Puget Sound's future in peril

August 6, 2006 

From a distance, Puget Sound shimmers pristine blue in the sunlight, framed by beaches that look clean and inviting.

That's the public's perception, according to a recent survey of Puget Sound residents.

But the facts tell a different story - one of decline and potential disaster:

• Five species of Puget Sound salmon and the orca are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Overall, 1,000 Puget Sound species are in decline.

"There's no steelhead and no wild coho salmon anymore," lamented Nisqually tribal elder Billy Frank Jr., executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "And the orca whale - he's starving to death."

• Hood Canal's dead zone of low oxygen levels from pollution is getting worse. Fish kills are a fact of life. Scientists say South Sound could be next in the battle against too many nutrients entering the water, promoting algal blooms and robbing the water of oxygen vital to marine life.

• More than 5,700 acres of aquatic land is polluted beyond safety standards, and 30,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds have been closed to harvest since 1980. The culprits are pollution from industry, failing septic tanks, stormwater runoff and the like.

• Almost 70 percent of Puget Sound's vital river estuaries - where the rivers meet saltwater and provide nurseries for salmon - are encroached upon by housing developments or used by industry.

• And perhaps most ominous, one million additional people are expected to join the 4 million already here by 2025, a growth rate that intensifies every Puget Sound problem and adds complexity to every proposed solution.

What ails Puget Sound - and the consequences of inaction - is so serious that Gov. Chris Gregoire has launched a Puget Sound Initiative, a massive cleanup effort to rejuvenate the Sound by 2020.

"We've gathered the troops together to clean up Puget Sound," Gregoire said of her 17-member public and private work party of regional leaders known as the Puget Sound Partnership. "We need a fresh, new look to get something done, and we better do it now."

It will be a daunting task.

A survey by The Olympian of more than 50 regional leaders and readers suggests that the project - one of the most ambitious environmental restorations in the nation - won't be easy, could fail and will definitely still be a work in progress in 2020.

Success will require lifestyle and land-use changes, major investments in stormwater and wastewater controls, public and political will that will be tested at every turn, massive habitat restoration projects and more money.

"Will the Sound be completely cleaned and restored by 2020? Probably not," said Jeff Koenings, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But it is important to set a goal and get a sense of urgency, because Puget Sound is at a tipping point. We have to start cleaning it up now to change the downward slide."

Gregoire wants the partnership to develop an action plan to make Puget Sound safer for fishing, swimming and digging shellfish by 2020. Two other important goals are ensuring that there are no additional endangered species listings and that more habitat is restored than lost, she said in a recent interview with The Olympian.

Most of the leaders and readers interviewed said it's possible to make Puget Sound cleaner and healthier by 2020, but the work will never be complete.

"Cleanup is such a relative term," said John Calambokidis, an Olympia-based research biologist who has studied Puget Sound whales and harbor seals for 27 years. "There is a lot that can be done, but there will still be contaminants and problems that will exist in 2020, no matter what is done."

State Department of Ecology Director Jay Manning agreed. "It's absolutely possible, but it won't happen unless we take the task seriously. It will require lifestyle changes and economic changes, and the job will never be complete."

The Olympian's readers share the sense of urgency, tempered with skepticism based on the track record to date - 20 years of a state-directed Puget Sound cleanup that measures success by slowing down the decline.

"I honestly believe we can clean up Puget Sound," said Olympia resident Doris Hensel. "It depends on the clout of the people in government who are willing to lead, and the initiative of most of us to take part in the effort."

More people,more problems

Population growth is the No. 1 challenge facing Puget Sound cleanup. Some of the leaders and readers surveyed by The Olympian said it will be the nail in Puget Sound's coffin.

The population in the Puget Sound basin is expected to top 5 million people in 2020, about 1 million more than live here today. It's a growth rate with no end in sight.

"We can't add another one or two million people and expect to restore Puget Sound - it ain't going to work," said Frank, who also serves on the Puget Sound Partnership. "We can't even move on the freeway, let alone save Puget Sound."

People don't want to change their lifestyles or limit growth, said Sam Wright, an Olympia fisheries biologist who wrote the report that prompted the federal government to propose listing Puget Sound steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.

"I think it's just a political story," Wright said of Gregoire's Puget Sound Initiative. "I haven't seen anything to change the trends that are going on. It's just that everything is increasing: stormwater runoff, beach development - the whole landscape management. More of every pollutant you can think of is running into the Sound."

"The population numbers are a little scary," agreed Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound and a member of the partnership. "But if we develop in a greener way and go back into the developed areas and replace the aging stormwater and sewer system, it could be done."

"I think we can grow that much and still clean up Puget Sound," said Mike Zittel, a lifelong South Sound resident and owner of Zittel's Marina near Johnson Point.

The key will be improved technologies to control pollution from stormwater, septic systems and wastewater treatment plants, and reduced use of pesticides, fertilizer and other potentially-polluting products by consumers, Zittel said.

To handle that many people, the region will have to reduce sprawl and find more people willing to live in townhouses, condos and other tightly packed housing in urban areas, said Olympia City Councilman Doug Mah.

"We have to grow more vertically," Mah said.

Public awareness lacking

To save Puget Sound, public awareness of the problems and support for the solutions need to grow, too, the majority of readers and leaders said.

"Until the public accepts the fact we have a problem, we won't get anywhere," Gregoire said.

"We need a major public outreach and education program - sound bites are not going to work," said Brad Ack, executive director of the Puget Sound Action Team.

"It's an education issue," agreed Jerry Ehrlich, an Olympia business owner and pioneering Hood Canal and Puget Sound scuba diver and activist. "People have to stop measuring things by the economic yardstick - it's not relevant."

"We have got to change attitudes because we're losing the Sound," Ehrlich said.

People have to realize that a clean Puget Sound means smaller lawns - or no lawn at all - better sewage systems, fewer chemicals, more government fees and other big changes, Ehrlich said.

"Is it really more important to obsess over a monoculture front yard that kills the things that swim in the Sound?" Ehrlich asked. "Most folks, if they're given the right information, will make the right decisions."

Ehrlich, who started diving in Puget Sound 40 years ago, has watched deepwater fish swim into shallow water just to find oxygen. For most people, the pollution problems and damaged ecosystem are out of sight and out of mind.

In a recent public opinion poll of 825 Puget Sound residents conducted for the Puget Sound Partnership, respondents mentioned clean water, population growth, air pollution and pollution in general as the leading environmental issues facing the region. But they didn't mention Puget Sound specifically as a problem.

Nearly 75 percent said that the Sound was in excellent or pretty good shape.

Many Puget Sound residents don't spend much time on or near the water, and they don't realize the scope of the problems - and what it will take to clean them up, said Jim Buck, a Republican state representative from the Olympic Peninsula and ranking minority member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Several readers of The Olympian said public apathy is the biggest threat to Puget Sound recovery. It's the governor's

No. 1 concern, too.

"Public resistance and apathy," former Thurston County Commissioner Dick Nichols said when asked to name the greatest obstacle to Puget Sound cleanup.

And with apathy comes a lack of political will to bring the problem to center stage, he said.

Some blame politicians for letting Puget Sound slip into such poor health.

"Leadership shortsightedness," Ann Stewart said when asked what's holding up Puget Sound restoration work.

Stormwater controls vital

The continued flow into Puget Sound of untreated stormwater laden with oils, grease, heavy metals, animal waste and other pollutants is another heavy duty obstacle to success.

No one can say exactly how much polluted stormwater reaches Puget Sound each year, but millions of gallons flow into the Sound after every big rainstorm.

"It's the delivery system for so many toxins," Ack said. "It changes water budgets in streams and damages habitat. And it's ubiquitous."

Beefed up requirements to control and treat stormwater from roads, new and old developments, parking lots and other sources are a must, according to the Puget Sound Environmental Caucus.

More low-impact development that reduces paved areas and retains natural vegetation to soak up rainwater is needed, too, the Puget Sound Action Team's 2007-2009 draft recovery plan said.

"We are learning to tread more lightly on the land," said Priscilla Terry, co-owner of Lacey-based Prime Locations Inc., a commercial real estate firm. "But people are coming here and a certain amount of land is going to continue to be paved over."

Much of the Puget Sound basin population is still served by 475,000 on-site septic systems. Even the ones that are functioning properly do a poor job of removing the nitrogen that is causing water quality problems in Hood Canal and South Sound.

"Nutrients in South Sound is a serious problem," said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Co. "The truth is South Sound is vulnerable to low oxygen levels due to poor water circulation, population growth and nutrient loading."

And while industrial wastes dumped into Puget Sound have been reduced over time, 870,000 pounds of toxic chemicals still are delivered to the marine waters by industry annually, according to the Puget Sound Action Team.

Some notable gains

Nobody suggested that it is ti me to throw in the towel and give up on Puget Sound, which remains the region's crown jewel of natural resources, and a multibillion-dollar piece of the region's economy.

A healthy Puget Sound is key to the housing industry, which is a vital cog in the South Sound economy, noted Mark Kitabayashi, president of the Thurston County Realtors Association.

"That's why we love to live here," Kitabayashi said.

Many leaders and readers said it's important to note some of the battles waged and won in the war against Puget Sound pollution.

A case in point is Oakland Bay in Shelton. Two pulp mills that once lined the waterfront helped turn that bay into a sterile, stinky body of water that could not support shellfish, said Taylor Shellfish Co. president Bill Taylor, a member of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Today, the pulp mills are gone and Oakland Bay is the top commercial manila clam-growing area in the nation, producing 3.5 million pounds per year.

Cascade Pole in Budd Inlet and the Asarco smelter in Tacoma are among the dozens of industrial polluters that no longer dischage toxic waste into Puget Sound.

Still, some of the industrial pollution legacy remains in the form of toxic sediments that have yet to be removed or capped with clean sand.

Billions of dollars have been invested in wastewater treatment plants all over Puget Sound to reduce pollution before it hits the water.

Another case in point: Before 1952, raw sewage was dumped into Budd Inlet in Olympia. Today, the LOTT Alliance features advanced treatment of Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater's wastewater, some of which is clean enough to water lawns and irrigate crops.

"LOTT's wastewater reuse plants are some of the best examples in the state of solving a major environmental problem," Ecology's Manning said. "It's a plan that will be replicated hundreds of times around the state in the years to come."

Right now, only about 5 million gallons of wastewater generated in the Puget Sound basin daily are reclaimed for use. The other 595 million gallons are discharged into Puget Sound or water bodies that empty into the Sound.

Today's state-of-the-art treatment plants might be asked to do more than just recycle highly treated wastewater. Many water-soluble chemicals found in medicines, birth control pills, fire retardants, beauty products, deodorants and other household items would require more expensive treatment to capture and keep out of the Sound.

"It's something we're just starting to look at," said LOTT program manager Karla Fowler, when asked about the next generation of wastewater contaminants.

While Puget Sound has lost much shoreline and estuary habitat to development, the region also is getting some back.

A good example is the Nisqually Delta, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nisqually tribe are removing old cow pasture dikes on several hundred acres and letting the saltwater, salmon and marine birds back in. "The habitat restoration work in the Nisqually Delta is a sight for sore eyes," the tribe's Frank said.

Time is running out

Some experts say we have 10 to 15 years to reverse the slide and improve the Sound - or watch it become the next Hood Canal, with oxygen dead zones and massive fish and marine life kills.

"We'd have a non-pleasant ecosystem that is stable," Buck said. "The scenery would be pretty - but you wouldn't get a whole lot to eat out of it."

South Sound would be where low oxygen problems would show up next, Koenings said.

"This is the tipping point," Koenings said. "If we don't do something right now, South Sound will be in the same state Hood Canal is in right now."

If present trends continue, Puget Sound will continue to accumulate poisons; there will be fewer fish and birds, and less shellfish harvesting and recreational boating.

"We'll lose ground, both literally and figuratively," said Betsy Peabody, executive director of the Puget Sound Shellfish Restoration, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the Olympia oyster. "We'll lose shellfish growing areas and species."

People living in beachfront homes might get used to the stench of fish kills. But the water in front of their homes wouldn't be safe for swimming or growing oysters.

A few animals would thrive.

"Coyotes can adapt to humans, but 90 percent of species go to hell on you," Wright said. "They can't evolve fast enough to keep up."

What's next

Gregoire asked the Puget Sound Partnership to deliver a Puget Sound action plan by November, but several members said that it will still be a work in progress by then.

The partnership does hope to have some recommendations on funding, government structure and a public education campaign in November, Taylor said.

The partnership also expects to pick a few major actions to get the ball rolling on a revitalized Puget Sound, actions which might require approval by the 2007 state Legislature, Ack said.

"Puget Sound is our front yard and our backyard and yet it's still being poisoned every day," said tribal leader Billy Frank Jr. "The question is: What are we going to do about it?" About the project

Today's report on the health of Puget Sound kicks off a months-long examination of the major problems facing that body of water and the critical solutions needed to place it on the road to recovery.

Future installments will examine: Puget Sound habitat losses and gains and the web of life affected. South Sound threats and what can be done to save Puget Sound. Stemming the tide of pollution from stormwater runoff, industry and wastewater. Will the public, private and political forces rally around Puget Sound cleanup?

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