Friday, June 15, 2018

It's wildfire season — know how to protect your health and the environment

Remember last summer when it seemed like the air would never clear up? This summer, be prepared if smoke from wildfires affects your community. Wildfire smoke is made up of gases and particulate matter that can be dangerous when inhaled. Carbon monoxide is risky to people who live and work near smoldering areas. 

Recent warm and dry weather melted last winter's snowpack faster than normal. Even though we had a healthy amount of snow, rapid melting means there is less water to supply our rivers and streams. Below normal streamflows are expected this summer and wildfire risk is high.

Burn bans

Where you live determines who calls burn bans. When wildfire danger is high, the Department of Natural Resources will declare a fire-safety burn ban on state lands. Local fire districts will restrict burning in city limits and unincorporated areas, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will call burn bans on tribal lands.

If you see someone burning illegally, or if you are being impacted by smoke, report it!

Be “air aware” and have an emergency plan

Check the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) and Washington Smoke Information web pages to stay informed about air quality and smoke events. The WAQA uses color-coded categories to show when air quality is good, moderate, or unhealthy. In the event your community is affected by a wildfire, have an emergency plan ready, watch for alerts, and follow evacuation orders.


How to tell if smoke is affecting you

Even if you are healthy smoke can affect you by causing:
  • Watery or dry eyes.
  • Lung and sinus irritation.
  • Coughing, phlegm.
  • Shortness of breath and wheezing.
  • Headaches.
  • Irregular heartbeat, chest pain, or fatigue.
  • Nonfatal and fatal heart attacks.


Some people are more sensitive to smoke

Symptoms may be worse for people with pre-existing health conditions. If you are in one of the groups below seek medical attention if your condition worsens.
  • People with lung diseases and respiratory infections.
  • People with existing heart or circulatory problems.
  • People with a prior history of heart attack or stroke.
  • People with diabetes.
  • Infants and children under 18.
  • Adults over age 65.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People who smoke.


Protect yourself and your animals from smoke

If you are indoors:
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes, use candles, wood stoves, or vacuums, and don’t burn incense.
  • Keep windows and doors closed. Blow a fan directly on you to keep cool.
  • Use a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce indoor air pollution.
  • Set your air conditioner to recirculate.
If you are outdoors:
  • If you are in a sensitive group, reconsider any outdoor activities.
  • If you must be outdoors, use an N95 respirator mask. These masks filter 95 percent of smoke particles, but they do not protect from toxic gases. Wet towels and bandanas do not provide protection from particulate matter. Respirator masks can’t protect if they don’t fit, so children and men with beards may not benefit from a mask. If you are in a sensitive group, check with your doctor before using a mask.
  • Protect your eyes by wearing goggles.
  • Don’t mow your yard, fill up your gas tank, or do any strenuous activity until the air is clear.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Keep car windows rolled up and set your AC to recirculate.
  • When possible, leave the area.
If you raise animals:
  • Reduce their time spent in smoky areas.
  • Provide them with plenty of water.
  • Limit activities that will increase their breathing.
  • If your pet or livestock is coughing or having difficulty breathing, contact your veterinarian.


Get relief from symptoms

If you are in one of the sensitive groups, contact your health care provider if your symptoms worsen. Most healthy people can get relief by:
  • Using artificial tear drops for itchy eyes.
  • Drinking plenty of water and running a humidifier for a scratchy throat.
  • Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever for headaches. 

What you can do

There are many ways you can help prevent wildfires. Seventy-five percent of wildfires are caused by humans.
  • Put campfires out completely.
  • Follow burn bans. 
  • Don't burn yard waste on windy days.
  • Don't throw cigarette butts out your window. 
  • Keep the perimeter around your property clear.
By Kim Vaughn / Air Quality Communications

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Eyes Under Puget Sound: Critter of the Month – Nebalia pugettensis

June’s tiny crustacean critter doesn’t have a common name, but it does have a fascinating projection on its head, so we’re informally referring to it as the Unicorn Shrimp!

Move over, narwhal – there’s a new Unicorn of the Sea

Nebalia pugettensis is part of a group of animals called benthos, because they live on or below the seafloor, also known as the benthic zone. N. pugettensis is a unicorn in more ways than one – besides the unicorn-like rostrum or snout, it is also a rarity in our benthic samples, although we know it occurs in all areas of Puget Sound. This might be because it can move around and avoid our grab of samples or because it just doesn’t exist in high abundances. Either way, its appearance is cause for excitement here in the benthic lab. 
Nebalia pugettensis specimen from Padilla Bay, Wash.

N. pugettensis is fairly tiny, maxing out at about 7 mm. Its body consists of three sections: 

  • Head (front)
  • Thorax (middle) 
  • Abdomen (back)

A bivalved carapace (almost like a clam shell) covers the head, thorax, and eight short appendages called thoracopods. Interestingly, the thoracopods function like a set of lungs, each with a gill to facilitate gas exchange. The carapace pitches in as an additional large respiratory membrane, and also pulls double duty as a brood pouch for developing embryos, which hatch out looking like adorable mini-adults.
N. pugettensis carapace, lateral (side) view.

Ancient history

N. pugettensis belongs to a primitive group of crustaceans called leptostracans (pronounced “LEP-tow-STRA-cans”). These shrimp-like marine critters date back millions of years, with about 40 species alive today. 

Some leptostracans can withstand extreme habitats, making their homes in places like deep sea hydrothermal vents and marine caves. Some can also tolerate low oxygen, nutrient enrichment, and other conditions that are characteristic of poor environmental quality. 

Stirring up trouble

Arising from the leptostracan abdomen are six pairs of feathery pleopods, used to stir up bottom sediments and suspend food particles in the water. Pleopods also come in handy for nighttime swims, which must be a relief after long days spent buried face-first in the mud. Leptostracans swim by beating their pleopods and telson (tail), with its spiny paddles, or caudal furcae.
N. pugettensis thorax and abdomen with the carapace and head removed, lateral (side) view.

Naked news

Unfortunately, our Puget Sound Nebalia isn’t currently counted as a true species. Nebalia pugettensis has been declared a nomen nudum, or “naked name”, meaning that a complete description of the species has yet to be published. Some taxonomists call it a species complex, meaning that it might actually be more than one species. Sounds like more work is needed to iron out the taxonomic wrinkles within this group — and to give our little nameless crustacean a permanent moniker! 
The tail end of N. pugettensis, dorsal (top) view..

By Dany Burgess & Angela Eagleston, Environmental Assessment Program

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. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Puget Sound Nutrient Watch: Algal Blooms

Welcome to our fourth installment of “Puget Sound Nutrient Watch,” an ongoing series of blogs that will focus on the problem of excess nutrients in Puget Sound.

Noctiluca scintillans bloom at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines June 4, 2018. Photo by Laura Hermanson.

During the first week of June, Laura Hermanson from the Department of Ecology BEACH Program noticed a red algae – Noctiluca – bloom during regular weekly bacteria monitoring at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines. 

Other blooms were also recently reported to Ecology. There was one reported to us at Seattle’s Alki Beach on June 2. And staff from our marine monitoring program, Eyes Over Puget Sound, also found presence of Noctiluca blooms present at Budd Inlet, Central Basin and Whidbey Basin during their regular fly overs of Puget Sound.

So what is this tomato soup looking stuff near our shorelines? What causes it? Is it harmful? 
Is this part of a natural cycle or abnormal?

We learned in our third installment of “Puget Sound Nutrient Watch: What is the Problem with Nutrients?” that excess nutrients can cause an explosion of algae growth called algal blooms. This rapid growth of algae can starve the aquatic environment of light and dissolved oxygen, compromising its ability to support aquatic life.

What causes these spring and summer blooms?

Each spring, Puget Sound receives an influx of fresh water from melting snow fueling our rivers. This less dense fresh water flows into the Puget Sound mixes with salt water to create a warm, nutrient-rich, surface layer that supports growing plankton populations. Spring and summer in the Pacific Northwest are marked by long days, warmer temperatures, and few storms. All of these factors contribute to slow circulation of water and an increase in layering within the water, called stratification.

Extra nitrogen and other nutrients that enters Puget Sound from human and natural sources, help feed these plankton populations until their populations grow to a bloom. Eventually the plankton bloom will use all the nutrients in the surface waters, their growth will slow until they die and sink deeper and some to the ocean floor to decay.

Budd Inlet taken from an Eyes over Puget Sound flight June, 2018.

Is this harmful?

An increase in the abundance of Noctiluca is an indication of an unbalanced system, and while the plankton is not toxic itself, their presence creates a cascade of effects in the marine food web. 

Please visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website if you are interested or have concerns about Harmful Algal Blooms or other Marine Biotoxins.

What is it?

Noctiluca is a single-celled organism, in a group called dinoflagellates, that eats smaller phytoplankton and planktonic larvae that make up the base of a healthy marine food chain. Noctiluca contains high concentrations of ammonia which make them unappetizing prey in the food chain. Studies have shown this ammonia has a negative impact on juvenile fish within the population.

An Ecology study conducted from 2011-2015 explored the conditions in the Puget Sound that led to Noctiluca blooms by affixing sensors to ferry vessels to continuously measure plankton populations between Seattle and Victoria B.C.. When large blooms of Noctiluca exist in Puget Sound, their ravenous feeding patterns lead to a boom-and-bust of the plankton populations. 

While Noctiluca are naturally occurring and blooms have been observed and recorded in Puget Sound since the 1940’s, there is growing concern that human-caused nutrient over-enrichment is increasing the intensity, changing the timing, and increasing the spatial distribution of Noctiluca blooms.

What is being done?

Eyes over Puget Sound takes to the air once a month to obtain high-resolution aerial photographs, record observations, and gather water quality data at 37 remote marine monitoring stations to track and record how weather and climate are shaping Puget Sound water quality. Their June monitoring showed Noctiluca blooms present in Budd Inlet, Central Basin and Whidbey Basin. This recording and communication of large scale influence and impacts has helped inform Ecology’s nutrient reduction work.

The Puget Sound Nutrient Reduction Project aims to use science and collaboration to develop a plan to restore and protect Puget Sound water quality from local human sources of nutrient over-enrichment which feed algae growth. The Puget Sound Nutrient Forum is a collaborative stakeholder process that is actively seeking additional community involvement. To learn more and sign up for updates regarding the Puget Sound Nutrient Forum, visit our website

To learn more about Noctiluca and eutrophication, read “Dead plankton leave clues to a food-web mystery” by Christopher Dunagan at the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

By: Samantha Russell, Water Quality Program

Curtailments come to the Chehalis River basin

Notice applies to outdoor water use only—mostly irrigation

A field is irrigated.
The curtailment notice affects junior water right holders.
After an unseasonably warm and dry May, we have notified 93 junior water right holders in the Chehalis River basin that their access to surface water for irrigation is curtailed until streamflows increase in the state’s second largest watershed and drainage basin.

The water users have rights that are junior to (younger than) the 1976 instream flows set by state rule for the basin. Those junior water right holders need to stop diverting water from the Chehalis, Newaukum, Satsop, and Wynoochee rivers when flows are not being met to keep the water in the stream. We sent notification letters to the 93 junior water right holders on May 31.

This is the fourth consecutive year we have issued curtailment orders or notices for junior surface water irrigation uses in the Chehalis basin to comply with the regulation requirements. The curtailment notice does not apply to indoor water use or water for livestock.

As we’ve done in prior years, our staff will periodically visit the basin and are available to answer questions in person, by telephone, or email.

Check our website to see if instream flows are being met:

·        Lower Chehalis watershed
·        Upper Chehalis watershed

Unusual May weather

The Chehalis basin receives most of its runoff from rain, with some minor contributions from snowpack at higher elevations in headwater streams in the southern Olympic Mountains. Streamflows in the basin are lower than normal for this time of year. It’s been warm and dry in the Chehalis River basin and there is little melting snow left to compensate for the tightening water supply.

Instream flows protect rivers

Trees line the Newaukum River.
The Newaukum River
We are required by law to protect senior water right users and adopted streamflows for rivers and streams to make sure there is enough water to meet the needs of people, farms, and fish. One of the most effective tools for protecting streamflows is to set instream flows, which are flow levels adopted into rule.

An instream flow rule was established in 1976 for Chehalis basin streams. Since then, newer water rights have been issued that are junior to the flow rule. When flows drop below the adopted levels, junior water rights (those established after the instream flow rule was adopted into law) can be temporarily interrupted in an effort to keep the protected amount of water in the stream. This means junior water rights are curtailed from withdrawing water until streamflows rise above the established flow levels.

Setting instream flows protects our streams, rivers, and lakes from new withdrawals that would harm instream resources including fish, wildlife, recreation, aesthetics, water quality, and navigation.

Read more about protecting streamflows

By Kristin Johnson-Waggoner, Water Resources Program

Thursday, May 31, 2018

2019 funding awarded to support clean water in Washington’s communities

Back hoe digging a hole for a new septic system drain field at the waters edge.
Drainfields sometimes need to be replaced
 to help prevent pollution from reaching the water.
Ecology is offering more than $155 million in financial assistance for 69 high-priority clean water projects across Washington state. Our funding supports local communities by helping them upgrade sewage treatment systems, manage polluted stormwater runoff, and complete a variety of projects to prevent pollution.

We received a few comments during our draft funding list comment period and have now finalized the list of recipients.

View our interactive map of funded projects.

See the full offer list online.

The funding is binned into three major categories:
  • Funding to reduce nonpoint pollution that comes from widespread, hard-to-trace activities. 
  • Wastewater treatment projects such as upgrading sewer collection systems. 
  • Projects that reduce stormwater pollution that ultimately help us reduce the pollution that runs into our rivers and streams.    

Construction workers holding a pipe that is coating the inside of a manhole.
Chehalis Public Works manhole liner replacement helps reduce stormwater in the sewer. 
See our previous blog about the draft list to learn about a few of the project highlights.

Find out more information about water quality grants and loans.

By Stacy Galleher, Water Quality Program

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Reflections on first Puget Sound Nutrient Forum

Next forum on May 30 continues conversation on finding water quality solutions

Padilla Bay
On April 25, key decision makers, scientists, and practitioners met at the first Puget Sound Nutrient Forum to form an advisory workgroup, to learn about what’s threatening Puget Sound water quality, and suggest ways to reduce human sources of nutrients.

“There were a lot of questions on the science.  What is the science saying about the problem and why do we need to do something about it? It was very encouraging to hear,” said Ecology’s Dustin Bilhimer.

Bilhimer is our manager for the Puget Sound Nutrient Source Reduction Project.  The project aims to use science and collaboration to develop a plan to restore and protect Puget Sound water quality with respect to nutrient over-enrichment.

What’s the problem?
Stormwater runoff containing fertilizers, human waste leaking from septic tanks, and outfalls of sewage, processed or not, creates a nutrient-rich environment in Puget Sound that feeds algae growth and chokes out important aquatic life.

As our regional population continues to grow, our impacts on the Sound intensifies. We are seeing signs throughout Puget Sound. And the situation will only worsen unless we take steps over the next decade to address growth and development in ways that won’t degrade water quality and impair the ability of marine species to survive and thrive.

We must support and improve the ecological systems that make Puget Sound more resilient to the effects of population growth and climate change.

Puget Sound and Seattle
Looking for collaborative solutions
The workgroup includes of members of the wastewater treatment plant and stormwater regulated community, environmental groups, tribes as well as local, state, and federal agencies. Many members of the public also attended.

By convening the first forum, Bilhimer hoped to create a space for collaboration on options for nutrient reductions in the Sound. He was pleased there was so much interest in the first meeting and knows this is only the beginning.

“The feedback was all very good.  Folks appreciated the opportunity for input. They appreciated the method we were using to get feedback from the public, industry and tribes. I want to make sure the meetings are meaningful and we get meaningful feedback from the participants. We are using that feedback to structure the next meeting.”

Bilhimer is encouraging anyone who is interested to be a part of the next event, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 30th at the SeaTac Red Lion. He is looking for people from local areas, industry, tribes, recreational groups, conservation districts, salmon recovery groups, or anyone else.

“We need to keep educating people so they understand why nutrients are a problem what is needed to correct that problem, and to be a part of the solution. We want to bring scientists from Ecology and from other places together to help get the full picture of what is happening in the Sound. It’s going to be a long process.”

The next series of forum gatherings will include more on the science of Puget Sound, including trends, aesthetic uses, and climate change impacts, the food web, and acidification. Future meetings will also look at what we are doing about the nutrient issue, including modeling, measuring recovery, source control options, permitting, learning from similar efforts in other states, implementing solutions, affordability and funding sources.

All forums are open to the public and we will be posting materials on our website.  Those who can’t attend in person can participate via webinar.

 “Ideally at the end of this project we will have a plan, supported by stakeholders, that Ecology can implement through our regulatory authority and that achieves our water quality improvement goals and meets standards,” said Bilhimer.

For more information on the Puget Sound Nutrient Forum, visit our website.

The Sound at sunset

Friday, May 25, 2018

Clean Air Month - Part 3

Last time we discussed concrete and practical ways to protect the air we breathe on a more personal level. In today's final blog, we’re looking at how our actions cumulatively impact the world. Our state is a leader in responding to climate issues. Learn more as we continue to celebrate Clean Air.

Clean energy
Concerns about climate change, the use of fossil fuels, and air pollution are accelerating clean energy development. Approximately two-thirds of Washington’s electric is generated from hydropower? Washington also ranks as one of the top nationwide producers of wind power. It’s also becoming more popular and affordable to use solar power for your home needs. 

Check with your local utility provider or find a clean energy non-profit group for possible incentives or grants. 

Use alternative transportation
Vehicle emissions are one of the main sources of air pollution in Washington. You can help reduce emissions by participating in the following: 

  • Share a ride with others, carpool, or take a bus.
  • Ride your bike. Your heart will thank you!
  • Don’t let your car idle.
  • Be the first on your block to buy a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV).

Drive an electric vehicle
ZEVs, or electric vehicles, are gaining in popularity and the savings to your pocketbook, health, and environment add up quick. Imagine not having to get an oil change or stop and pay for gas! 

Charging an electric vehicle is getting easier too! There is a significant effort to build the infrastructure to support the use of electric vehicles.

For example: the West Coast Electric Highway is an extensive network of electric vehicle (EV) DC fast charging stations located every 25 to 50 miles along Interstate 5 and other major roadways in the Pacific Northwest. Planning your trip just got easier with this map of Washington charging stations. 

If you are heading outside the Pacific Northwest you can check out the Department of Energy maps of electric vehicle charging stations and alternative fueling locations nationwide.

Keeping our mission alive
Air quality is vital to our agency’s mission to protect and enhance the environment today and for future generations. And you are a part of that mission as well – as businesses, industries, communities, families and individuals. Thanks for helping us celebrate Clean Air in the month of May!

By Kim Vaughn | Air Quality