Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eyes Over Puget Sound: A look at 2016 in photos

After two years of very warm air and record-high water temperatures, Puget Sound is close to normal. Between the Blob warming our waters in 2015 and the past year of El Niño, we're still a bit warmer than usual, but we're in better shape than we've seen in some time.

Learn about how the global climate affects water quality, see the impacts warmer waters had on the Sound and compare photos from flights throughout 2016 in this year-end summary.

Nov. 2016 - Squaxin Passage
Feb. 2016 - Willipa Bay

We had some major rains this year! They sent mud and runoff into our rivers, downstream and out into the Sound. 2016 began and ended with sediment dynamically painting our waters.

Sept. 2016 - Liberty Bay

The very low summer river flows we experienced last year reflected climate predictions for the northwest. Our rivers are like a cold faucet: turned up high, their flow keeps waters cool, moving and full of oxygen. With the river taps turned way down, marine waters don't get mixed as much which causes warmer temperatures and higher salinities. As a result, we saw abundant jellyfish, floating macro-algae and Noctiluca blooms.

Sept. 2016 - Budd Inlet
Aug. 2016 - Eld Inlet

Surprisingly, only south Puget Sound developed very low summer oxygen levels in 2016. By fall, La Niña came with a punch! This brought more rain and cool air temperatures. But the question remains: will this be an unusual La Niña?

July 2016 - Edmonds Underwater Park

What's Eyes Over Puget Sound?

Eyes Over Puget Sound combines high-resolution photo observations with data from our monthly monitoring stations, from our regional partners and from instruments we have on ferries. We use a seaplane to travel between many of our monitoring stations because they are so far apart.

Once a month, 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.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Eyes Under Puget Sound: Critter of the Month - Black-Eyed Hermit Crab

A Black-Eyed Hermit peers out from its
moon snail home near Victoria, British Columbia.
Photo courtesy of Keoki Stender.
Happy New Year! Following the southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s Day, we bring you the adorable Black-Eyed Hermit Crab as January’s Critter of the Month.

Home is where the shell is

Like most hermit crabs, the Black-Eyed Hermit is never far from home. The crab’s body is soft and fragile, so it seeks protection from predators inside an empty snail shell. If the crab feels threatened, it can retract its entire body into the shell, leaving only its not-so-tasty claws exposed.

Hermit crabs carry their shell homes around with them wherever they go, which might seem tricky given the size and weight of these portable dwellings. However, the coiled hermit crab body shape is perfectly designed to fit into a “mobile home.” In addition, the crab has structures near its tail called uropods (shown in the photos below). The hook-like uropods grasp the inside of the shell, holding it in place as the crab crawls along.

Left: Side view of a preserved Black-Eyed Hermit specimen; the arrows indicates the hook-like uropods.
Right: Close-up of a uropod.


Moving on up

The Black-Eyed Hermit is one of the largest hermit crabs in Puget Sound (with a body-shell length of about 4.5 cm) so it prefers to reside in a nice roomy moon snail shell. As the hermit crab grows, its borrowed shell stays the same size, so it will eventually outgrow its home and upgrade to something with a larger floor plan. When free shells are scarce, the crab may try to “evict” one of its neighbors, forcing the other crab to pack its bags and move out.

A close-up dorsal (top) view of the head, showing
the black eyes. Photo courtesy of Dave Cowles.

Easy on the eyes

Although there are multiple species of hermit crabs in Puget Sound that have red stripes on their bodies and look relatively similar at first glance, our Hermit can be easily identified by its large, oval-shaped black eyes (the other species have yellow or green eyes). The Black-Eyed Hermit is also the most common hermit crab species we encounter during our sediment monitoring. It can be found from Alaska to southern California, inhabiting sandy or muddy bottoms from the tide line to about 150 meters (almost 500 feet!) deep.

Love is a battlefield

Another feature that sets the Black-Eyed Hermit apart is its distinct claws or “chelipeds”, which have large spines on the dorsal (top) surface and smooth undersides. Like other hermits in the family Paguridae, its chelipeds are unequal in size – the right is slightly heftier than the left.

Left: The spiny cheliped (claw) of the Black-Eyed Hermit. Right: Close-up of the spines on the cheliped’s dorsal surface. Photos courtesy of Dave Cowles.

These large claws come in handy when the male Black-Eyed Hermit is looking for love. First, he finds a female crab and grabs her by the shell. He then carries her around with him for up to several days until she is ready to mate, fending off other males with his claws.

By: Dany Burgess & Angela Eagleston, Environmental Assessment Program taxonomists

Critter of the Month

Our benthic taxonomists, Dany and Angela, are scientists who identify and count the benthic (sediment-dwelling) organisms in our samples as part of our Marine Sediment Monitoring Program. We are tracking the numbers and types of species we see in order to understand the health of Puget Sound and to detect any changes over time.

Dany and Angela share their discoveries by bringing us a benthic Critter of the Month. These posts will give you a peek into the life of Puget Sound’s least-known inhabitants. We’ll share details on identification, habitat, life history, and the role each critter plays in the sediment community. Can't get enough benthos? See photos from our Eyes Under Puget Sound collection on Flickr.

Watching the water supply

Snow is piling up at Paradise on Mt. Rainier. Photo: National Park Service webcam

This blog post is part of an ongoing series about water supply. Please click here to read the previous post. If you want to learn more, visit our Washington water supply information page.

It’s a new year and a good time to check in on our statewide water supply. Winter usually puts less pressure on our water supply because of reduced demand for water in homes and less agricultural irrigation. But communities and farms are already starting to plan for the drier and warmer months -- and experts are watching the conditions closely.

Looking back at 2016

For Washington state as a whole, 2016 was a slightly warmer, wetter-than-normal year. Temperature-wise, the state was 1 to 2 degrees warmer than average annually, and March through May tied 1992 for record warmth.

The balmy spring caused our snowpack to melt at record rates. In early April, the state snowpack was slightly above normal. By late May, it was less than 50 percent of normal. This raised some concern that water supplies might be pinched later in the summer, but a switch to wetter conditions and more moderate temperatures in June and July made things manageable. Still, there were some watersheds in southwest Washington where dry conditions caused total runoff during the spring and summer to be even lower than 2015 – a drought year.

This fall, the warmth returned along with long stretches of rainy days. Averaged statewide, October and November were the second-warmest on record (3.3 degrees above normal) and wettest on record (6.61 inches above normal). The pattern changed in December, though, when cooler, drier weather swept in. Most of the state was chilly – with many areas a few degrees below normal – for the first few weeks of the month.

Status of our supplies

We’re starting 2017 with good snowpack. Let’s take a closer look at water supply as of Jan. 5 and forecasts for the future:

The sun peeks out over a snowy scene on Hurricane Ridge. 
The Olympic Mountains have 126 percent of normal snowpack
for this time of year. 
Photo: National Park Service webcam
Weather and outlook | Looking ahead, state climatologists are expecting La Niña conditions (cool and wet) to shape our regional climate, but there’s a good chance we’ll switch into neutral conditions (neither La Niña nor El Niño) later this winter. Forecast models aren’t clear on temperature heading into spring, but they are predicting wetter-than-normal weather. Beyond spring, the forecast models aren’t saying much.

Mountain snowpack | Mountain snow is critical because it serves as a reservoir during spring and summer, gradually melting and feeding rivers and streams. Our mountain snowpack got a late start this year but is currently looking good. The lower Columbia, central Puget Sound and Olympic regions, in particular, are doing great with more than 125 percent of normal snowpack for this time of year. The mountains near Spokane are somewhat behind schedule, but they’re still looking decent with 77 percent of normal snowpack.

Rivers and streams | Experts are seeing typical conditions for our state’s rivers and streams. Daily streamflows are mostly in the normal range. Flows are dropping below normal during cold snaps, when snowmelt stops.

Agriculture | The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports that storage levels at the five reservoirs in the Yakima River basin, a major agricultural center, are at 107 percent of normal. Precipitation from October to the end of December is about 94 percent of normal in the Yakima region.

Drinking water | Drinking water supplies in our state’s big cities are in good shape. At the beginning of September, Everett’s water storage was 110 percent of normal for that time of year. Seattle’s combined reservoir storage is also above normal for this time of year. Tacoma reports that both precipitation and snowpack levels are above normal at the Lynn Lake monitoring site near the Howard Hanson Reservoir.

How you can help

We all have a role to play in conserving water, even in winter! Here one way you can make a difference:

  • Insulate outdoor spigots to prevent them from freezing and bursting. If you have an outdoor garden hose, remove and drain it. This video from the Saving Water Partnership has more information.

For more tips, visit our water conservation page.

By Kristin Johnson-Waggoner, Water Resources Program communications manager

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

New commercial fish farm (net pen) management tools being developed: Provide your input on project scoping by March 4

NOTE: We have decided to extend the deadline for public input after receiving several requests for more time. This blog was edited Jan. 11 to reflect the new deadline for feedback March 4, 2017.

Washington’s 30-year-old management guidelines for commercial, marine fish farms (net pens) are getting an overhaul. Ecology has partnered with the state departments of Fish & Wildlife and Agriculture, and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to write new management recommendations useful for the industry and coastal managers – including state and local government regulators.

View from the water of a commercial fish farm near Bainbridge Island. Photo by Jessica Payne/Ecology

We’re just getting started, and we want your input

The multi-year project is just getting underway and you are invited to provide input on early decisions made by the project team. Two documents are available for review and comment. You can view and download these documents on our project website.
  1. A summary of draft scoping decisions that describes early decisions made by the team regarding:
  • Geographic and topical scope
  • Scientific and technical review
  • Outreach and opportunities for interested parties to influence the outcome
  1. A writing outline that will guide the project team through fact-finding and identification of suitable safeguards and management practices. The team is especially interested in feedback on topics you would like to see addressed in the final document. This will serve as a table of contents for the final guidance document.
We’re accepting public comments now through March 4. 

This project is designed to give us up-to-date information on this use and better understand the concern of citizens. What we learn will help us ensure any new facilities are sited and operated consistent with current science and modern management practices. It is not designed to determine whether or not future net pens will be allowed.

Learn more on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

State employees learn more about day-to-day operations
from Kevin Bright of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific.
Photo by Lori LeVander/Ecology.

Send us your feedback

Please send us your feedback and help influence project outcomes.

Submit input by March 4 to:
Ms. Cedar Bouta
Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program
WA Dept. of Ecology
P.O. Box 47600
Lacey, WA 98504-7600.
Visit our project webpage to learn more. Subscribe to our listserv to get email updates and make sure you have the latest information.

By: Cedar Bouta, Shorelands and Environmental Assistance program

Friday, December 30, 2016

Two Southwest Washington cities revise how their shorelines will be managed

Morton and South Bend updates ready for public review and comment

Forty years after adopting their first Shoreline Master Programs, the Southwest Washington cities of Morton and South Bend have submitted proposals to the Department of Ecology to completely replace those original programs.

Ecology is asking the public to review and comment on these comprehensive updates, which will help the agency decide whether to approve the proposals as submitted or request changes from the Cities.

Morton – Central Lewis County

Morton’s proposed comprehensive update, which was adopted by the city this past September, prioritizes water-related uses and includes policies to protect, restore and guide development of shoreline habitats along the Tilton River and Johnson Creek.
Erosion of the Tilton River bank in Morton has caused a section of a  historic railroad track to fall into the river. Removing the track and restoring the river bank is a priority project identified by the City's Shoreline Restoration Plan.
Erosion of the Tilton River bank near Morton has caused a section of
historic railroad track to fall into the river. 

One goal of the new plan is to encourage restoration of degraded areas to ecologically functional conditions. An example of a project that may get a boost under this goal calls for removing a section of historic railroad track that has fallen into the Tilton River. An engineered logjam and native vegetation would then be installed to control erosion and improve salmon habitat. Water quality will also be improved.

The proposal is available for review on the project website, and in paper form at the Washington Department of Ecology headquarters and at Morton City Hall.

Comments on Morton’s comprehensive update will be accepted through Jan. 11, 2017.

All comments should be sent to Ecology’s Sarah Cassal. There are four ways to do it:

By email:

By mail:        Southwest Regional Office
                     PO Box 47775
                     Olympia, WA 98504-7600

In person:     300 Desmond Drive
                     Lacey, WA 98503

By phone:     360-407-7459

South Bend – North Central Pacific County

South Bend’s proposed update was adopted by the city in October and will also replace its original shoreline program. It addresses uses and development of seven miles of shoreline along the Skidmore and Potter Sloughs, and the Willapa River. The new program also identifies potential future restoration efforts, and incorporates regulations to protect critical areas.

The proposal seeks to preserve the area’s natural beauty while also supporting economic development and tourism. A key component of the update is ensuring public access opportunities are realized, including the extension of the 56-mile Willapa Hills Trail from its terminus at Summit Avenue to the South Bend Boat Launch. 

Paper copies of the new shoreline plan are available by contacting the City of South Bend or Ecology Regional Planner Kim Van Zwalenburg at the address below.

Comments on South Bend’s proposed update will be accepted through Jan. 17, 2017.

All comments should be sent to Kim Van Zwalenburg. There are four ways to do it:

By email:

By mail:        Southwest Regional Office
                     PO Box 47775
                     Olympia, WA 98504-7600

In person:     300 Desmond Drive
                     Lacey, WA 98503

By phone:     360-407-6520

By Dave Bennett, Southwest Region communications

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Seeking farmers in Palouse watershed to help improve environment

A conservation stewardship program spearheaded by the Palouse Conservation District aims to enroll thousands of acres of land into conservation programs that keep working lands working in an environmentally friendly way. The Palouse River suffers from a variety of water quality problems including low oxygen, too much bacteria and high temperatures.

Millions of dollars are available to Palouse-area farmers for making on-the-ground improvements that benefit soil, water and fish and wildlife habitat. Farms in the Palouse watershed are eligible to sign up for a program designed specifically for landowners and agricultural operators in portions of Whitman, Spokane, Adams and Lincoln counties and Latah County, ID.

The voluntary, incentive-based practices that qualify for the program’s funding can help reduce erosion and protect clean water. The program will provide a total of $11 million through the next five years for projects including installing more than 250 acres of streamside vegetation, placing 520 acres of land into agricultural conservation easements and getting 45,000 acres of land enrolled in conservation tilling that also qualifies for the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association's Farmed Smart program.

Farms can sign up for the program through Feb. 3, 2017 by contacting their local conservation district or program coordinator Tami Stubbs by email, or phone, 509-332-4101 x 111.

By Brook Beeler, communications

Direct seeding allows farmers to place seeds into last year's
stubble and apply fertilizer in one pass. Less tilling helps
reduce erosion. Photo: Palouse Conservation District

Crops that have been seeded directly into stubble poke through
the soil and crop residue.
Native trees have been planted adjacent to the stream and provide
a buffer to prevent farm chemicals and soil from entering the water.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ecology issues new recommendations for greenhouse gas limits in Washington

Climate change is one of the most significant issues we face today in Washington State. Tackling climate change is a priority for Ecology and we are working hard to protect fish, farms, and waters from the damage rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns will cause in our state. That’s why we adopted one of the nation’s most progressive regulations to cap and reduce greenhouse gases, and also why Ecology recently provided a report to the Legislature that recommends lower greenhouse gas limits for our state.

Washington’s climate change forecast

With our temperate climate and typically wet weather, you might think Washington would
fare better than many places in dealing with climate change. The truth, however, is that Washington faces serious impacts to our snowpack and water supplies as temperatures climb. Another threat comes from increases in ocean acidity, which will harm our state’s shellfish industry. And, climate change will lead to more extreme weather such as heavy rainfall that will increase the risk of flooding.

Take a look at the thermometer chart below. If global emissions continue to grow in a business-as-usual fashion, Washington is projected to experience the “green” conditions at the bottom of the chart in the coming decades. By the mid 21st century, though, that “business-as-usual” trend will bring us into the “yellow” zone, which includes serious consequences such as a 56-70 percent decrease in snowpack and large increases in ocean acidity. By the end of the 21st century, we would be into the “red zone.” 

The predicted effects of these significant increases in average temperatures would be severe – large decreases in snowpack and summer precipitation, devastating increases in ocean acidity, increased flooding and jumps in sea level that will damage many Washington communities. Our best tool to prevent these effects is reducing emissions, both in Washington and around the world.

While the 21st century may seem like the distant future, the effects of climate change can be seen today. Washington has already suffered a substantial loss of snowpack mass in glaciers during the 20th century, as shown in the chart below. While the severe drought in 2015 cannot be attributed solely to climate change, scientists agree that it offered a sobering preview of the conditions our state will regularly face as temperatures rise. 

Washington’s leadership limiting greenhouse gases

Many years ago, our Legislature recognized the threat climate change poses to Washington. In order to protect our natural resources and infrastructure for future generations, the Legislature set limits on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

At that time, Washington was a national leader in establishing greenhouse gas limits. In concert with the latest science, today you’ll find that many states in the U.S. have adopted more stringent limits than Washington did in 2008. Since taking office, Gov. Jay Inslee has introduced a range of strategies to combat climate change. Washington is a founding signatory of the Under 2MOU, an agreement between 165 jurisdictions from 33 countries on six continents to do their part to limit warming below 2° Celsius.

Updated recommended greenhouse gas limits

When Washington’s Legislature adopted our state’s original greenhouse gas limits, it recognized that that climate change science was rapidly evolving, and our legislators had the foresight to require periodic review of our targets.

Today, there is a global consensus that we need to reduce greenhouse gases. In 2015, 197 countries, including the United States, committed at the United Nations climate summit in Paris to do their part to limit increases in global temperatures to 2°C.

When developing updated recommendations for Washington’s greenhouse gas limits, Ecology:

  • Consulted with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group on current climate science. 
  • Reviewed other state greenhouse gas limits.
  • Considered Washington’s Under 2MOU commitment.
  • Acknowledged the U.S. pledge to reduce greenhouse gases.
  • Evaluated current Washington state policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Given the need to stabilize atmospheric carbon (from greenhouse gases) in a way that limits global temperature increases to below 2°C, and preferably below 1.5°C, Ecology is recommending the Legislature adjust the current state limits.

Recommended limits:

  • By 2020, reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 1990 levels (unchanged).
  • By 2035, reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 40 percent below 1990 levels (currently, 25 percent below 1990 levels).
  • By 2050, reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 80 percent below 1990 levels (currently 50 percent below 1990 levels).

Earlier this month, Ecology provided the Washington Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Limits report to the Washington Legislature. While the Legislature has no obligation to adopt the recommended limits, given the projected impacts on Washington, Ecology believes that the Legislature, local governments and state agencies must work together to reduce greenhouse gases.

By Camille St. Onge, Air Quality Program