ON BOARD SOUND GUARDIAN, Puget Sound – The Sound Guardian, a King County survey vessel, plunged into the blues of Puget Sound for a water quality monitoring cruise.
The crew threw equipment overboard with a spray to test the water chemistry, taking readings 16 times per second to measure everything from the amount of light in the water to the level of dissolved oxygen on a summer day.
While this monitoring is commonplace, the controversy over how best to protect the health of Puget Sound is not discussed at all.
The state environmental department will decide at the end of the month whether to issue a new general permit for all 58 wastewater treatment plants around the strait.
Ecology claims that as more people live here, it is imperative that they do not bring in more nitrogen, which comes in their urine, and do not worsen the low level of dissolved oxygen. These levels are already seen in parts of Puget Sound, especially in summer.
“Puget Sound is growing pretty fast. We are confident that we see a problem that needs to be solved and that it will get worse, ”said Vincent McGowan, Head of Water Quality at Ecology.
The Agency has been working for many years on new permitting requirements and a computer model to inform the required levels of nitrogen reductions. The time has come, ”McGowan said,“ to issue a permit and involve sewers and plan for future nitrogen reductions.
Most wastewater treatment plants will require significant upgrades to remove nitrogen from wastewater, so billions of taxpayer dollars could be at stake.
The leaders of the sewage treatment plant are strongly opposed. They – and some scientists – argue that the dissolved oxygen problems in Puget Sound, serious enough to harm marine life, are limited in time and space, and in most cases occur naturally. So why do this? Utilities experts say their trust is at stake.
“What’s really bad is that we build this without saving the fish or the killer whale,” said Dan Thompson, a wastewater treatment manager in Tacoma, who has already sued Ecology over the matter. “I can never get a cent from taxpayers because I have lost all confidence.”
McGowan and Ecology stepped up the rhetoric by warning in an agency blog post in June 2021 that we are on a “fast track to dead zones.”
“What may seem like a small difference in dissolved oxygen is not small for the marine life it affects,” said Colleen Kielz, spokeswoman for the ecology department.
“While the damaged area of Puget Sound is only a fraction of the sea in the region, the damaged area is critical to protecting healthy and resilient aquatic species – and we have a responsibility to protect these species and the water they inhabit. , – said Kielc.
The State of the Salish Sea is a report on the state of the inland sea waters of the region. Authors, published by Western Washington University in June 2021, authors including scholars from across the region, note that humans have an easy time understanding complexity landscapes, with mountains, valleys, plains, forests and rivers. But they don’t see the same complexity so easily seascape this is Puget Sound.
Beneath its wide shimmering surface are high rapids that impede water circulation, deep canyons, reefs, shallow bays, algae forests, eel meadows, all bathed in a daily stream of salt and fresh water.
Tides, currents and circulation lead to the exchange of energy, sediment and nutrients, which enhances the productivity of Puget Sound. This physical flushing of water in and out helps reduce harm to humans, from pollution to low levels of dissolved oxygen, by constantly moving water through the system.
This two-way simultaneous movement of lighter surface water flowing to the Pacific Ocean on top of denser ocean water flowing inland results in a complete Puget Sound water exchange every three to six months.
Nitrogen is one of the nutrients required for the productivity of Puget Sound, in particular nitrogen from the Pacific Ocean, which is by far the largest source in Puget Sound today. These nutrients come from the sea, delivering life-giving minerals and nutrients that feed Sound from the bottom of the food chain to the top predators.
But there is such a thing as too much good.
In particular, in summer, when the influx of fresh water from rivers is significantly reduced, the nitrogen content in some poorly washed parts of the strait may increase. In some areas, there is a delicate balance between enough nutrients and excess nutrients. This can potentially cause algal blooms, which deplete oxygen in the water as the algae die and decompose.
Marine life needs oxygen dissolved in water, just as terrestrial and avian creatures breathe air in our atmosphere. Low oxygen levels not only harm marine life, but can destroy food webs and even make sea water more acidic.
Part of the controversy over Ecology has to do with the number used in its computer model, which generates predictions of deterioration.
Since 1967, Washington has limited, at least on paper, how much anthropogenic influence can reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in Puget Sound. This number is 0.2 milligrams per liter of water, but it has no biological basis. This was the smallest decline that could be measured at the time.
Using a blow of 0.2 milligram per liter, the model predicts a difference in dissolved oxygen due to treatment facilities that would be difficult to observe in the field; almost certainly not detectable by salmon, molluscs or other marine organisms; and pales in comparison to the natural rise and fall of dissolved oxygen, said Joel Baker, a professor at the University of Washington and director of the Puget Sound Institute in Tacoma.
“I’ve worked in places with nutrient problems, in the Great Lakes, in the Chesapeake Bay,” Baker said. “This is not one of them.”
Parker McCready, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, found in his peer review of the ecological model that hypoxia – oxygen levels low enough to harm marine life – is a very limited problem in Puget Sound and occurs naturally in most cases.
“If I were going to characterize the water quality in Puget Sound to a member of the public, I would say that it is generally quite good,” McCready wrote, adding that the use of all the technologies in the treatment plant does not matter much.
Gordon Holtgreave, an environmental ecologist at the University of Washington, argues that there is too much unresolved and significant disagreement among scientists over the ecology approach to push a general resolution right now.
“There is real uncertainty and legitimate disagreement; this is not a bunch of scientists trapped in deep, dark thickets, ”Holtgreave said.
He sees better use of taxpayer money.
“To say that fish choke on nutrients from wastewater is simply not true.”
The controversial number has been written down for decades and still remains – a moment far from lost for Nina Bell. She is the sole employee of her nonprofit Northwest Environmental Advocates, and from her inbox in Portland, she made regulators in awe.
Bell says she is probably the most active claimant under the Clean Water Act against the US EPA in the Pacific Northwest.
“I’m just trying to make the Clean Water Act work,” Bell said.
Through a series of actions she has filed to force the environment to impose stricter regulations on wastewater treatment plants, she has caught the attention of Gov. Jay Inslee.
In a letter to Bell in March 2019, he pledged that Washington would soon limit the nutrient content of the wastewater treatment plant. In January 2020, Ecology announced its decision to draft a permit and launched a public comment and virtual hearing.
The agency is now poised to begin a new era of wastewater treatment across Puget Sound.
Press the pause button?
King County (which also handles all of Seattle’s wastewater) is asking Ecology to suspend its new permit. The county wants the scientific debate to be touched, while in the meantime the progress made through various strategies to achieve measurable improvements where dissolved oxygen is known to be a problem, said Christy Tru, head of the county’s wastewater treatment department. …
There’s a lot at stake for taxpayers. The ecology program will require King County to build a fourth wastewater treatment plant and will cost between $ 9 billion and $ 14 billion, potentially more than doubling sewer costs for King County customers, including Seattle, Tru said.
Seattle and King County payers carry some of the highest water and sanitation rates in the country. Challenges persist, prompting the county to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the largest West Point wastewater treatment plant in Magnolia.
Currently, the focus is on improving the power supply and reliability of the plant. A catastrophic flood at the plant in 2017 damaged expensive systems and equipment. Too often, untreated wastewater has been discharged into Puget Sound as a result of emergency overflows. The Sukwamish tribe in 2020 filed a notice of intent to sue the county for unprocessed emissions in Sound.
The county is committed to spending money to protect Puget Sound, Tru said, especially in the wake of climate change and an increase in the number of people moving here. But Tru says it’s important to make the right investment with taxpayer money.
“The reason we think it is so important to take a break right now is because it’s just a huge investment of time, resources and money, and we really need to make sure we’re doing everything right.”