Feds give Sound health fair marks

WASHINGTON - Even as Washington state launches a large effort to clean up Puget Sound, a new federal report released Tuesday concluded the Sound is generally in fair condition though there are plenty of warning signs of possible problems.

The report cited PCB contamination as a continuing "major concern," along with several other chemicals that are being "closely watched to determine potential health and ecological risks."

The report noted rockfish are declining at an "alarming rate," and populations of marine bird species such as scoters have fallen more than 50 percent over the past 20 years. All of that "may point to significant problems with the entire Puget Sound ecosystem," the report from the Environmental Protection Agency said.

Despite the cautions about looming problems, the report found the Sound was in fair shape overall when it came to such things as water quality, sediment levels, sediment toxicity and contaminants found in fish tissue.

The report came just weeks after Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Legislature launched a Puget Sound cleanup initiative that could eventually cost $8 billion between now and 2020. The Legislature has approved a $226 million down payment and Congress might eventually kick in between $25 million and $30 million in federal funding annually.

Gregoire has publicly said the Sound is "sick" and the situation is only going to get worse as the population in the 12 counties along the Sound continues to grow.

The governor was in Alaska on Tuesday, but spokeswoman Holly Armstrong said the federal report seemed to substantiate many of the concerns voiced by Gregoire and other state officials.

"It is pretty consistent with what we have found," Armstrong said. "It's pretty clear there are signs of decline."

Armstrong said even though the report gave the Sound an overall rating of fair, it identified many of the same problems the state has warned off.

"Fair is not good," Armstrong said.

Human development has changed significant portions of the Sound's shoreline at the same time the region's population is expected to grow by almost 30 percent to more than 5 million people by 2020. Stormwater runoff is already a substantial problem, the report said.

"Toxic contamination, near shore habitat modifications, habitat loss, declines in some fish and wildlife populations, Endangered Species Act listings of salmon and eight other species in the near shore habitat and shellfish bed closures remain among the primary concerns of the Sound," the report said.

The report indicated the problems were not necessarily widespread, but concentrated in certain areas especially near urban centers.

For instance, the report said when it came to water quality, 75 percent of the Sound was in fair condition and only 2 percent in poor condition.

When it came to dissolved oxygen levels, overall the Sound is in good condition, though 27 percent of the estuarine areas were rated fair and less than 2 percent rated poor, primarily along Hood Canal.

The report took a look at the 28 estuaries included in the agency's National Estuary Program.

In broad terms, the report found that estuaries on the West and Gulf coasts were in fair condition, those in the Northeast in poor condition and those along the Southeast coast in good condition.