Water quality

Tag: Water quality

Ecology, EPA now under the gun to adopt new water quality criteria for aquatic creatures

Long delays in updating state water-quality standards to protect orcas, fish and other aquatic species appear to have finally caught up with the Washington Department of Ecology and its federal counterpart, the Environmental Protection Agency.
In a court ruling this week, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman of Seattle found that Ecology has “abdicated its duties” to update certain water-quality standards, as required by the federal Clean Water Act. Meanwhile, she said, EPA has failed to meet its legal oversight obligations to ensure that adequate water-quality standards are protective of aquatic creatures.
The lawsuit, brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates, followed a petition filed by the group in 2013 seeking to get EPA to revise Washington’s water quality standards for aquatic species. The petition followed years of delay by the state. The standards, including numeric aquatic life criteria, place limits on toxic chemicals found in the state’s waterways. It took four years, but EPA eventually denied the petition, refusing to make a determination about whether or not the state’s existing water quality standards were consistent with the Clean Water Act.
In its denial and later court pleadings, EPA stressed its desire to support Ecology’s efforts to update aquatic life criteria. Ecology had discussed the update and even proposed it as part of the agency’s 2015-2020 strategic plan, but the work was never started. EPA admitted that Washington’s aquatic life criteria had not been updated for most chemicals since 1992, even though formal reviews and updates are required every three years, noted Judge Pechman in her ruling.
The judge’s order, issued Wednesday, requires EPA to determine within 180 days if the state’s current water quality standards are consistent with the Clean Water Act or if they need to be revised. If they are determined to be inadequate, the act itself requires EPA to promptly promulgate new regulations — unless the state adopts acceptable standards in the meantime.
Ecology officials acknowledge that the agency has been slow to adopt new aquatic life criteria. In fact, the required three-year “triennial review” has not been conducted since 2010. Ecology currently is going through a new triennial review, and the agency’s draft work plan lists the update to aquatic life criteria as a priority over the next four years.
“We have not conducted a triennial review since 2010 because we were in continual rulemaking efforts for the water quality standards,” states the introduction to the draft work plan (PDF 494 kb).
No doubt Ecology dedicated a lot of time and effort to other water-quality rules the past decade. Much public attention — including a legislative battle — was focused on human exposures to toxic chemicals, as Ecology worked through the long development of new human health criteria. The discussions largely revolved around fish-consumption rates for people who eat a lot of fish, along with what was considered an allowable cancer risk.
In a controversial move after Ecology completed its work, EPA refused to accept some of the state’s human health criteria, imposing stronger restrictions than Ecology proposed. The criteria were later reversed by President Trump’s EPA. Even today, the issue is not yet resolved, with a revised rule in the works from EPA in the midst of a lawsuit. (See Ecology’s timeline along with other background.) I have been following these issues since their inception in 2010, including a 2015 article in the Kitsap Sun newspaper.
Some of the rule-making that Ecology says contributed to delays:

Since EPA is in charge of enforcing the provisions of the Clean Water Act, Judge Pechman focused her attention on EPA’s failure to take charge of the situation, other than to encourage Ecology to get moving on the aquatic life criteria:
“The CWA (Clean Water Act) operates on a principle of cooperative federalism where states take the lead in setting WQS (water quality standards) with the goal of eliminating pollutant discharge into navigable waters to protect and enhance human and aquatic life,” the judge wrote in her order (PDF 228 kb). “States must create WQS specific to aquatic life and review them every three years to determine whether new or revised standards are necessary.
“But while states play a lead role in setting WQS, EPA serves as a backstop,” she continued. “Not only does EPA have to review state-adopted WQS, but it must also ‘promptly prepare and publish’ new WQS for a state ‘in any case where the administrator determines that a revised or new standard is necessary to meet the requirements of this chapter.’…
“So while EPA wanted to ‘work in partnership to efficiently and effectively allocate resources to address pollution and accelerate state adoption of new and revised criteria,’ nothing in the record showed that Washington was a willing partner. And certainly nothing in the record supports EPA’s belief that inaction would be an efficient or effective way of ensuring adequate WQS or complying with the goals and requirements of the CWA.”
The judge calls out specific criteria that EPA has recommended for updates, based on scientific studies, including aquatic life criteria for ammonia and copper. She did not accept EPA’s excuse that Ecology may have higher priorities or that EPA lacks the resources to undertake the rulemaking.
“This wait-and-see approach appears particularly ill-conceived in light of EPA’s recognition that copper pollution has an ‘adverse impact on salmonids,’ whose health impacts ‘critically important and endangered species throughout the Pacific Northwest,’” she stated.
Pechman noted that the letter denying the petition for rule-making contains no explanation about how EPA was “marshaling its limited resources to protect Washington’s waters or why simply waiting for Washington to act would be reasonable to meet the CWA’s goals. This undermines EPA’s position.”
The judge also rejected EPA’s argument that the update to Washington’s human health criteria — a related set of standards — would protect aquatic life. She cited EPA’s own recommendations for copper, which are 1,200 micrograms per liter for humans but a maximum of 4.8 micrograms per liter for aquatic life. Under those recommendations, what is considered safe for humans is 250 times higher than what is considered safe for protecting salmon from acute toxicity. (Chronic levels are considered even lower for aquatic life.)
Further, the judge points out, EPA should not assume that its national recommendations would be adequate for the unique species of Washington state — “such as Puget Sound’s Southern Resident orcas who are some of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world due to bioaccumulation through the food stock, particularly through Chinook salmon.”
The judge ordered EPA to make a determination on the adequacy of the state’s aquatic life criteria within 180 days, but she agreed to allow additional time if EPA can provide “specific, detailed explanations of why additional time is necessary and what tasks remain to be performed.”
How that will mesh with Ecology’s time schedule is yet to be seen. Most relevant staffers with Ecology as well as EPA were out this week for the holiday. I will invite them to contribute comments, concerns and additional context when they return.
Ecology’s draft work plan covering the next four years does not lay out a specific timetable for adopting aquatic life criteria. The agency has taken comments on four possible approaches to adopting new water quality standards:

  • Option 1: Stagger three rule-making by group (metals, organics, non-priority)
  • Option 2: Stagger two rule-making by group (all metals, all organics)
  • Option 3: Rule-makings for different groups of chemicals based on highest priority
  • Option 4: Review and update all necessary criteria in one rule-making

In bringing its lawsuit, Northwest Environmental Advocates said Washington state has revised aquatic life criteria for some toxic chemicals since 1992, but many remain less protective than EPA’s recommended levels. For 14 chemicals, Washington has no aquatic life criteria at all, whereas EPA has established maximum levels in freshwater to avoid acute or chronic toxicity, according to NWEA. In saltwater, Washington has no criteria for 11 chemicals for which EPA provides recommended standards, the group says.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service have reviewed the adequacy of aquatic life criteria for the states of California, Oregon and Idaho. (USFWS covers freshwater species, while NMFS covers saltwater species.) For a number of chemicals, the agencies have found that criteria adopted by the states and approved by EPA are likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a threatened or endangered species, the so-called “jeopardy” finding.
To show that Washington’s standards are outdated, NWEA listed more than two dozen chemicals for which the state uses numeric criteria that are either higher or close to the levels found to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
“Levels of these and other toxic pollutants are among the reasons that EPA has long been concerned about the health of one of Washington’s most important waterbodies, Puget Sound,” states the legal complaint (PDF 490 kb). “EPA features the toxic contamination of Southern Resident killer whales, Pacific herring and harbor seals in Puget Sound on its website as evidence of its ongoing concerns about toxic pollution of Washington’s waters.”

Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview 2020

Science during the year of Covid: The Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview

While Covid restrictions remain a part of everyday life, a lot has eased since the global quarantines of spring 2020. During that time, the coronavirus effectively shut down scientific fieldwork in Puget Sound, leaving huge gaps in data for most facets of the ecosystem, from orcas to eelgrass.
Despite the lockdowns, a new report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program offers an assessment of marine conditions during 2020 and paints a surprisingly complete picture of the local environment at that time. This is the tenth year that the group has prepared an annual marine waters overview, and while the environmental conditions measured in 2020 may not have been particularly remarkable — they are described in the report as “somewhat typical in terms of Puget Sound water properties and biota” — the challenges for scientists were extraordinary and historic.
In some cases, during the pandemic, Puget Sound scientists risked their health to monitor endangered species or to conduct research deemed essential by state and federal agencies. Autonomous sampling devices and citizen volunteers also provided much-needed help as many scientists were grounded and research vessels were docked.
Much of this data has been compiled in the annual report, which the authors call “a tribute to the resilience of the scientists and institutions producing it.” Thanks to their efforts and those of dozens of scientists at agencies, tribes and other organizations, the Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview 2020 summarizes what we know about Puget Sound’s marine ecosystem during Covid Year One. The overview examines patterns and trends in numerous categories, including plankton, water quality, climate, and marine life. Technical summaries from the report are also used to inform the Puget Sound Vital Signs, a series of indicators of Puget Sound ecosystem health established by the Puget Sound Partnership.

The following highlights from the report were provided by the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program. The Puget Sound Institute assisted with the preparation of the report.
Conditions in Puget Sound were generally warmer, sunnier, and wetter in 2020 but not extreme. 

  • Coastal deep waters, source waters to the Salish Sea, were cooler than typical as recorded since 2014 and may have been influenced by La Nina conditions. Surface waters returned to near normal, signaling the end of the 2019 marine heat wave.
  • Though runoff and precipitation were somewhat above normal, salinity in Puget Sound was generally higher than average, suggesting that the longer period of upwelling of cool and salty waters had the predominant influence. Both Puget Sound’s temperature and salinity conditions during 2020 highlight the strong controlling influence of the coastal ocean on these inland waters
  • Seasonal phytoplankton blooms were evident in the Main Basin of Puget Sound, with diatoms predominating as usual in spring and transitioning to flagellates in summer.
  • Zooplankton were relatively typical across most of the Sound, but with higher abundance and biomass in northern Puget Sound and Padilla Bay. Species differences can influence the relationship between abundance and biomass. For example, modest abundance of a large oceanic copepod in the north Sound yielded high zooplankton biomass, while record high abundance of a smaller resident copepod in the south Sound resulted in relatively normal biomass.
  • Overall, there was a small increase in the number of beaches that met swimming standards in 2020 relative to 2019. The highest fecal bacteria concentrations occurred in September through December, associated with increased rainfall.

No fish kills or strong hypoxia events were reported.

  • Dissolved oxygen (DO), affected by phytoplankton and seawater processes, was not particularly high or low in 2020.
  • Some seasonal blooms and moderate hypoxia were seen in isolated areas like south Hood Canal, Quartermaster Harbor, and Port Susan.

Ocean acidification (OA) in Puget Sound waters continues as our understanding of patterns grows. 

  • Annual average atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) values over Hood Canal were high relative to globally averaged marine surface air, yet were at the same level as in 2019 rather than showing the expected annual increase, possibly reflecting reduced regional emissions due to COVID-19. West coast wildfires put a definite mark on conditions in September 2020, with reduced sunlight and increased atmospheric CO2 levels on the coast and in Puget Sound.

Biological responses to changing conditions vary – some good news, some bad. 

  • Zooplankton were relatively typical but with higher abundance and biomass in northern Puget Sound and Padilla Bay.
  • Pacific herring spawning biomass was highest since 1984, but driven by only two successful stocks, indicating a loss in diversity of the herring stock portfolio. 
  • Juvenile Puget Sound-origin Chinook migrating through the San Juan Islands have been eating less forage fish than in 2011-2014. 

Seabird abundance and species diversity were typical to low. An encouraging observation is that the rhinoceros auklet breeding effort and reproductive success that, after three consecutive years of anomalously poor conditions had returned to long-term average values in 2019, were stable in 2020.
Next year, the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program will begin compiling a summary of the marine conditions of 2021.

Washington’s Water Quality Assessment offers insights into status of pollution

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, which contains 65 million data entries, is managed by the Washington Department of Ecology. It is used to list polluted water bodies as “impaired” — designated Category 5 — if they fail to meet state water quality standards. If they are not so bad or data is insufficient, they may be listed in categories from 1 to 4.

Washington’s Water Quality Assessment, required under the federal Clean Water Act, is one of the most extensive assessments produced by any state in the nation, according to Ecology officials. The data can be a guiding light for pollution-reduction and habitat-improvement projects. It also reveals gaps in knowledge about problems that may be causing a decline in fish, wildlife or aquatic vegetation.
While the database contains a mind-boggling amount of information, the data cover only 13 percent of identified stream miles, 21 percent of the total marine area, and 10 percent of the lakes in the state, according to figures provided by Jeremy Reiman, water quality assessment scientist for Ecology. As such, they are not a good indicator of trends, especially when considering that water-quality standards themselves change over time, he said.
The data are more like a snapshot of conditions at a given point in time, but the good news is that more than 100 listings of polluted waters have been upgraded to clean after meeting water-quality standards. Much of the improvement can be attributed to water cleanup efforts involving state, local and tribal officials working with local residents and business owners.
The most common water-quality problems are elevated water temperatures, which have direct impacts on salmon, and high bacterial levels, which can threaten human health and force closure of shellfish beds. Combined, those two problems make up more than half of all the impaired listings. Other problems include low dissolved oxygen levels and excessive contamination from a list of more than 100 toxic chemicals.
Data are collected by Ecology staffers; federal, state and local agencies; tribes; and anyone who receives state grants to work on water-quality issues. Others can submit data, provided it meets specific quality controls.
Ecology will be taking comments on the water quality assessment until June 4. For information, go to the Water Quality Assessment webpage. Those who would like more information on the document and the overall process can sign up for an April 20 webinar from that page.

Ecology’s Water Quality Atlas allows a search for water bodies using many search criteria.

If you would like to jump right in, a good starting point with the Water Quality Atlas is to click on “add/remove map data” at the top of the page, select the first box “assessed water/sediment” and hit “go.” Then go to “Zoom” at the top of the page, type in an address in the left column and hit “go.” From there, one can use “+/-“ to zoom out until you see water bodies. Click on those elements to reveal available information.
Instead of using an address, you can name a stream, lake or marine region under the heading “map area” in the left column and type in a name, selecting from the drop-down menu. That section also includes options for cities, counties, highways and more. The map and its data have grown more sophisticated over time, and there are plenty of things to review.
One of the new features is demographic information from the U.S. Census, connecting a water body with information such as income, education and language proficiency of people in the area. Ecology and others can use the information to make sure they are focused on environmental justice issues while setting priorities.
Since the last Water Quality Assessment in 2016, 11 cleanup plans have been approved by Ecology for one or more water-quality problems. These plans are nicknamed TMDLs, because they include limitations on pollution from different sources, spelled out as “total maximum daily loads.” New TMDLs for Puget Sound include the Pilchuck River in Snohomish County, the South Fork of the Nooksack River in Whatcom County, and Padilla Bay in Skagit County.
For a variety of streams in Kitsap County, Ecology has proposed an alternative process called “straight to implementation” instead of state-managed investigations and cleanup plans. This proposal is the result of Kitsap’s 30-year history of monitoring for bacterial problems, tracking down sources of pollution and correcting the problems. See Water Quality Assessment Submittal to EPA (1.4 mb), which includes streams in other areas as well.
Kitsap’s Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program, managed by the Kitsap Public Health District, has been tried successfully in other counties, some with the help of federal funding. So far, only Kitsap and a few other counties have an aggressive, ongoing, fully funded program in place. Check out Kitsap’s numerous water-quality reports.
“Kitsap has a very disciplined and focused effort,” noted Melissa Gildersleeve, watershed management supervisor for Ecology, adding that the health district enforces locally adopted ordinances to ensure cleanup in those rare cases when voluntary actions are not successful.
Ecology has designated 20 watersheds all over the state for high-priority cleanup, including eight in the Puget Sound region: Greater Key Peninsula, Lower Skagit Tributaries, South Skagit Bay, Snohomish Basin, Lower Nooksack River, Drayton Harbor, Samish River and Samish Bay and Whatcom Creek.
The number of water-quality listings by category in the latest assessment. Toxics numbers are high because many chemicals can be tested from a single sample. Category 1: meets standard; Category 2: waters of concern; Category 3: insufficient data; Category 4: has a plan; Category 5: “impaired” and on 303(d) list. Table: Washington Department of Ecology

New sewage-treatment permit would be a step to curbing nitrogen in Puget Sound

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 nitrogen going into Puget Sound.

Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Nitrogen, as we’ve discussed many times, is a major problem for Puget Sound. This so-called nutrient feeds the growth of plankton, which die and decay, consuming oxygen during the process. Low oxygen levels are a serious problem for fish and many other marine creatures, particularly in southern Hood Canal as well as several bays in South Puget Sound.
Sewage treatment plants have been found to be a significant source of nitrogen, thanks to findings from an elaborate computer simulation called the Salish Sea Model. The model, now housed at the Puget Sound Institute, describes the effects of nitrogen throughout Puget Sound based on the amount and location of nitrogen inputs, the size and shape of the waterway and currents created by tides and rivers. For a description of the problem, check out the overview in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which also features a variety of focused articles addressing the issue.
The Salish Sea Model has revealed that nitrogen from sewage-treatment plants can create much more than localized water-quality problems. For example, large amounts of nitrogen from treatment plants in Seattle and Tacoma can be pushed by currents into South Puget Sound. There, the resulting low-oxygen levels create adverse effects in the inlets and shallow bays, which look like crooked fingers on a map.
One goal of the modeling effort is to calculate how much nitrogen can go into different parts of Puget Sound without triggering water-quality violations. Once these amounts of nitrogen are determined, actual limits can be calculated and theoretically imposed on the effluent coming out of each treatment plant. But those findings are not expected before 2023. See Puget Sound Nutrient Reduction Project.
The nutrient general permit for sewage-treatment plants would be separate from existing wastewater permits for each plant. While perhaps not as enforceable as strict numerical limits, the proposed “action levels” for each treatment plant in the general permit could be a first step in turning things around, according to members of an advisory committee helping to draft the new permit.
“We needed to get some kind of backstop,” said Mindy Roberts of Washington Environmental Council and a member of the advisory committee. “This permit has a kind of reasonable bound to it. Having said that, we are 20 years into this kind of assessment.”
It is obvious that something must be done, she said, because the Puget Sound ecosystem is already suffering from excess nitrogen. See the advisory committee’s 12-page summary of discussions (PDF 372 kb).
What to do about nitrogen pollution seems to have a lot of people tied in knots. Operators of many sewage-treatment plants are saying they need to see more scientific data before they commit to making upgrades to their plants. Total costs could amount to billions of dollars for the region.
In December, the city of Tacoma and four other sewer utilities filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court. They allege that the Department of Ecology effectively changed the state’s water-quality standards for dissolved oxygen through the use of computer modeling but without going through required rule-making procedures. The case is a first volley in what could be ongoing legal challenges to proposed controls on nitrogen. Other parties to the case are Birch Bay Water and Sewer District, Kitsap County, Southwest Suburban Sewer District, and Alderwood Water and Wastewater District.
Meanwhile, the environmental group Northwest Environmental Advocates is continuing to pursue its lawsuit, now on appeal. The lawsuit is designed to force the Department of Ecology to require upgrades to sewage-treatment plants that don’t already reduce nitrogen through tertiary treatment. Under a 1945 state law, state regulators must demand “the use of all known, available and reasonable (technology) … to prevent and control the pollution of the waters of the state of Washington.” This is the so-called AKART law.
Thurston County Superior Court rejected the arguments of NWEA. The ruling supported Ecology’s argument that a broad requirement for expensive treatment technology would not be “reasonable” under the law. Check out the appeal briefs by NWEA (PDF 1.1 mb) and by Ecology (PDF 2.3 mb). See also the first Water Ways post I wrote on this issue, Jan. 31, 2019.
As proposed in a “conceptual” draft (PDF 708 kb), the nutrient general permit would apply to the majority of sewage-treatment plants in the Puget Sound region and would go into effect for all at the same time. Ecology proposes to exclude 26 treatment plants that discharge into rivers, nine privately owned plants, all facilities on federal and tribal lands, and industrial operations. These various exclusions could be covered with nitrogen controls through other types of permitting.
The general permit establishes two action levels. The baseline level is roughly equivalent to the treatment plant’s current annual release of nitrogen. A second level, 5 percent higher than the baseline, allows for additional growth for plants where Ecology has already approved higher design capacities.
The draft permit calls for an “optimization framework,” in which treatment plant operators must implement low-cost measures to reduce nitrogen and then measure the outcomes. Operators would be allowed to customize their actions to suit their own plants, but they would need to share their successes and failures with Ecology and other operators. These low-cost actions, called Tier 1, could include adjustments to flow rates, aeration patterns and treatment cycles.
Tier-2 actions would be triggered when the baseline level of nitrogen is exceeded at the end of an operational year. Actions could include the purchase of new equipment, changes in piping configurations and the addition of one or more chemicals to reduce nitrogen.
Tier-3 actions would be triggered when a facility exceeds the higher (+5%) action level. These actions, which would be approved by Ecology in advance, could include more extensive operational changes, treatment process upgrades, and planning for advanced treatment such that design and construction would start as soon as formal effluent limits are established.
“We’re not proposing to require major infrastructure investments in the first five-year permit,” said Ecology spokeswoman Colleen Keltz in a blog post. “Depending on the current capabilities of each (treatment plant) and their community’s plans for growth and development, they will have a reasonable amount of time to plan appropriate upgrades or other improvements while remaining in compliance with their permits.”
Some 14 plants already remove nitrogen to some degree, with their nitrogen concentrations averaging below 10 milligrams per liter. Under the proposed permit, those 14 would not be subject to Tier 1 or Tier 2 actions but would still be expected to undergo low-cost optimization.
The general permit also calls for expanded monitoring of nitrogen and other constituents of sewage, as well as extensive planning and scientific studies at both facility and regional levels. The ultimate goal, according to Ecology, is to figure out the most effective ways to reduce nitrogen to improve water quality in Puget Sound and meet state standards for dissolved oxygen.
The comment period for the informal draft permit runs until March 15. (See comment form.) After that, the draft will be revised and resubmitted as a formal document with public hearings, written comments and official responses.
Meanwhile, the advisory committee continues to discuss the permit and related issues. For documents and meeting schedules, go to the committee’s EZ View page.
As discussions continue, Gov. Jay Inslee has submitted a $9-million funding request to implement the general permit as part of his overall budget to the Legislature. The money would be used to help the affected treatment plants develop plans and finance small nitrogen-reduction projects.
Related efforts:

Ecology’s story map on nitrogen. Click on the image to launch the page.
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Are some streams in Puget Sound getting cleaner?

Scientists are reporting some potentially good news about the health of Puget Sound’s streams. Ten years of data from 126 stream sites within King County have shown a slight improvement in water quality, according to the county’s Water and Land Resource Division.
The study examined the variety of insects and other invertebrates that were collected from stream sediments. Twenty-one percent of the streams showed an increase in sensitive stream bugs in 2019, earning them a higher score on what is known as the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI for short. B-IBI scores for 79% of the additional study sites remained stable, according to King County.
The index is based on the concept that the healthier a stream is, the more invertebrates it will support. Streams are given a score from 0 to 100 based on the number of invertebrates found in a sample, with higher scores given when especially sensitive invertebrates are found that might not survive in certain polluted conditions.
Not all the news was good as more than half the stream sites scored from “fair” to “very poor,” but scientists call the marginal improvement unexpected because it comes at a time when urban development is increasing and putting more strains on the environment.
“It was quite surprising when you consider the overall trend toward increasing urbanization,” says Kate Macneale, an environmental scientist at King County involved with the studies. Scientists were expecting to see fewer bugs due to pollution from stormwater runoff and other sources that find their way into streams, she said.
“We joke that nobody has spent more time trying to figure out what is wrong with their dataset,“ Macneale said.
Does this mean cleanup efforts are starting to show results?
“We don’t know for sure,” but the trends are welcome, says Macneale. An October 2018 fact sheet about the studies describes similar results last year and says scientists are “cautiously optimistic” about the findings.
You can read more about B-IBI on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. The Puget Sound Partnership has designated B-IBI as an indicator of stream health throughout Puget Sound.
— Jeff Rice, Puget Sound Institute

Screenshot from video.

Video: Identifying sources of pollution in the Skagit Valley

A video produced by the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters shows how chemical tracers can identify sources of pollution affecting shellfish growers in Puget Sound’s Skagit Valley.
Fecal coliform pollution is a widespread problem in Puget Sound, resulting in costly beach and shellfish bed closures whenever it is detected. Analytical techniques can now reveal whether polluted water came from humans or livestock, an often contentious issue when cleaning up contaminants. If scientists can find traces of chemicals such as caffeine or cough syrup, they know to look for human sources. In other cases, the presence of certain antibiotics might suggest that the source was livestock.
PSI senior scientist Andy James is leading a project to conduct this analysis in Samish Bay in collaboration with Skagit County Public Works. Funding for the research was provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

An algae bloom covers a huge section of Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Puget Sound’s growing nutrient problem

By Jeff Rice, Puget Sound Institute
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.

New project searches for contaminants of emerging concern

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’s 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.

New project searches for contaminants of emerging concern

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’s 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.

Healthy stream, healthy bugs

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Many groups have been formed around the goal of saving salmon, but few people talk about a concerted effort to save microscopic creatures. Whether or not a pro-bug movement catches on, future strategies to save salmon are likely to incorporate ideas for restoring streambound creatures known as benthic invertebrates. Read our latest story in Salish Sea Currents.