Puget Sound

InvestigateWest co-hosts stormwater forum that shows civic discourse is still possible

InvestigateWest reached a milestone this week when we co-hosted a large public-policy forum on the State Capitol grounds in Olympia.

The subject was stormwater, the polluted rainwater runoff I’ve been writing about for perhaps a decade now, with particular emphasis on its effects on Puget Sound, where it is the largest source of toxics.  For two years running environmentalists have unsuccessfully advanced plans in Olympia to raise money to deal with the problem. More bills are pending in the current legislative session, so it seemed like a logical time to raise the issue’s profile and encourage a frank discussion.

That we got. And while we never expected to resolve the entire issue at a lunchtime forum, it did feel like progress to hear all the panelists acknowledge that stormwater is a difficult problem that somehow we are going to have to deal with collectively.

Seven legislators and several legislative aides joined environmentalists, business lobbyists and at least three journalists in the audience of 70. Overall it had the tone of a civil discussion with respect for all points of view – the kind of civic discourse often lacking in this age so seemingly dominated by vitriol. Once upon a time, news organizations did more of this kind of thing. The presidential debates of 1956 and 1960 may be the best-known examples. Journalists do still occasionally organize these events, but it seems to me that more of this sort of discussion could be helpful to citizens and policy-makers on all sides of many issues.

Co-hosting were Sightline Institute and Washington Policy Center, the two think tanks that have most carefully followed the stormwater story in Washington. I was fortunate to work with Brandon Houskeeper, a policy analyst at WPC, and Lisa Stiffler, journalism fellow at Sightline.

Byline: 

InvestigateWest co-sponsors forum on stormwater issues

Please join InvestigateWest, the  Washington Policy Center and Sightline Institute for an informative conversation about stormwater, the biggest threat to clean water in the Pacific Northwest. It's next Wednesday, March 23, from Noon to 1:15 p.m., Conference room B/C, John Cherberg Building, Capitol Campus, Olympia.

According to state officials, stormwater pollution is the top threat to the health of Puget Sound. Over the last several years Washington lawmakers have considered various measures to protect Puget Sound, including proposals to increase taxes or put fees on chemicals, such as oil and grease, to pay for projects to clean up stormwater. But with local and state budgets stretched to the breaking point, what actions can be taken to deal with this problem? What can be done about polluted runoff that will help the environment, but won't hamper the economy
 

Now is the time to have this discussion. The Department of Ecology is drafting regulations to require a more widespread use of "green" stormwater solutions and the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) is receiving public comments on its draft Strategic Science Plan, which will be used by the future Legislatures.

Format:

Panel discussion/Q-and-A followed by moderator-led interaction with audience members.

Bring your questions and suggestions!

Featuring:

- William Ruckelshaus, former two-time administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and founding chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council

- Josh Baldi, special assistant to the director, Washington Department of Ecology

- Grant Nelson, Association of Washington Business, Government Relations

Panel of questioners:

- Brandon Houskeeper, Policy Analyst, Center for the Environment, Washington Policy Center, www.washingtonpolicy.org

Byline: 

EPA gives $30 million to Puget Sound; but warming-related acidity attacks the food chain

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it's awarding $30 million to efforts to restore Puget Sound. Sounds like great news -- except that it was completely overshadowed by extraordinarily sobering new science unveiled today: Acidity levels in the Sound, driven by the same processes that are unnaturally warming the planet, appear to be dissolving the shells of oyster larvae. And the weak acid is killing plankton at the base of the food chain -- the one that provides sustenance for creatures all the way up to orcas. And people. 

Imagine a world without oysters. It means a lot more than just forgetting about oysters Rockefeller. Oysters are a basic part of the ecosystem, a big part of the processes that make the ocean what it is.

And then, given the news about the plankton, start considering a world without most forms of sea life that we currently know. It's not a big leap. Even for someone who has chronicled bad environmental news for more than two decades, this is an extremely grave development. 

Folks, this is really significant news. News reports from the Seattle Times, seattlepi.com and the Puget Sound Business Journal -- the early accounts that already are on line, at least* -- seem to count this as just one more strike against the Sound. But it's more. We're talking about harmful changes across the ecosystem at the cellular level. This is huge -- and hugely depressing -- news.

Obama finally admits what's been obvious for years: We can't clean up oil spills

Cold comfort for a nation that stands mouth agape at the mind-boggling catastrophe off our southern shore, but today President Obama finally admitted what we and others had been saying for years: America is wholly unprepared for a major oil spill. (And Puget Sound is particularly at risk. More on that in a moment.)

It's just a five-paragraph blurb on The New York Times' website, but in it our nation's highest-ranking civil servant says he made a mistake believing ''the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.'' He went on:

''I was wrong.''

D'ya think? But let's not go too hard on the commander-in-chief, given that every other level of government that's handled the so-called preparations for this massive spill got it wrong as well.

This incredibly dispiriting oil spill continues to leave me a little too slack-jawed to take it on in earnest as a blog topic. But it bears repeating that:

* Skimming oil is largely ineffective, capturing maybe 10 percent of the spilled oil -- if we're lucky.

* Boom is great and useful -- but you can't boom off the whole coast.

* There's a very basic assumption made across the country in planning for the worst-case oil spill: that equipment and workers can be "cascaded in" from other regions of the nation over a period of days to deal with the disaster. 

Post-Deepwater Horizon, it doesn't seem necessary to lay bare the fallacies in this last point.

Help! I've been poisoned by stormwater!

For years talented fellow journalists -- and before them my best professors -- have emphasized the value of using all five of a journalist's senses to experience a story and enlighten readers, listeners and viewers. Great idea -- but tonight it went a little far for me. After more than a decade of writing about the perils of stormwater, tonight I actually tasted some.

It was far, far from on purpose. I decided to dash down to Pike Place Market to buy some fish, a rare thing nowadays since I don't work particularly near there.  

It was pouring as I drove back to my office. The windows fogged. I rolled them down while sitting at a stoplight. Then-- whoosh! -- passing cars sent walls of water cascading into the car. Unfortunately, when this started I had my mouth slightly open. (Maybe I was singing? Drooling? Mouth-breathing? I dunno....)

Yes, that foul mixture that I've described in seemingly innumerable articles is something I've looked at and smelled and heard and -- reluctantly -- touched in the past. I had no intention of going to this extent to understand this story.

Of course I spit and swished and spit and swished some more, using up a bit of mouthwash.

Now, here's the weird thing: I've written more than once about how bad it is to have copper in the waterways that are supposed to nourish young salmon, even at minuscule levels. And I've outlined how every one of us, every time we touch our brakes, unleashes a teensy-tiny amount of copper.

Byline: 
Rita Hibbard's picture

Gray whale dies bringing us a message -- with stomach full of plastic trash

When news that a dead gray whale had washed up on the shores of Puget Sound in West Seattle recently, its stomach full of human trash, I immediately thought of a series of stunning but horrific photographs I had recently experienced -- Seattle photographer Chris Jordan's work on the albatrosses of Midway Island who unintentionally kill their newborns feeding them our brightly colored garbage.

The gray whale was dead, but had been in good health. A bottom feeder, it had ingested about 20 plastic bags, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, and other cast-off bits of our lives. It was the fifth dead gray whale to be found in two weeks on Puget Sound, according to the Cascadia Research Collective.  Several of those whales were malnourished. The photo above, by Cascadia Research of Olympia, WA,  shows researchers near the whale.

Jordan's photographs show image after image of albatross chicks who have died after their parents have flown out over the ocean, bringing back deadly "meals" stuffed in their own beaks. The adult birds cannot distinguish between the plastic floating in the ocean and real food they need to feed their babies. As Jordan writes on his Web site:

Byline: 
Rita Hibbard's picture

InvestigateWest launches on Spot.Us with story examining cruise ship industry

Just how green are those cruise ship tourism dollars that roll into Seattle and other west coast cities every spring and summer? Help InvestigateWest journalists find out by pledging online to support our work through an innovative journalism startup launching in Seattle Wednesday.

InvestigateWest’s story on the environmental impact of the fast-growing cruise ship industry is one of only three selected by Spot.Us for their Seattle area launch. Founded in San Francisco in 2008, Spot.Us makes it easy to support regional and local investigative reporting: log onto the site, check out the news and with just a few clicks, make a donation (as little as $20.00) to fund a story that impacts all of us.

The quality of our Puget Sound waters affects everyone living in this region. Cruise ships visiting Seattle bring more than 800,000 people to our area. The ships generate sewage, wastewater, hazardous waste, garbage and other toxic substances. Vancouver, B.C., gets even more cruise ship visitors. What’s the impact of these floating cities on human health and aquatic life? While cruise ship companies have certainly made improvements, we think it's a good time to take a look at the industry and the waters they traverse to see if the sparkling image the industry projects lines up with reality.

Help prevent stormwater pollution -- how to capture those April showers with rain gardens, etc.

Former Dateline Earth denizen Lisa Stiffler, now digging up all kinds of interesting material on stormwater and other topics for Sightline.org, came out this week with a helpful hands-on guide to how homeowners can do their part to cut down on stormwater pollution.

The basics: Keep as much rain as you can on your own property. Stiffler outlines how to use a variety of techniques to get the water to soak into the earth right around your castle.

She gives us the rundown on rain gardens (aka bioswales), rain barrels, and even has a link to a Sunset magazine feature on an easy do-it-yourself "green" roof -- meaning vegetated with moss. Like Stiffler, color me skeptical on that one. The example is on a home in the Pacific Northwest, like mine, but one that has a flat, rubberized roof. Mine has asphalt shingles (probably with some zinc washing off -- yech!) and is steeply pitched. So I'm pretty sure that's not going to work at my house.

Anyway, I hope you'll check out Stiffler's post and if that piques your interest, go on to her  report about stormwater, how it's affecting Puget Sound, and what we can do about it. Also, don't miss Stiffler's really interesting look at how a business in south Seatle not only found a way to keep stormwater at bay -- but also saved a bundle of cash.

-- Robert McClure