July 30, 2009

Puget Sound’s invisible enemy: polluted stormwater

  • Every day, stormwater entering the sound carries nearly 150,000 pounds of toxic chemicals with it.
    Puget Sound Partnership


    All across Puget Sound, from Bellingham Bay to the Nisqually Delta, signs of progress in the fight to save our great estuary become clearer with each passing day.

    Local and state government officials, tribal leaders and private interests are joining forces to help clean up 75 acres along Port Angeles Harbor, contaminated years ago by PCBs, dioxins and other pollutants. To the west, in Anacortes, similar public-private collaboration is working to improve 41 contaminated acres along the downtown waterfront.

    Puget Sound’s “front door” at Neah Bay will always be guarded by an emergency response tug, soon to be paid for by the maritime industry, thanks to a measure passed this session by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Vessels in distress will be rescued by the tug before they crash on to the shore and leak oil, fuel or hazardous cargoes.

    Money is starting to flow to the highest priority initiatives that will deliver the most bang for the buck: Restoring the Nisqually will double the amount of estuary habitat in the South Sound, and removing the Elwha dams will restore historic salmon runs for starving orcas.

    Learn more
    For more information about Puget Sound Partnership and the Action Agenda, visit

    And more help is on the way. In a tough economic climate, the governor and Legislature stood up for Puget Sound with a strong budget. In the other Washington, Congress is considering sending $50 million our way to help fund cleanups in the Duwamish River, Elliott Bay, Olympia and other hot spots.

    These actions give us a triple win: they create jobs, improve the environment and give urban waterfronts productive uses again.

    Driving all this activity is the Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda — a comprehensive, science-based road map outlining the steps necessary to make Puget Sound healthy again.

    But, to borrow a line from President Obama, while we’re pleased with the progress up to this point, we are not satisfied. There is still much work to be done.

    Puget Sound is being pushed to the brink by an invisible enemy: polluted stormwater runoff.

    As rainwater travels over our streets, yards, rooftops and other surfaces, stormwater runoff collects urban grime and chemicals and washes them down storm drains that flow into the sound. Nearly 150,000 pounds of toxic chemicals — including petroleum, lead, arsenic and fertilizers — enter Puget Sound each day.

    What many residents do not realize is that most stormwater runoff is not treated and pours directly into the sound through thousands of pipes and outfalls.

    So while Puget Sound may look pristine from a jetliner or a boat, some areas are badly stressed by long-time exposure to pollution. As a result, 21 species are listed as threatened or endangered, beaches are closed due to pollution, and massive fish kills plague Hood Canal. These are undeniable scientific indicators of an environment in trouble.

    If we don’t address stormwater head on with new thinking and bold actions, all of the progress made will be undone. And while many cities and agencies are working hard to make progress, our response to date has largely been fragmented, uncoordinated and vastly underfunded.

    It’s time to deal with stormwater.

    This means attacking the problem through a coordinated, regional approach that challenges all of us to make tough choices about how we live, work and use the land.

    The Puget Sound Partnership is ready to lead the response. Ideas on the table range from banning harmful yard products to phasing out copper car brake pads to more stringent stormwater control and treatment standards. Perhaps most important, we will be working to fund critical investments at the local level.

    Cleaning up and protecting Puget Sound will take a long time and cost a lot of money. The Puget Sound Partnership will be extraordinarily targeted in making investments that do the most good for the money, both for the environment and for the economy.

    It is gratifying to see progress being made according to the Action Agenda, even if it is just a beginning. But Puget Sound’s health has declined to the point where this effort, this time, may be our last, best chance to change its environmental trajectory.

    Puget Sound is too important to us and to future generations. Success is the only option.

    David Dicks is executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, an entity created by Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature to determine how and why Puget Sound’s health is declining and organize a region-wide effort to clean it up.

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