Friday, March 27, 2015

Eyes Over Puget Sound: We're feeling the heat!

Written by Jessica Payne, Environmental Assessment Program communications manager

This week's flight was beautiful as we hopped between monitoring stations in the San Juan Islands, Bellingham Bay and the Whidbey Basin. Although sandwiched by rain, this uncharacteristically warm day really got us thinking about all of the anomalies we're seeing in Puget Sound as a result of the drought.

Starting in October, temperatures have been the highest on our record since 1989. It's hard to imagine a drought when rain is falling throughout the week, but take a look to the mountains. That ominous lack of snow pack means lower and warmer rivers. We're already seeing the effect in Puget Sound.

Expected drought effects and warmer waters

Yes, salinity and oxygen are much lower. Recent rains have rivers flowing high. Aerial views show dramatic sediment loads from rivers mixing into otherwise blue water. But don’t be fooled – by summer, glacier-fed rivers are expected to run significantly below normal, with implications for Puget Sound water quality.

What happens when our rivers run low? Low flows can hurt salmon and change the ecosystem of Puget Sound. Our environment is incredibly connected. In this issue of Eyes Over Puget Sound, we have a special 10-page pop-out section to explain how snowpack, salmon, and Puget Sound are expected to be different in 2015 as a result of this record warm winter.
For details, explore the special Drought Effects segment. 

This month: how glaciers carved the Puget Sound

Glimpse Puget Sound’s glacial history. Did you know that the Puget Sound was carved by nearly mile-thick glaciers? The last one began to retreat 14,000 years ago. Don't believe it? Dive into this month's Personal Field Impressions section to learn more and see the clues that have been left all around our landscape.

Our March issue is also full of spring algae blooms visible in some of the bays and packs of jellyfish going strong in finger inlets of south sound. Check it out!

What's Eyes Over Puget Sound?

Eyes Over Puget Sound combines high-resolution photo observations with satellite images, ferry data from travel between Seattle and Victoria BC, and measurements from our moored instruments. We use a seaplane to travel between our monitoring stations because they are so far apart.

On each flight we take photos of Puget Sound water conditions and turn those out, along with data from our stations, in the monthly Eyes Over Puget Sound report.

Learn more and see other issues on our website.

When Spills come to La Push

By Chase Gallagher, Southwest Region Communications Manager

Thursday our spills team responded to a sinking vessel near La Push on the Olympic Peninsula after reports of a large sheen from the boat.

Our partners at the United States Coast Guard were able to respond first, and when our spills team arrived the fishing vessel was actively leaking diesel into the harbor.

Some fuel recovered

Around 200 to 250 gallons of diesel fuel was spilled since yesterday, but the contractor hired to help cleanup was able to recover 250 gallons from the fuel tanks before entering the harbor and stop sources of residual oil.

Working with the Quileute Tribe, our team surveyed the shoreline areas and found no pockets of recoverable oil, and no injured or distressed fish or wildlife.

With the immediate pollution threat contained, the Coast Guard and Ecology's direct involvement comes to a close, but the vessel owner plans to get the boat back above the water soon.

Know What to do

Every spill of oil or fuel into the water causes damage to our environment, and it's always important to know what to do when a spill occurs.

Use our spills reporting page to call the National Response Center, Washington Emergency Management Division, and the regional office of the Department of Ecology to get all the important information to the right people.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cleaner Air, healthier kids

By Gary Palcisko, toxicologist, and Camille St. Onge, communication manager, Air Quality Program

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that improvements in air quality were associated with improved lung function among children.

The study followed three separate groups of children from age 11 to 15. The first group was followed
starting in 1994, the second in 1997, and the final in 2007. Between 1994 and 2011, levels of air pollution declined in many areas of southern California.

Children that grew up in the later years of the study, when air quality was better, had improved lung function compared to the children who grew up  when air quality was poorer. Children exposed to less air pollution have improved lung function so are likely to have healthier lungs as adults.

Our lungs develop and grow until early adulthood. Then lung function begins to decline gradually as
Chart I
we naturally age. There is concern about impaired lung growth because if it is stunted during childhood, the lungs never reach their full potential. This reduced lung function is likely to persist throughout life. The red line in the chart illustrates decreased lung function early in life and over a lifetime.

Washington’s air quality has improved

While the study focused on improved air quality and children growing up in southern California, Washington’s air quality has also improved during the last few decades.

In the late 1980s, several areas of Washington did not meet federal clean air standards. This meant that many people were exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution.

Through a combination of efforts, air quality has gradually improved. Air quality regulations are better; thousands of high-polluting wood stoves have been replaced with cleaner technology; we have
cleaner vehicles and fuels, and as a result our air is cleaner.

However, even with more stringent standards, more work needs to be done. Today, 14 areas of Washington are vulnerable to violating federal air standards.

Our future and air pollution

While air quality has improved, poor air quality still threatens the health of Washingtonians. Hundreds of studies show that air pollution causes serious harm, even at levels below federal safety standards. This means that there are still public health benefits to be gained by further improving air quality.

The challenge for the future will be to continue to improve air quality in the face of new threats stemming from population growth in Washington and climate change. While we prepare to face these threats, we also need to consider the future of children who are growing up in Washington today. For example, about
Chart II
110,000 (7 percent) children and youth currently have asthma. Although air pollution is only one of many factors that contribute to asthma, cleaner air likely means less suffering for these children. By continuing to work toward cleaner air, we can take another step toward helping children achieve their full potential. 

Chart I adapted from Weiss, Scott T. “Lung function and airway diseases”, Nature Genetics 42, 14-16. Chart II provided by the Washington State Department of Health. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Around the Sound: Reaching out in Everett

By Darrah Johnson, education & outreach specialist, Toxics Cleanup Program

Darrah and Andy in Everett (photo by Andrea Matzke).
We have a lot of cleanup activity coming up in Everett’s Port Gardner Bay, so the Toxics Cleanup Program wants to make sure local residents have plenty of opportunities to find out what’s going on.

On Saturday, March 21, baywide cleanup coordinator Andy Kallus and I talked with kids, parents and community members about our Puget Sound Initiative work in Everett. The SnoCo Together Community Skills Fair, a free event at Evergreen Middle School, was hosted by Transition Port Gardner, Futurewise, WSU Extension, the city of Everett, and Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.

The event’s goal was to inform the public about the 11 Puget Sound Initiative sites around Everett’s Port Garden Bay. Specifically, the goal was to reach out to populations that may not be adequately engaged with traditional outreach strategies.

Cleanup on Everett's waterfront

Ecology identified Port Gardner Bay as a high-priority bay under the Puget Sound Initiative. An Ecology team works with the Port of Everett, other site owners, area tribes, and other stakeholders to help shape cleanups at waterfront-area cleanup sites.
Dredging at Everett Shipyard in December 2014.

We may have up to eight public comment periods in the next several months for various steps in our cleanup process. (Stay tuned as those take shape.)

On Saturday, Andy and I talked with between 30 and 40 people who expressed varying levels of interest. Some were able to find their houses on the baywide map displayed, had personal connections to the industrial companies formerly operating at the sites, or wanted a closer look at some of the historical images in our slideshow.

And 'The Galloping Gourmet', too!

As a fun bonus, the keynote presenter was Graham Kerr, best known as the star of “The Galloping Gourmet.” His speech emphasized the need for greater social awareness and engagement to protect the environment.

His most recent trilogy of books compares the life cycle of the Chinook salmon to his own life, and more broadly to the human condition and the current state of the environment. It is titled “Flash of Silver,” referencing the shimmer made by a fish that has overcome an obstacle.

As one in the school overcomes an obstacle, the others see their own glimmer of hope and know that there’s a way to get to where they need to be. The metaphor applies to current issues of climate change and source control.

In addition to Kerr, the event also featured booths, workshops and a variety of youth performances.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Let’s Talk Science! Bugs and baby fish help scientists pinpoint stream pollution

By Jessica Payne, Environmental Assessment Program communications manager

Ecology scientists place trout eggs in Indian Creek
to test stream health. Photo by: Ecology
Here at Ecology, our scientists study the environment in a number of ways. Sometimes we're looking large scale and trying to investigate the big issues that might harm humans, animals or the environment. Other times, we're knee-deep in your own backyard stream trying to track down sources of pollution.

Scientists from our Environmental Assessment Program recently worked on a project just like that. They wanted to find out where pollution might be entering Indian Creek in Olympia. To answer this question, they focused on the stream's ability to support baby fish and the food they need to survive and grow. They tested for toxins in the stream water with baby trout.

For the study, they placed trout eggs into the creek at different test sites and waited to see how they did in the water. If the water is healthy, the fish should thrive. If it’s polluted with toxins, the fish will be affected.

Bugs and baby fish

A standard way of testing water quality is by running a chemical analysis through an instrument at a laboratory. However, many toxins can’t be detected by chemical analysis. We don’t have the ability
to test for everything that’s out there, and even for those that we can, there’s limited information available to tell us how those chemicals will affect aquatic life. What’s more, chemicals can have a very different effect on wildlife when they’re combined than when they stand alone.

“Sometimes, biology is the best way to test the waters.” said Brandee Era-Miller, our scientist running samples on the creek. “Why? Animals will respond to any toxin or combination of toxins. We don’t always have to know what’s in the water to see that it’s not good for fish.”

Aside from fish, our scientists also tested soils, aquatic stream bugs, periphyton (the green slime on rocks), and groundwater that was entering the stream.

Where, what and how did we test?

We first monitored the stream in 2010. From that study, we knew there was a stormwater pipe carrying runoff from nearby parking lots that may be adding pollutants to the stream. We tested both upstream and downstream from that suspected source to verify if it was indeed a source of toxins.

We looked to see if the fish could thrive in the stream. This means more than just surviving; we also checked to see if they failed to hatch from their eggs, if they had birth defects or stunted growth.
Fish are sensitive to different pollutants in each early stage of their life.

Those life stages include:

  • Eggs
  • Alevin stage - when they look like a fish but the egg is still attached
  • Fry - fully formed, but tiny, baby fish

Our results

What did we find out from this research? Two main things. First, we learned that the test itself was successful; that trout early lifestage testing can be done in streams to directly assess environmental conditions.

Second, results from the tests showed that the creek was a healthy habitat for fish at the upper site, but impaired at the lower one. What does this mean? Baby fish were more likely to survive and grow into healthy fry at the site upstream from the stormwater pipe than the one downstream.

Why this research matters

Not only did we use this method of research to identify sources of pollution for Indian Creek, we also tested a system that is accessible and affordable for all communities. This biological test is an easy and fairly affordable method that local cities, counties and even volunteers could use to test the health of their streams.

Running chemical analysis for every known toxicant in the stream is very expensive; this gives communities a way to find out how healthy their streams are without that cost.

Want read details of the study? 
You can find them on our Environmental Assessment Program report summary webpage.
You can also read a detailed review in the city of Olympia’s STREAM TEAM spring newsletter.

How you can protect your streams

It’s important for people to know the health of the streams in their neighborhood. It’s even more important for them to know how to protect those streams from toxic chemicals and contaminated stormwater runoff.

You can start by learning what stormwater is online and taking our stormwater quiz.

Every small action makes a difference. Learn what you can do to protect your water on our Washington Waters webpages and at Puget Sound Starts Here.

More about the Environmental Assessment Program

Ecology houses a department of scientists that work to measure and assess environmental conditions in Washington. We work hard to understand the state's land, air and water to keep everyone healthier. To learn more about us and the type of research we do, please visit the Environmental Assessment Program webpage.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Washington Drought 2015: State needs 1,365 percent of normal snowfall to avoid water shortages

By Dan Partridge,  Communications Manager, Water Resources Program 

 Record rains over the weekend in Western Washington left some asking, “Where is the drought we are hearing about in the news?”

 It’s good to see the rain in times of drought but Gov. Jay Inslee’s drought declarations last week were not for most of Western Washington and not about a lack of rain.

The governor declared a drought on the east side of Central Cascades including Yakima and Wenatchee, the Walla Walla region and the Olympic Peninsula.  
Current snowpack at 26 percent of average    
Ecology Director Maia Bellon has called it a “snowpack drought” because statewide our snowpack is only 26 percent of average.
Snowpack is like a frozen reservoir that in a typical year accumulates over the winter and then in the spring and summer melts slowly and runs off into our rivers and streams providing water for people, farms and fish.

Snowpack actually bumped up a bit over the weekend in the Olympic Mountains from 4 to 11 percent, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Even with that, the NRCS estimates that more than 1,365 percent of normal snowfall would have to fall in the Olympics and elsewhere to bring our snowpack up to normal by early April. That’s usually the peak time of snowpack accumulations.

Drought conditions likely to get worse
The drought conditions that prompted the governor’s announcement on Friday are unlikely to improve because continued persistence of warmer than normal temperatures is expected through spring.
Ecology working to provide drought relief
Ecology has applied to the Legislature for $9 million in drought relief funds to help alleviate hardships occurring because of water shortages. You can track our work at  Washington Drought 2015



WCC's Grays Harbor Experience

Edited by Jessica Payne, communications manager, Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program

This is the story of Ian Nickel and his experience helping with flood relief in Grays Harbor. Ian and his crew deployed to help the people of Hoquaim recover after they suffered severe flooding in January. He is a member of Ecology's Olympic National Park Disaster Response Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) Crew. Below is his experience helping a community clean up damage and put their lives back together.

Why I chose disaster response

When applying to return for another term as an AmeriCorps member I sought out WCC disaster response crews. During my previous year in the WCC, I had responded to the SR530 landslide in Oso, Washington, so I knew the sense of pride that develops when helping a community in their darkest hour of need.

Starting a new year I thought, "If my crew deploys, we might serve on similar disasters to those that WCC has responded to in the past - Joplin tornadoes, Hurricane Katrina, super storm Sandy or even the Carlton Complex wildfire."

Helping in Hoquiam

Instead of responding on a national scale, we were sent just a few hours south of my home to assist with flood recovery efforts in Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Prior to deploying, I had not heard much about the flooding on local or national news. As we were driving, I wondered, “How bad could this really be? What did these communities need our crews to do?”

Our first day at Grays Harbor Department of Emergency Management was filled with planning: meeting other crews, briefing on safety and dividing the work in sections. After creating our plan, we contacted effected homeowners.

My first phone call was surely awkward to witness. I had practiced my speech, but had not prepared for voicemail. As I waited to leave a message, I forgot everything I had rehearsed. Several seconds of silence ticked by before I realized I was leaving a blank recording, so I quickly read my prompt and hung up. I turned to my fellow crew members who were holding in laughter. One chimed in, “Well, that didn't go well, but there are always more phone calls to make!”

Boots on the ground

We spent the rest of the week checking properties for flood damage. After assessing inside a house, we moved to the crawl space to check for wet insulation. Some houses had little to no interior damage, but often, the homeowner had been unable to check their crawlspace for mold. After these assessments, we would prioritize houses based on the level of damage and need. Many residents were living in unhealthy mold-infested conditions, making their homes high priority.

Meeting homeowners in person made their stories human, rather than just a number on paper. Through these interactions, I started to grasp the severity of the situation. When we first arrived, there were few visible signs of flooding; no sandbags lining the streets or shops closed due to water damage.

As that first week ended, I realized that we were not here to help an entire town. Instead, we were helping several dozen individuals and families who were physically and financially unable to recover. After a week of assessing damages, we received our next assignment: a volunteer clean up day scheduled for that Saturday.

180 volunteers turn up to help

I had been the president of our environmental coalition in college so my experience with volunteer events typically included 15 volunteers or so. Not bad for a small group based in central Nebraska. When I learned that we would each lead eight to 10 volunteers, I thought, “Eh, this will be pretty easy. I can deal with 10 people”.

We had 25 AmeriCorps members and five WCC staff ready that Saturday morning when more than 180 adults and 35 children arrived, ready to volunteer. The support from the local community and beyond was amazing with volunteer groups arriving from Lacey to northern Oregon. A Skagit County based WCC crew brought items donated by Willie Harper, the fire chief from Oso, Washington. Shovels and personal protective equipment no longer needed by Oso were of great use to volunteers in Grays Harbor.

The Incident Management Team, Coastal Community Action Program, and LeMay Inc. (a local waste disposal company) completed much of the coordination. Our job was to wait for our volunteers to find us, assign them their tools and protective gear, and lead the way. As I waited for my group, I thought to myself, “I hope they like to get dirty and know a thing or two about tools. If not, we will complete fewer houses, but that will be okay.” I was pleasantly surprised at my group’s strength and eagerness to work! The hardest part was finding projects to keep them busy.

Despite this being the largest and most stressful event that I have ever assisted with, the work completed for happy and relieved homeowners is something I will never forget. These times of hardship bring out the beauty in communities.

The true essence of community

While reflecting on my time in Grays Harbor, I keep remembering one homeowner who had moved into their house just eight days before the floods. While their home did not have water damage, a landslide had covered their entire backyard and destroyed part of their patio. The homeowner told me about her co-workers who, after realizing that she had suffered the most damages, gathered 30 members of their friends and families to help her. 30 people! The homeowner’s friends, family and co-workers arrived with shovels in hand and wheelbarrows ready to go, demonstrating the true essence of a community.  

After this experience, I cannot help but think about my own local community. How are my neighbors doing? Are there hungry people where I live? What about those without homes? At the end of the day, I know it will be neighbors helping neighbors when a disaster strikes. I learned from my experience in Grays Harbor that I want to be one of those neighbors.


More about WCC

Our Washington Conservation Corps program consists of three subprograms: the core WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps, and Puget SoundCorps. These programs give young adults and military vets meaningful service and training opportunities that often include environmental projects and disaster relief work.

Learn how you can apply to be a member on Ecology’s WCC webpage