state. Over the past five years, Washington state has received $26.9 million to purchase and restore wetland properties as part of the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program. That’s a surprising 28 percent of the $95 million made available to 20 states situated along the U.S. coasts and Great Lakes. Not only has Washington state received more money than any other state every year for the past five years, […]
Warm-water ‘blobs’ significantly diminish salmon, other fish populations, study says (4/25/2020) - It’s no secret that salmon and other Northwest fish populations are expected to shrink as a result of a warming Pacific Ocean. But a new study suggests that the resulting decline in commercial fishing by 2050 could be twice as great as previously estimated by climate scientists. The higher estimates of population declines were calculated by researchers at the University of British Columbia, who took into account occasional “marine heat waves” that can play havoc with the ecosystem. A recent example is the warm-water event known as the “blob,” which […]
Earth Day events go online because of virus (4/17/2020) - Canceled! Canceled! Canceled! Participants in this year’s Earth Day activities won’t be rallying in large groups, participating in environmental festivals or coming together to clean up the Earth. On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — Wednesday of next week — the environmental movement will be uniquely digital, with many people celebrating from their home computers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, this year’s Earth Day was being promoted as the “largest environmental mobilization in history,” as Forbes magazine trumpeted in a headline. Millions of people were being mobilized. Now […]
Salmon expeditions challenge old beliefs (4/9/2020) - Long-held assumptions about where salmon go during their years of swimming in the Pacific Ocean may need to be revised, according to Dick Beamish, a Canadian salmon researcher who helped organize two scientific expeditions into the Pacific Ocean. For example, sockeye salmon have been caught in nets farther south than conventional wisdom would suggest, Beamish said, while fishing was hit-and-miss in the same area at different times, suggesting that pink and chum salmon were schooling more than expected. The second International Gulf of Alaska Salmon Expedition ended Tuesday after nearly […]
Time to spare? Why not conduct some real online research to advance science (4/2/2020) - If you are looking for something constructive to do in this stay-at-home period of our lives, I might suggest joining a team of scientists conducting real online research. Zooniverse, a clearinghouse of about 100 active crowd-sourced science projects, has added educational materials for all age groups. Students learning at home can assist professional researchers as they seek answers to real scientific questions. For a few other stay-at-home ideas, skip to the bottom of this page. One interesting Zooniverse project is “Penguin Watch,” in which citizen scientists are asked to look […]
Sewer operators worry that toilet paper shortage will lead to more nasty clogs (3/19/2020) - With a multitude of people scrambling to buy toilet paper, and some going without, sewer utility officials across the country are worried about the possible repercussions of the TP shortage — such as clogged sewer lines. Toilet paper and wipes of all kinds have become the subject of a complex, wide-ranging and controversial debate. The issue was even argued this year in the Washington Legislature. But for hard-working public employees who clean out the sewers, the bottom line is simple: DON’T FLUSH ANYTHING BUT TOILET PAPER (unless it’s human waste, […]
Second Pacific salmon expedition gets a chance to see the effects of cooler water (3/11/2020) - A second research cruise to study the winter travels of salmon in the Pacific Ocean got underway today, when 12 scientists from three countries left Victoria, B.C., aboard the trawler Pacific Legacy. Researchers say they have learned a great deal from the first salmon cruise a year ago, when 21 scientists from five countries ventured out into the Pacific to take samples of fish and other marine life. The samples are being shared with dozens of biologists trying to piece together the complex food web that supports five species of […]
Virus related to measles could push Puget Sound orcas to extinction, study says (3/9/2020) - Researchers studying the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are growing increasingly concerned that a dangerous virus or other disease-causing organism could spread through the population and hasten extinction of these critically endangered southern resident orcas. Without dramatic changes to their environment, extinction is already considered the likely future for the southern residents, as they continue to face shortages of food, high levels of chemical contamination and stress from the noise around them. Their numbers have declined from 98 animals in 1995 to 72 today. New research suggests that extinction […]
Harvest managers setting this year’s salmon seasons struggle to find ways to help orcas (3/7/2020) - As state, tribal and federal salmon managers work together to establish this year’s fishing seasons, they have not forgotten about the needs of Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales. In fact, new documents related to the southern resident orcas describe an investigation looking to find ways to reduce fisheries at certain times and locations that might get the whales more food. And yet it appears that nobody has figured out a way to help the whales by reducing salmon fishing. Annual negotiations to establish seasons and quotas for commercial, tribal and […]
Shoreline armoring in Puget Sound gets new scrutiny from the Army Corps of Engineers (2/25/2020) - Shoreline bulkheads, which can damage beaches and destroy fish habitat, could come under more extensive review and permitting as the result of a revised shoreline policy announced last week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The revised policy (PDF 163 kb), which resulted from a federal lawsuit, now requires a Corps of Engineers permit for shoreline construction below the high-tide line. The previous line of jurisdiction was lower on the beach, effectively exempting most shoreline armoring from federal permits. One of the key results of the policy change is […]
New fishing rules increase limits on warm-water fish to indirectly help orcas (2/20/2020) - In an effort to protect young salmon from predation, new fishing rules will allow anglers to double their catch of some warm-water predatory fish found in 77 lakes across Washington state. Reducing the population of salmon-eating bass, catfish and walleye is one of many ideas promoted by the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which considered various strategies for increasing the number of Chinook salmon. Declining numbers of Chinook — a primary prey of the endangered orcas — is considered a leading cause of the dwindling population of southern resident […]
New report describes anticipated climate-change effects in Washington state (2/6/2020) - Early effects of a warming Earth have reached Washington state, as we can see from actual measurements. Annual snowpack is declining in the mountains; ancient glaciers are shrinking; sea levels are rising; and coastal waters are becoming less hospitable to sea life. These are some of the changes outlined in a new easy-to-read briefing report titled “Shifting Snowlines and Shorelines” by the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. The report is designed to bring a clear message to leaders and citizens of Washington state regarding where we have […]
Missing orca named ‘Mega’ lived a long, productive life, says Ken Balcomb (1/30/2020) - A 43-year-old male orca named Mega, now missing and presumed dead, was one of the first new calves that researcher Ken Balcomb spotted when he began his extensive census of Southern Resident killer whales back in 1976. Ken didn’t know it at the time, but the baby orca — one of nine born in 1977 — would grow to become a large, powerful whale, living up to his name by fathering at least 20 offspring of his own. Designated L41, Mega was around throughout Ken’s career at the Center for […]
How air pollution becomes water pollution with long-term effects on Puget Sound (1/29/2020) - When thinking of air pollution, I used to think only of breathing toxic chemicals into our lungs, with uncertain health effects. That’s bad enough, but air pollution — which is everywhere — is also getting into our waterways and penetrating deep into our food webs. Rivers, lakes and Puget Sound, no body of water escapes toxic chemicals dropping out of the sky. Until recently, I never gave much thought to the chemicals riding on air currents, secretly falling to the ground, especially during rainstorms. I began to look at the […]
Partnership explores revised measures of Puget Sound health, as 2020 deadline arrives (1/22/2020) - It is the year 2020. You could say that the time has run out for restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition. But time marches on. When the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership in 2007, lawmakers included this sentence in state law: “It is the goal of the state that the health of Puget Sound be restored by 2020.” The Partnership then proceeded to establish “Vital Signs indicators” to measure progress along the path to restoration, along with “targets” that describe the conditions that should be observed by 2020. […]
Sharing info, as changes in ocean chemistry affect Northwest waters at alarming pace (1/13/2020) - It was fairly alarming, even to scientists, to hear the latest research regarding ocean acidification — a powerful change in ocean chemistry that results from excess carbon dioxide passing from the atmosphere into the oceans of the world. One of the most alarming reports came from Richard Feely, senior scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. Dick talked about how changes in ocean chemistry will soon accelerate, with damaging consequences, as the ocean’s buffering capacity begins to break down. It’s all a bit technical, but I worked carefully […]

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