ON BOARD THE SOUND GUARDIAN, Puget Sound – The Sound Guardian, King County’s research vessel, plunged into the blue of Puget Sound for a water quality monitoring cruise.
The crew tossed the equipment overboard to test the chemistry of the water and took readings 16 times per second to measure everything from the amount of light in the water to dissolved oxygen levels on a summer day.
While this surveillance is routine, a controversy culminating in order to best protect the health of Puget Sound is anything but.
The state’s ecological office will decide at the end of the month whether a new general permit will be granted for all 58 sewage treatment plants around the sound.
Ecology argues that as more people live here, it is imperative that they stop contributing more nitrogen from their urine and worsen the low dissolved oxygen levels. These levels are already occurring in some 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 addressed and that it will get worse, ”said Vincent McGowan, director of water quality at Ecology.
The agency has been working for years on the new permit requirements and a computer model to inform the required nitrogen reduction levels. It is now time, McGowan said, to give the permit and engage the sewer companies and plan future nitrogen reductions.
Most wastewater treatment plants would require significant modernization to remove nitrogen from wastewater, with billions of dollars at stake.
There is strong resistance from the operators of sewage treatment plants. They – and some scientists – argue that dissolved oxygen problems in Puget Sound, serious enough to harm marine life, are limited in time, space, and mostly naturally caused. So why do that? Public utility professionals say their credibility is at stake.
“What’s really harmful is if we build this stuff and we don’t save a fish or an orca,” said Dan Thompson, Tacoma City Wastewater Director, who has already sued Ecology over the problem. “I could never get a penny from the installment payers again because I’ve lost all credibility.”
McGowan and Ecology have tightened the rhetoric and warned in an agency blog post from June 2021 that we are on a “faster way to dead zones. “
What may seem like a small difference in dissolved oxygen is no small matter to the marine life it affects, said Colleen Keltz, spokeswoman for Ecology.
“While the degraded area of Puget Sound makes up only part of the total marine water in the region, the degraded area is of significant importance in protecting healthy and resilient aquatic species – and we have a responsibility to preserve these species and the waters in which they live protect. “, said Keltz.
An inland sea
The state of the Salish Sea is a report on the health of the region’s inland waters. The authors, published in June 2021 by Western Washington University, including scientists from across the region, note that the complexities of Landscapes, with mountains, valleys, plains, forests and rivers. But they don’t see the same complexities as easily seascape this is Puget Sound.
Under its broad, shimmering surface there are high thresholds that hinder the water cycle, deep gorges, reefs, shallow bays, kelp forests, eel grass meadows that are washed around daily by salt and fresh water.
Tides, currents, and circulation drive the exchange of energy, sediments, and nutrients, and promote the productivity of Puget Sound. This physical flushing of water in and out helps reduce human harm, from contamination to low levels of dissolved oxygen, by continuously moving water around the system.
This reciprocal, simultaneous rush of lighter surface water flowing towards the Pacific over denser ocean water flowing inland results in a complete replacement of Puget Sound water every three to six months.
Nitrogen is one of the nutrients essential to Puget Sound’s productivity – particularly nitrogen from the Pacific Ocean, by far the single largest source in Puget Sound. These nutrients pour in from the ocean, bringing the life-giving minerals and nutrients that feed the sound from the bottom of the food chain to the top predators.
But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Especially in summer, when freshwater flow from rivers is greatly reduced, nitrogen levels can increase in some poorly flushed areas of the sound. In some areas there is a delicate balance between enough nutrients and too much. This can potentially lead to algal blooms, which will deprive the water of oxygen as the algae die and rot.
Marine life needs dissolved oxygen in the water just like land and bird creatures that breathe air in our atmosphere. A low oxygen content can not only harm marine life, it can also disrupt the food web and even acidify the sea water.
Part of the dispute over Ecology’s program concerns a number used in its computer model that generates predictions of impairment.
Since 1967, Washington has limited, at least on paper, how much a man-made influence can decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen in the Puget Sound. That figure is 0.2 milligrams per liter of water, but it has no biological basis. It was only the smallest decrease that could be measured at this point in time.
With the impact of 0.2 milligrams per liter, the model predicts a difference in dissolved oxygen through sewage treatment plants that would be difficult to observe in the field; almost certainly not detectable in salmon, shellfish or other marine organisms; and pales in comparison to natural increases and decreases in dissolved oxygen levels, said Joel Baker, professor at the University of Washington and director of the Puget Sound Institute in Tacoma.
“I’ve worked in places with nutrient problems, the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay,” said Baker. “That’s not one of them.”
Parker MacCready, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, in his peer review of the Ecology model, noted that hypoxia – an oxygen level low enough to harm marine life – is a very limited problem in Puget Sound and mainly caused naturally.
“If I were to characterize the water quality of Puget Sound to the public, I would say that it is generally pretty good,” MacCready wrote, adding that dumping every bit of technology on wastewater treatment plants wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Gordon Holtgrieve, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Washington, argues that there is too much unresolved and significant disagreement among scientists about Ecology’s approach to proceed with general approval now.
“There are real uncertainties and disagreements that are legitimate; This isn’t a bunch of academics digging into the deep, dark weeds, ”said Holtgrieve.
He sees better uses for the installment payer’s money.
“To say that fish are choking on nutrients from sewage is just not true.”
The number that fuels the argument has been in the books for decades and still is – a point Nina Bell has not lost for a long time. She’s the only employee of her nonprofit Northwest Environmental Advocates and has been shaking regulators from her post office box in Portland.
Bell says she is probably the most prolific petitioner of Clean Water Act lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Pacific Northwest.
“I’m just trying to get the Clean Water Act to work,” said Bell.
It has caught the attention of Governor Jay Inslee with a series of measures she tabled to force Ecology into tighter regulation of wastewater treatment plants.
In a letter to Bell in March 2019, he promised that Washington would soon be cutting nutrients from sewage treatment plants. Ecology announced Decision in January 2020 Advance a draft permit and launch public comments and virtual hearings.
Now the agency is ready to usher in a new era of urban wastewater treatment across Puget Sound.
Are you pressing the pause button?
King County (which also treats all Seattle sewage) is urging Ecology to suspend issuing the new permit. The county wants the scientific debate to be addressed and, in the meantime, made progress with a variety of strategies tailored to deliver measurable improvements where dissolved oxygen is known to be a problem, said Christie True, the division responsible for wastewater treatment of the district heads.
Much is at stake for the installment payers. Ecology’s program would require building a fourth wastewater treatment plant in King County and cost $ 9-14 billion, potentially more than doubling wastewater charges for King County’s customers, including Seattle, True said.
Seattle and King County’s tollpayers bear some of the highest water and sewerage fees in the country. Problems persist, prompting the county to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in its largest sewage treatment plant, West Point in Magnolia.
A current focus is the improvement of the power supply and operational safety of the plant. A catastrophic flood 2017 Expensive systems and equipment devastated in the factory. Too often emergency overflows have released untreated sewage into Puget Sound. The Suquamish tribe filed a letter of intent in 2020 to sue the county for untreated discharges into the sound.
The county has a duty to spend money to protect Puget Sound, True said, especially as climate change changes and more people move here. However, making the right investments with taxpayers’ money is critical, True said.
“The reason we think it is so important that we take a break now is because it is just a huge investment in time, resources and money and we really need to make sure we get it right.”