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The Clean Water program is responsible for monitoring and protecting our precious water resources. We use science, policy and education to reduce pollution and toxics in the Salish Sea and its uplands and address water quality and quantity issues in rural Whatcom communities. Read more.

  • The Central Waterfront in the midst of a cleanup process by Lee First, North Sound BaykeeperThe Central Waterfront Cleanup Site (site) is a 51-acre property that’s in the middle of a cleanup process. The site is being ...
    Posted Oct 11, 2017, 2:11 PM by Hannah Coughlin
  • A Tour of Padilla Bay Watershed in an EPA process by Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper   The Padilla Bay watershed is comprised of four freshwater sloughs: Joe Leary Slough No Name Slough Little Indian SloughBig Indian SloughThese waterways ...
    Posted Sep 14, 2017, 12:27 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities
  • Whatcom Water Week events with RE Sources for Sustainable Communities RE Sources is hosting three events as part of Whatcom Water Week, September 16-23, 2017. Get the full schedule: whatcomwaterweeks.org.International Coastal Cleanup Day: Locust BeachSaturday, September ...
    Posted Aug 31, 2017, 3:37 PM by Lee First
  • Citizen scientists wrap up summer of intertidal surveys at Fidalgo Bay, Cherry Point By Hannah van Amen, Communications and Public Relations InternPhoto via Skagit Valley HeraldThis July, a dozen RE Sources staff members and volunteers headed to the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic ...
    Posted Aug 8, 2017, 3:09 PM by Virginia Cleaveland
  • Washington State Legislature funds grants for community education on toxic cleanups, but rest of environmental priorities a mixed bag By Karlee Deatherage, Policy Analyst, Clean Water ProgramFrom funding for toxic cleanups to oil transportation safety and sound policies on water availability, the environmental community had huge goals for ...
    Posted Jul 13, 2017, 4:22 PM by Virginia Cleaveland
Showing posts 1 - 5 of 31. View more »

The Central Waterfront in the midst of a cleanup process

posted Oct 10, 2017, 4:42 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Oct 11, 2017, 2:11 PM ]

by Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper

The Central Waterfront Cleanup Site (site) is a 51-acre property that’s in the middle of a cleanup process. The site is being cleaned up in accordance with the Washington State Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). MTCA is a citizen-mandated law enacted through a voter’s initiative and is the state counterpart to the federal Superfund law. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is the lead agency responsible for the implementation of MTCA. The Port of Bellingham and the City of Bellingham are also actively engaged in this process. The Port is the major landowner, and since the City owned and operated a large municipal landfill within this site, they’re responsible for part of the cleanup costs.

RE Sources recently offered a public tour of the area, in conjunction with staff from the Department of Ecology and the Port of Bellingham. RE Sources has a long history of working to increase public participation during the MTCA process. We’ve held numerous forums over the years, educating citizens about the importance of getting involved and learning about the major cleanup process that are happening along our waterfront. We always study the cleanup documents, and develop technical comments if we believe that the cleanup plans are not protective enough.

During this most recent tour, we walked around the site, learned about the history of industrial operations along the waterfront, and were able to get our questions about the legacy pollution and cleanup plans answered from the key staff who are involved in this cleanup. Later that evening, most of us returned to attend a public meeting, where we learned even more. Here are the highlights…

Before the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, industries all over the country operated without pollution discharge limits, directly into waterways. The result was a lot of pollution that today we call legacy pollution. A lot has changed since then. Today, the industries that pollute operate under strict pollution discharge permits called National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System Permits (NPDES) that are required by the Clean Water Act. These permits allow only a certain amount of pollution to be discharged, steps are required to be taken to prevent pollution, and discharges must be sampled and reported. We’ve learned that preventing pollution is a lot cheaper and easier than cleaning it up.

The first stop on the tour was along Hilton Avenue. This part of our waterfront looked drastically different back in the 1880s, when the first saw mills were built on pilings along the natural shoreline. Before this area was developed, the shoreline was comprised of shallow mudflats and extensive eelgrass beds. These offered a surplus of food and protection to juvenile salmon as they left nearby rivers and adjusted to salt water in preparation for a journey out to sea. In the area that is now Hilton Avenue, a variety of industrial operations started operating in this area once dredging of the I&J Waterway began. The Waterway was dredged for shipping, and the dredge spoils were placed on the land. The industries included log rafting, truck dispatching, boat maintenance, bulk fuel terminals, foundry operations, seafood processing and distribution, underground fuel storage tanks, and rock crushing. The legacy pollution from these activities resulted in soil contaminated with petroleum, volatile organic compounds, metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

If you’re like me - the history of development in this area is a hook that makes me interested in the cleanup process. The next part of the tour was of the former Roeder Avenue Landfill area, which was used by the City of Bellingham as a garbage dump between 1965 to 1974. It was very common for all the cities in the Puget Sound Lowlands to dump garbage in and along the shorelines, and often right into the water. Garbage was fill, and the fill enabled more industries to operate. The legacy pollution that remains in this part of the site consists of groundwater contaminated with volatile organic compounds, metals, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and methane gas.

Modern landfills are totally different than the landfills that were operated along Bellingham’s waterfront. Today, modern landfills are constructed with impermeable liners and leak detection systems to prevent pollution. They contain leachate collection systems, and usually are outfitted with methane gas collection systems that generate electricity. Leachate is polluted water that has percolated through garbage and leached out some of the constituents.

Once landfills are full, there are state laws that require certain steps to be taken to cap the garbage, and to ensure that leachate or methane isn’t escaping. According to the staff on the tour, this landfill was closed in accordance with the appropriate laws that were in place at the time.

Next, we made a brief stop along the Aerated Stabilization Basin (ASB), which is on the waterward part of the site. It’s a large lagoon that was constructed in 1979 to contain liquid waste from the Georgian Pacific site. The ASB is part of the Whatcom Waterway Cleanup Site, an adjacent cleanup site, which is undergoing a separate cleanup process.

The last stop was near the terminus of C Street. In the past, the industries that operated here included bulk fuel storage and loading, tanker truck loading racks, a marine vessel loading dock, gravel-hauling, and coal storage and stockpiling. Legacy pollution from these activities have been identified in soil and groundwater, and include petroleum, metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The good news is that a lot of cleanup work has already been done. About $10 million has already been spent on cleanup work to address contamination in several areas of this site. Previous cleanup projects, also known as interim actions, have included removal of contaminated soil and sediment, construction of an interlocking sheet-pile containment wall, installation of stormwater collection and treatment, and construction of large buildings and impermeable surfaces. These prevent contact with remaining contaminated soil and garbage that remains underground.

A document called a draft Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study (RI/FS) has just been issued for this site. The RI section of this report describes all the steps that have been taken to characterize the site’s contamination. The FS section describes six proposed remedial alternatives for cleanup, and evaluates them in terms of long-term effectiveness, permanence, and cost, and proposes a preferred cleanup option (alternative A).

You can review the cleanup documents at the Bellingham Public Library, the Bellingham Department of Ecology Field Office, or the Bellevue Department of Ecology Office. You can also read the cleanup documents online: https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/gsp/Sitepage.aspx?csid=3418

The proposed cleanup alternative includes installation of impermeable cap (pavement), a physical diversion wall that will ensure that leachate does not migrate off-site, targeted groundwater treatment, engineering controls for vapors and/or landfill gas, removal of highly contaminated soils from a “hotspot” area near C Street, and groundwater monitoring to ensure natural processes continue to reduce levels of contamination.

We urge you to read a fact sheet for this cleanup site, which is located here: https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/gsp/Sitepage.aspx?csid=3418

You, the public, have an important part to play in the cleanup process. The comment period is open, and Ecology is accepting comments on the proposed cleanup alternative until November 1, 2017. The next steps for this site will be finalizing the RI/FS, and selection of a legal agreement for public review. In 2019, site design activities will be completed, and cleanup will begin.

The Site Manager for this site is Brian Sato. His email is brian.sato@ecy.wa.gov. His phone number is (425)-649-7265.

A Tour of Padilla Bay Watershed in an EPA process

posted Sep 14, 2017, 10:02 AM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Sep 14, 2017, 12:27 PM ]

by Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper   

The Padilla Bay watershed is comprised of four freshwater sloughs: 
                  1. Joe Leary Slough 
                  2. No Name Slough 
                  3. Little Indian Slough
                  4. Big Indian Slough
These waterways are located in Skagit County (west of Burlington, between the freeway and Padilla Bay). 

The geography of this area is expansive and flat, used primarily for agriculture. Huge fields of berries, potatoes, and hay fields predominate. 

Aside from belonging to the same watershed, these freshwater sloughs have a lot in common:
  • Each waterway meanders through an agricultural landscape that has been altered to facilitate drainage. 
  • Each waterway contains high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which originate in the guts and feces of warm-blooded animals. The bacteria pose a health concern because they are indicators of other pathogens and diseases that make people sick, and cause water to be unsafe for recreation and shellfish harvesting. The sources of the bacteria are likely from non-point sources: septic tanks, agriculture, and wildlife. 
  • The waterways have almost no native streamside vegetation and no shade, so they get overly warm in the summer.
  • They’ve been straightened and dredged in the last 75 years to facilitate drainage for farming, and all have tide gates at or near where they enter Padilla Bay to prevent tidal inflow. 
Joe Leary Slough,  is the largest of the four waterways, and a fascinating example. A historical account notes that 

Joe Leary used to be, “a flowing stream with fish in it.” 

Logs were floated down it, and tugs came in to get the booms. Today, there’s a newly refurbished dike and pump system at the confluence of Joe Leary and Padilla Bay, and a row of 12 tide gates. These allow water to flow out, and block any tidal inflow. 

The water is stagnant and orange-colored due to iron-rich soils, and the tide gates prevent any access by migrating fish. 

Because of bacteria pollution in these waterways, this watershed has been listed under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act. As required by the Act, a Total Maximum Dairy Load process and study is now being conducted by the Washington State Department of Ecology, with assistance from Skagit County and others

What exactly is a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)? A TMDL is a numerical value representing the highest pollutant load a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards. 

Any amount of pollution over the TMDL level needs to be reduced or eliminated to achieve clean water. 

A TMDL study outlines the steps needed to achieve water quality standards, and provides a timeline. 

The goal of this process is to outline the steps necessary to ensure that these waterways get cleaned up, that Washington State water quality standards for fecal coliform are attained, and that the waters are once again clean enough to support recreation and shellfish harvest downstream.  

And YOU are invited and encouraged to participate in the cleanup process. 

Within the next few years, Ecology will develop the cleanup plan, according to extensive sampling. Your input on what steps are needed to reduce the pollution is important! RE Sources will work closely with community groups and people like you to recommend a fair and realistic plan to reduce bacteria sources. Stay tuned! In the meantime, read more about the project

Whatcom Water Week events with RE Sources for Sustainable Communities

posted Aug 16, 2017, 1:14 PM by Virginia Cleaveland   [ updated Aug 31, 2017, 3:37 PM by Lee First ]

RE Sources is hosting three events as part of Whatcom Water Week, September 16-23, 2017. Get the full schedule: whatcomwaterweeks.org.

International Coastal Cleanup Day: Locust Beach
Saturday, September 16th
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Locust Beach, Locust Ave, Bellingham (map
RSVP on Facebook

​​Every year during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, hundreds of thousands of volunteers comb lakes, rivers, and beaches around the world for trash. Over the course of nearly three decades, more than 9 million volunteers have collected nearly 164 million pounds of trash.

Join the Northwest Straits Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, the Whatcom Marine Resources Committee, and RE Sources for a local beach cleanup. Trash bags and gloves provided. Please dress appropriately for walking along the beach.

RSVP is encouraged but not required. Contact Eleanor Hines at nws@surfrider.org for more information or to RSVP.

International Coastal Cleanup Day: Swinomish Spit
Saturday, September 16th
10:00 AM - 1:oo PM
Location provided upon registration
Join the North Sound Baykeeper for a beach cleanup as part of International Coastal Cleanup Day, and be part of the hundreds of thousands of people working together internationally to rid our seas of marine debris! Learn how to utilize the CleanSwell App and paper data collection sheets to document debris and submit the data to the Ocean Conservancy. At the last beach cleanup at Swinomish Spit, we collected almost 850 pounds of debris!

Vests, gloves, and trash bags provided. Please dress appropriately for walking along the beach. 

RSVP is required. Driving and carpool instructions will be provided upon registration. Contact srussell@padillabay.gov to RSVP. 

Beavers in the Ecosystem: Benefits and Challenges
Tuesday, September 19th
2:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Throughout Whatcom County
RSVP on Facebook

Join RE Sources' North Sound Baykeeper for a tour to learn how beavers benefit water quality and how their dams help retain water that supplements low stream flows in the summer. Participants will learn how beavers benefit water quantity and quality, and how their dams help retain water that supplements low instream flows in the summer. There will also be experts along who can speak about ways to control beavers, and offer helpful advice about how humans and beavers can coexist. 

Please dress for weather and walking through wetlands. 

RSVP is required. Contact Lee First at leef@re-sources.org or (360) 220-0556 to RSVP.

Riparian Buffers and Wetlands:  A Tour of Fenton Nature Reserve
Friday, September 22nd
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Location provided upon registration
RSVP on Facebook

Join RE Sources' North Sound Baykeeper and Whatcom Land Trust for a tour of the riparian buffers and wetlands at the Fenton Nature Reserve and learn about the array of ecological functions that wetlands provide, including habitat, groundwater recharge, and stream flows. 

This Whatcom Land Trust property is home to a gorgeous beaver pond, extensive wetlands, a salmon-bearing stream, and is one of the largest natural areas in the northern part of the county. Found near the headwaters of a tributary of Dakota Creek, is not only stunningly beautiful but it also provides many vital ecological functions- do not miss out on this fascinating educational experience!

Please dress for weather and walking along uneven terrain.

RSVP is required. Address, parking, and carpooling information will be provided upon registration. Attendees will be required to sign a liability waiver. Contact Lee First at leef@re-sources.org or (360) 220-0556 to RSVP.

Citizen scientists wrap up summer of intertidal surveys at Fidalgo Bay, Cherry Point

posted Aug 8, 2017, 2:40 PM by Virginia Cleaveland   [ updated Aug 8, 2017, 3:09 PM ]

By Hannah van Amen, Communications and Public Relations Intern

This July, a dozen RE Sources staff members and volunteers headed to the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve for our third annual intertidal survey along a beach that was once the site of a mill. Surrounded by industrial facilities and hidden behind a boat yard, the site has a stunning view of Mount Baker and the smaller San Juan Islands.

RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, in partnership with the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve, began performing intertidal surveys along this specific stretch of beach three years ago, to monitor its restoration after a fire burned down the mill.

This summer, intertidal surveys were also performed at several sites in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which together provide an important baseline of information on the health of the intertidal zone in North Puget Sound. Learn more about the Aquatic Reserves.

The history of Custom Plywood

After the Custom Plywood building was destroyed in a fire in 1992, many of the materials — including the chemicals used to treat the wood — contaminated the water and sediment of Fidalgo Bay.

The Washington State Department of Ecology selected this site and 9 others as part of a long-term project to restore Fidalgo Bay shorelines. Ecology removed thousands of tons of toxic sediment, brought in new sediment, and planted eelgrass plugs to help restore the site.

After just three years, life is already returning to the beach. Once a blank slate, the site is now home to bent-nosed clams, bubble snails, crabs, and more. Learn more about the site in an article from the Skagit Valley Herald.

“The Custom Plywood site is a chance to watch nature in action,” said Eleanor Hines, lead scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “It’s fascinating to see how quickly our marine environment can rebound, and it’s so special to be part of the group that’s documenting the transition.”

Our citizen science volunteers

Citizen scientists are integral to support the work that underfunded agencies cannot do themselves, and their vital role helps organizations like RE Sources contribute to scientific research for the health of the Salish Sea.

One citizen science volunteer, Kippy, taught for more than 30 years before retiring. This year is her first year doing surveys, and she said enjoys the opportunity to spend her days outside. “I have been a teacher for a long time, I like being outside and I love learning — so this was a perfect opportunity for me!”

Another volunteer, Margaret, is part of the North Sound Stewards program. Originally from Texas, she has lived all over the world, including Florida and Australia.

With degrees in both biology and chemistry, Margaret enjoys being able to use her education while spending time outdoors. Her biggest shock about Washington beaches is the absence of dangerous creatures. “When I was growing up, if you saw something moving in the water the first thing you did was get out. Here in Washington, it's probably just a crab,” she said with a laugh.

“Our volunteer citizen scientists come from a variety of different backgrounds,” said Natalie Lord, the Aquatic Reserve Coordinator at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “The best part is seeing how their collective experiences allow them to learn from one another and come together to perform this important work.”

North Sound Stewards

Some intertidal survey volunteers are part of North Sound Stewards, a new program where participants commit to 50 hours of volunteering in one year. The information these citizen science volunteers collect can help inform policy, restoration efforts, cleanups, and other important projects.

North Sound Stewards participants can get involved in everything from intertidal, sea star, and forage fish surveys to more technical opportunities such as monitoring ocean acidification, tracking bull kelp, and uncovering invasive green crabs. Learn more about North Sound Stewards.

North Sound Stewards has reached the limit for participation this year, but if you're interested in becoming a citizen scientist, you can sign up to be put on the waiting list or explore our full list of citizen science opportunities for other ways to get involved. We're always looking for volunteers!

Washington State Legislature funds grants for community education on toxic cleanups, but rest of environmental priorities a mixed bag

posted Jul 13, 2017, 9:12 AM by Virginia Cleaveland   [ updated Jul 13, 2017, 4:22 PM ]

By Karlee Deatherage, Policy Analyst, Clean Water Program

From funding for toxic cleanups to oil transportation safety and sound policies on water availability, the environmental community had huge goals for the state legislative session.

Our outcomes were a mixed bag this year, but there's some cause to celebrate. Earlier this week, we learned that our legislators fully funded public participation grants (PPG) — grants for organizations like ours to educate the community about projects to clean up toxic sites like the Bellingham waterfront. This success is thanks to dedicated people like you. Thank you for letting your legislators know what Washington residents value. 

The state legislature went into two overtime sessions to approve a two-year operating budget by their June 30th deadline, but the details of a second budget — the capital budget — are still up in the air. The capital would invest in more than 1,400 projects across Washington, including 75 school construction projects and funding for toxic cleanup projects through the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA).

The state legislature is now in its third special session to try and pass a capital budget, and the deadline is July 20th. We’ll be keeping our eye on the capital budget process and report back soon. 

With your help, we were successful in:

Unfortunately, there were some disappointments:

  • The legislature failed to address a $3.2 million shortfall in the state’s oil spill prevention program, and
  • The operating budget continued to raid MTCA funding to backfill funding for the Department of Ecology and the Department of Natural Resources.

There are two weeks left to get our legislators to act on the capital budget, which would fund three key needs for communities across the state:

  • Stabilizing MTCA funding for cleaning up toxic sites and preventing pollution,
  • Ensuring any new wells are properly mitigated to protect fish and existing water rights, and
  • Advancing projects for the environment and job creation by adopting the $4 billion capital budget.

Read more below to learn how you can take action to call on your legislators to find balanced solutions and pass the capital budget.

Funding for toxic cleanups

Although the legislature approved a two-year operating budget by their June 30th deadline, the details of a second budget — the capital budget — are still up in the air. We won’t know where Model Toxics Cleanup Act (MTCA) funding lands until the final capital budget is approved. 

The House's capital budget included funding for MTCA, but right now, it’s unknown how the Senate might change the House’s capital budget. We’re keeping our eye on the capital budget process and will report back soon.

Oil transportation safety

Oil transportation threatens the safety of our communities and the health of our environment, and this legislative session, we asked you to call on state leaders to prioritize legislation to protect our waterways, improve pipeline safety measures, and ensure funding for oil spill response.

Funding for oil transportation safety and the Department of Ecology’s Spills Program were part of the final negotiation process. But ultimately, the bill that would have secured a reliable funding source and strengthened the tools to address oil spills did not pass. 

This means the Spills Program has a $3.2M shortfall, and we must start looking ahead to the next legislative session to again push for stronger oil transportation safety measures in Washington state.

Enough water for people, farms, and fish

The hot issue during this legislative session surrounded the recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling that counties must make sure there is enough available water before issuing permits for new developments in rural areas. After the ruling, requests were made for a “legislative fix” to allow business as usual. This would have neglected the problem and failed to protect in-stream flows and existing water rights.

Several bills were proposed this legislative session to address the ruling, but legislators couldn't come to a consensus. The House overwhelmingly approved the capital budget, but it is being blocked from a vote by Senate Republicans, who say they’re holding the budget as leverage over a bill to overturn the state Supreme Court ruling on water rights.

Governor Inslee has called on Senate Republicans to pass the $4.2 billion capital budget. Read more in this press release from Gov. Inslee's office.

Take Action

A capital budget is essential for environmental health and creating jobs. There is roughly $340 million in funding at stake for green projects such as cleaning up toxic sites, clean energy, forest restoration, and green stormwater infrastructure. Without a capital budget, these projects will be stalled and possibly defunded.

Please contact your legislator TODAY and urge them to adopt a new, two-year capital budget to invest in creating jobs and protecting our environment.

Contacting your legislators by phone is by far the most productive and impactful form of communication. Read more in the New York Times article "Here's why you should call, not email, your legislators." 
  1. Call your legislators. Let your state representatives know you want them to find balanced solutions and pass a capital budget. Find your legislators through the Washington State Legislature's District Finder and view the talking points below.

  2. Email your legislators. Find your legislators through the Washington State Legislature's District Finder and send them an email asking them to find balanced solutions and pass a capital budget.

Activist and documentary filmmaker Rick Wood on protecting the Southern Resident orcas

posted Jul 11, 2017, 2:04 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Jul 13, 2017, 4:31 PM by Virginia Cleaveland ]


If you missed our June 25, 2017 event at Boulevard Park celebrating Orca Month, check out the amazing speech from orca activist and documentary filmmaker Rick Wood below. And don't forget to browse the photos from the event on our North Sound Baykeeper Facebook page!

Photo of Southern Resident orcas by Rick Wood via orcaaware.org

Documentary filmmaker Rick Wood on protecting the Southern Resident orcas

By Rick Wood, director of Fragile Waters

Good afternoon. Thank you for being here today and for standing up for our beautiful Salish Sea.

I am a filmmaker and author. I am also deaf, so if you talk to me later — and I nod and smile — it means I didn't hear a word you said.

For the past six years all of my work has centered on marine mammals. Currently, I am a board member and volunteer responder with the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network. I am very passionate about the Salish Sea and all of the life in it.

When you think of marine mammals here, immediately killer whales stand out. The Salish Sea is home to fish eating and mammal eating orcas. From 2013-2015 I helped put a spotlight on the plight of the Southern Resident orcas through my film, Fragile Waters. In the film, we explored the delicate balance of man and nature, orca and water.

These emerald green waters determine the health of plants and animals — large and small — so directly that to suffer an oil spill here would be nothing short of catastrophic.

By last count, there were only 79 Southern Resident killer whales left in the world. One of those orcas lives in a tiny tank in Miami, Florida. The remaining members of this unique eco type travel many miles, searching mostly for healthy chinook salmon.

Salmon stocks are imperiled. Dams blocks their traditional spawning routes. Toxins, disease and changes in water composition have further reduced chinook salmon to less than 10 percent of their historic numbers.

We chose to call our film Fragile Waters because we know the key to saving them — to saving ourselves — lies in protecting the Salish Sea. Where there is healthy water, there is healthy life.

The southern resident orcas are spiraling towards extinction. Every moment spent removing protections, increasing threats, and not working on pollution issues seals their fate.

Time is not a luxury we can afford.

Petrochemicals are the absolute last thing you want to gamble on in an ecosystem so interdependent that any loss of species degrades the entire sea. Legacy toxins — chemicals banned for decades — remain as prevalent and volatile TODAY as they did when people used them without restriction. Again, there's no "payoff" worth the gamble of our Salish Sea.

Oil doesn't simply show up, either. It has to be transported, which means ship traffic increases. Let me explain something about killer whales. Orcas are acoustic animals. They navigate, communicate, and virtually "see" in sound. The Southern Residents are known to vocalize, in a specific dialect, with pod members. They coordinate hunting through sound, and warn one another of hazards through sound. To increase boat traffic is to further saturate their acoustic world with a cacophony of noise.

In our film, we also looked to history for lessons. More than 25 years ago, the Exxon Valdez oil spill killed thousands of animals in and around Prince William Sound, Alaska. A researcher, Eva Saulitis, a friend of mine now lost to cancer, chronicled the aftermath of the spill on the orca populations there.

The Chucach transient killer whales suffered greatly. Numbering around 22 prior to the spill, their numbers fell by half within a year of the accident. Today, only seven remain — they are doomed to extinction. Those Chugach transients are living ghosts of a time when that sound was healthy. In total, more than 258,000 animals died as a direct result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

We use that story as a cautionary tale in Fragile Waters — an ecological parable, which warns us of a preventable fate.

I love living here. I've lived along the Salish Sea for 13 years now, and I am still taken aback by the awe and wonder of discover that comes with every trip to the shore. Maybe it's selfish to want to preserve this beauty... maybe it's my duty to try. I have two children, and only one world to leave them.

Our resident orcas need strong voices. They need our hearts and minds to tackle the problems they face. They need us to stand up against the onslaught of outdated agendas, broken promises, and human greed. We must draw the line NOW. We must stay in the fight. We must hold onto hope.

Fossil fuels are yesterday's methods. We have new ways, safer ways, and we are innovating rapidly to reduce our dependence on oil. Maybe in the short run it will take sacrifices, but I believe the future is worth it.

No lives are expendable. If we lose the Southern Resident population, we will have lost a part of ourselves...one we cannot replace.

It's a beautiful thing to see so many folks gathered here today, because that is exactly how we change fate. Many voices united. We do it together, and as ONE, WE protect these Fragile Waters.

Proposed bill would alter important state water laws, threaten our children’s future

posted Jun 9, 2017, 3:49 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Jun 12, 2017, 2:56 PM by Hannah Coughlin ]

In March, Republican State Senator Judy Warnick proposed a dangerous bill in the Washington State Legislature that would change state law — laws present to protect existing water rights and ensure water resources are being shared. Proponents of Senate Bill 5239 want to pass legislation allowing developers to drill new wells that will take away water from someone else with an existing water right — including tribes, farms, and homeowners with wells.

SB 5239 is a back-door fix to get around a State Supreme Court ruling that determined Whatcom County needed to get its act together and figure out how much water is being used and how much water is available, before granting carte blanche permission to dig private wells for rural development. The court ruled that counties are required to ensure water is available before approving permits for new rural development — a reasonable and perhaps obvious conclusion. 

What would SB 5239 do?

We need a balanced solution that works for all, and takes into consideration the complexity of the problem. SB 5239 is an all-or-nothing bill that does not actually solve any of Whatcom County's water shortage issues, and will exacerbate the problem. If SB 5239 becomes law:
  • The state will move the burden of this work away from counties to an underfunded, understaffed, and overburdened Department of Ecology — a sure way to sweep the problem under the carpet. 
  • Counties approving permits for new development would not need to consider whether granting the permit would reduce water supply and impair existing water rights.
  • The door would be flung open to urban sprawl, with little review of impacts on existing water right holders — including tribes, farms, existing wells, and water in streams for fish.

Tell your legislators we need a balanced, long-lasting solution

Currently, SB 5239 is being used as a bargaining chip. Proponents of the bill are holding funding for education and toxic cleanups hostage, and threatening not to come to a compromise if SB 5239 is not passed. This would all but ensure a government shutdown.

Your senator and representatives need to hear from you. They need to hear that you don’t support SB 5239 being used as an all-or-nothing bargaining chip — we need a balanced, compromised solution that supports property owners, tribes, farmers, and salmon.

Tell your legislators to vote no on SB 5239 and to instead work toward a middle-of-the-road solution requiring the Department of Ecology to provide expertise to counties to help them focus on cost-effective ways to offset the impacts of water use from rural wells through a process called mitigation. Mitigation options could include:
  • Increasing water-use efficiency;
  • Limiting outdoor water use in the summer;
  • Creating water banks and markets;
  • Extending water service from existing water associations and districts; and many more.
Lastly, the Department of Ecology must have adequate funding in order to help counties craft and implement mitigation options. The legislature must allocate sufficient funding.

Water laws must be scaled to our water problems

It may not always seem like it, especially after the abundance of wet weather we experienced this winter and spring — but Whatcom County faces serious challenges with the availability of water. Here are just some of the challenges:
  • There is not enough water in streams to support salmon spawning — which in turn support our Pacific Northwest food chain. Salmon returns have been steadily declining year after year.
  • In 2015, we experienced a serious statewide drought. The severity and frequency of drought is likely to increase as a result of climate change, and we currently have no plans in place for dealing with these changes. 

  • With Whatcom County’s population expected to grow by 75,000 in the next 20 years, it is critically important that we develop a plan to ensure our children have enough water for a healthy future — instead of a future of water shortages, failing crops, and county-wide water rights battles.

How you can help

Contacting your legislators by phone is by far the most productive and impactful form of communication. Read more in the New York Times article "Here's why you should call, not email, your legislators."

Sample script

Hi, my name is [insert name] and I live in [insert city], which is in the [insert legislative district].

I'm calling to urge Senator/Representative [insert name] to find a middle-ground solution to the Washington State Supreme Court's decision on rural wells. We CAN have new single-family homes in rural areas using wells without impacting senior water rights and salmon. This isn't an either-or issue.

Any solution must require the Department of Ecology and counties to offset water use by new rural wells through mitigation. The Department of Ecology also must have sufficient funding to support this work.

Thank you for considering my views on this important topic.

Herring returning to spawn at Cherry Point, but local population still in trouble

posted Jun 7, 2017, 12:56 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Jun 7, 2017, 12:58 PM ]

By Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities

Cherry Point herring (Clupea pallasi) were once the largest and most prolific herring population in Washington state, spawning from Point Roberts to Bellingham Bay. But in the last three decades, their population has plummeted. The number of spawning fish has declined by more than 90 percent — and shows no signs of recovery. Read more at Sightline Institute.

The Cherry Point herring are incredibly important to the northern Salish Sea ecosystem. Many people in the environmental community are interested in the reasons for their decline, and what steps are needed to save the Cherry Point herring from extinction. So, when Mike McKay, a long-time fish biologist with the Lummi Nation Department of Natural Resources suggested a field trip to look for Cherry Point herring spawning, I jumped at the chance to come along.

Field trip attendees included members of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee and citizens interested in a variety of environmental causes, from oil transport to water quality and shoreline preservation.

We met Mike at a public access site near Ferndale.
He explained that, in the past, the shoreline where we stood was an important cultural site to the Lummi Nation. Tribal fishers once depended on the herring when other income sources were not available, and the site was also used for reef net fishing for salmon. Both are things of the past.

Before we started our search for herring eggs, Mike gave us the basics. Before spawning, huge schools of herring congregate at Alden Bank, an offshore area located between Birch Point and Sucia Island. Beginning in late April, the fish leave Alden Bank for their spawning grounds along northern Whatcom County shoreline.

Next, a short talk about eelgrass. Most of us have seen this grassy looking stuff growing along the marine shoreline, but what did it have to do with herring? Eleanor Hines, the Lead Scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, had this to say about it:

Eelgrass is a nursery school for many Salish Sea species, providing safety and refuge. It also slows wave action, which is critical for newly spawned fish. Eelgrass is important for herring, who deposit their eggs on eelgrass beds from the shoreline to 40 feet offshore. Ongoing scientific studies show eelgrass beds provide a buffer area for creatures in acidic waters — especially shellfish larvae, which are extremely vulnerable to ocean acidification. Other studies show eelgrass can help decrease CO2 in the atmosphere. 

What's causing the Cherry Point herring decline?

There are many theories about what has caused the steep decline of Cherry Point herring. 
            • In 1972, 21,000 gallons of oil spilled from one of the refineries, and evidence suggests the herring population suffered long-term as a result. 
            • Clouds of coal dust are frequently observed blowing from the Westshore Terminal in Delta, BC. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the coal dust may have had significant impacts on the spawners.
            • Over the last four decades, the natural shoreline used by herring for spawning has decreased by 80 percent due to development of our residences and cities. 
            • There are large discharges of industrial process water and stormwater from the refineries, aluminum smelter, and nearby cities. 
            • River flows could also be a factor: Prior to settlement, the Nooksack River flowed into Lummi Bay, on the south side of Cherry Point. At that time, there was a productive estuary where the Lummi River currently discharges. When the Nooksack River was diverted into Bellingham Bay, the estuary and water chemistry was drastically altered. 
What was the impact of these factors on the herring? Studies show that the Cherry Point herring are smaller, have shorter life spans, spawn at a younger age, and suffer from infections, parasites, and skeletal abnormalities. As a result of the decline, the herring fishery was permanently closed in 1996.

Searching for Cherry Point herring eggs 

The information was dire, but we were ready to get started on our search for the tiny, translucent eggs. We searched on rocks, seaweed, and eelgrass. Some of us waded up to our waists, armed with hand lenses and cameras. We stooped, crawled, and just when we started to give up, Mike announced “I found eggs!”

It was strangely exciting, seeing tiny clumps of eggs on the eelgrass. We put them in a small container and passed it around with the hand lens. Within some of the eggs, we could see eyes and tails. The eggs were about two weeks old, and some of them even hatched while we were looking at them! We passed the container around, spellbound.

As the field trip came to a close, a few of us wandered the beach in small groups, thinking about the relationship between shoreline development, pollution, and the role the Cherry Point herring play in the food web of the Salish Sea. One of reasons this unique species is so important is that the tiny, newly spawned herring hatch at the same time small chinook fry are migrating through the area. The combination of timing, ocean chemistry, eelgrass and fish spawning were intertwined. 

View more photos of the field trip on Facebook

Get involved

If you’d like to get involved with our citizen science efforts, or support the work of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizens Advisory Committee, here's how:

Citizen scientists hit the classroom and the beach to study Puget Sound's intertidal zones

posted May 5, 2017, 2:44 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated May 5, 2017, 2:45 PM ]

By Eleanor Hines, Lead Scientist, Clean Water Program

This spring, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities is gearing up for our fifth year of intertidal surveys in the Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserves. 

On April 29-30, we hosted two citizen science trainings at Birch Bay State Park and Padilla Bay, each near one of the Aquatic Reserves where we perform our intertidal surveys. 

In all, more than 70 community members participated in these citizen science trainings, from college students to retired volunteers and even 4-year-old twins. These citizen scientists play an important role in protecting our marine species and habitats by contributing to scientific research for the health of the Puget Sound.

Citizen scientists in the classroom

First, the trainings covered the purpose of the intertidal surveys. We collect the data to gather a baseline of information, which can also help detect changes. In the case of a tragic event like an oil spill, this baseline could also help evaluate what is lost. 

Our intertidal surveys are part of a long-term monitoring program, so we don’t expect to be able to identify trends until the ten-year mark. So far, the data looks like it’s showing only natural variations, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Think of your favorite beach: Does it always look the same? 

The trainings also focus on beach elevation profiles to monitor the slope of the beach. This helps us identify if the slope changes, which would help us better understand where we might see changes elsewhere: in the organisms on the beach, sea level rise, or erosion from intense storm surges. We don’t know for sure, so that’s why we collect the information.

The main focus of intertidal survey trainings is how to study the abundance of organisms using quadrats. Citizen scientists learn how to identify groups of organisms and count them as a percentage of coverage or as an individual organism. This helps us understand how the population of organisms might change over time. 

During summer intertidal surveys, our lead naturalists will also conduct what we call species swaths — they look at a certain location on the beach and check off all the species in that area. This allows us to collect a comprehensive species list, while the quadrats tell us how much of each type of organisms is present.

Simplifying the study method

This year, we simplified the ways our citizen scientists use quadrats — to the great relief of many. After consulting with other scientists who lead citizen science efforts up and down the West Coast, we determined we can lump together certain species to make them easier to study. 

Fear not, this change doesn’t mean we’re losing data, but that we're gaining confidence in our data. In the past, when it a microscope was needed to accurately identify some species, we couldn't confidently say we were accurately IDing organisms without a microscope in the field.  By lumping our species, we have more confidence in our data.

We also mixed up the training this year to have a better balance of field and classroom time, alternating sections to try out in the field what was just learned in the classroom. Citizen scientists got to test out their newly learned skills for taking profile measurements and collecting data from quadrats. Our lead naturalists also got to show off their vast knowledge of the intertidal zone. 

At the end of each training, we gathered for team photos. In Padilla Bay, we gathered just as the rain came rolling in after a fine sunny day. It was perfect timing and perfect end to a great two days of training. 

What's next

This year, our intertidal surveys take place in May, June, July, and August. If you have completed intertidal survey training in past years and would like to volunteer again this summer, email eleanorh@re-sources.org.

Many stellar volunteers who participated in these intertidal survey trainings are part of our new North Sound Stewards program, where volunteers invest 50 hours per year helping scientists study ocean acidification, sea star wasting syndrome, forage fish habitat, and water quality. 

Participation in the program is full, but you can sign up on the waiting list if you want to get involved and we'll keep you in the loop about other citizen science opportunities.

Learn more about citizen science: re-sources.org/north-sound-stewards

Special thanks to our partners: Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committees, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northwest Straits Foundation, Skagit Marine Resources Committee, and the Coastal Volunteer Program. 

North Sound Baykeeper tours Hangman Creek, Washington's most polluted stream

posted May 4, 2017, 4:15 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated May 4, 2017, 4:16 PM ]

By Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper

My favorite aspect of being a the North Sound Baykeeper is connecting with the Waterkeeper Alliance community, which includes over 315 Waterkeepers around the world. Networking with these water protectors, as well as participating in the Waterkeeper Alliance annual conference, has increased my knowledge and helped me learn how to advocate for water quality in North Puget Sound.

Recently I joined Jerry White and Jule Schultz with Spokane Riverkeeper to take a tour of Hangman Creek and learn more about the watershed they work to protect.

Hangman Creek is a major tributary of the Spokane River and the most polluted creek in Washington state. The pollution is caused by nutrients, warm temperature, sediment, and low dissolved oxygen. Native redband trout and salmon can’t survive this mix — but they used to. The most serious aspect of this pollution is that ongoing discharges from Hangman Creek pollute the Spokane River, where huge sediment loads destroy habitat for trout and other aquatic species downstream.

A chance to paddle the most polluted stream in the state on a multi-day canoe trip winding through Palouse wheat fields? I couldn’t say no.

Beaver restoration at the headwaters

Our first stop was a tour of a beaver restoration site at the Hangman Creek headwaters on the Coeur D’Alene Reservation near Tensed, Idaho. Until a few years ago, this area was a patchwork of winter wheat farms. All the fields were tilled and drained, erosion was commonplace, and the creek was straightened to accelerate drainage. 

Our guide, Gerry Green, is a senior wildlife biologist with the Coeur D’Alene Tribe. Gerry guided us as we walked several miles upstream through an enormous restoration site where the tribe blocked portions of the straightened channel to encourage the stream to meander and access its floodplain. Small wetlands were present near the creek, where tiny tributaries were planted with native shrubs and trees.

As we walked through low stands of sprouting winter wheat, Gerry explained that since the tribe purchased the fields, they were no longer tilled. Instead, no-till methods protected the soil structure and increase the soil’s water holding capacity. Along with no-till, the tribe removed the previously installed drain tiles. The fields now act like a water bank, slowly releasing water to the creek and stabilizing creek flows. Learn more about tile drainage farming.

Trees, shrubs, and grass shade the tiny tributaries that flowed down from the hills. Beavers have arrived — as evidenced by small dams and recently fallen trees. This winning combination has already helped hold water back, restoring even flows and cold water for native redband trout.

Anyone who likes beavers is an instant friend of mine. By building dams and holding back water, the wetlands and ecosystem functions created by beavers support plants, birds, amphibians, mammals, and native fish.

“Water plus aspen plus beavers equal trout,” said Gerry. “Beavers are key. Trout cannot survive downstream because of the sediment load and because of the high water temperatures." With a system of beaver dams in the landscape, enough water will be held back for base flow to increase and stream temperatures to decrease, enabling native trout to re-inhabit the watershed.

Launching the boats

Later that morning, we launched our canoes and kayak downstream from Tensed, Idaho. Here, the creek is small, and the landscape is brutally altered. Huge wheat fields border both sides of the creek, and in most areas, tilled fields extend to the water’s edge and bare sections of soil tumble into the water.

During the first few miles of the trip, we noticed long sections of the creek that had been straightened. These changes, which happened over the last 100 years, were intended to move water off the landscape for more efficient crop production.

We learned the trout downstream of this section disappeared soon after, as water flow increased during high water and caused entrenchment. The fish couldn’t tolerate the sediment-laden water or that the stream dried up in the summer. Trout have not survived in the mainstem of Hangman Creek since 1958, and now only remain in the tiny headwaters of four streams: Mission, Sheep, Nehchen, and Indian Creeks.

Salmon were once plentiful in Hangman Creek, but in recent times, almost no non-tribal residents living in the watershed are aware salmon were once part of the landscape. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has big hopes that this work enables a productive redband trout fishery, and after that, that the steelhead and salmon will return. 

Impacts of drainage

Not long after launching, we observed steep, incised creek banks in some areas, where 10 or more vertical feet of soil was exposed. This isn’t just any soil: it’s Palouse soil. It’s deep and fertile, capable of holding moisture, and it grows the best winter wheat in the United States. It is tilled in huge fields with gigantic tractors, and the miles of drainage tiles funnel a lot of water directly to the stream. 

This drainage system increases water velocity and stream instability. Stream flows fluctuate wildly and are unnaturally high during large rain events. Valuable soil is carried downstream, where it clogs fish gills and prevents respiration, smothers fish eggs, and covers gravels the fish need for spawning. Sediment is the most widespread pollutant in the United States.

The landscape is captivating: rolling wheat fields, deep incised ditches, abandoned farm buildings, wheat silos, and an occasional bridge. Small crop duster airplanes fly overhead. The smell of chemicals is evident. We paddled through towns and past wastewater treatment facilities and discharge pipes. We saw the stubby ends of hundreds of drain pipes ending at creek banks. The effects of the drainage tile system were everywhere, and it was sobering.

A few areas had healthy buffers and were stunningly beautiful: we saw western painted turtles, native freshwater mussels, owls, and lots of ducks and songbirds. But we also saw tractors with 100-foot-long herbicide spray arms, empty herbicide barrels, old dumpsites, crop duster airplanes, abandoned railroad grades, and an old railroad station.

Lessons learned

While the differences between the Palouse and Western Washington are many, some lessons learned from Hangman Creek apply here. Similar to the Palouse, our lowland streams are primarily polluted with non-point source pollution from agriculture. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Water Quality Assessment, agricultural non-point source pollution is the leading source of water quality impacts on rivers and streams, the third largest source for lakes, the second largest source for wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of estuaries and ground water.

As part of my job as the North Sound Baykeeper, I patrol many lowland streams in North Puget Sound. I’ve seen many areas near waterways where critical wetlands and streams are not adequately protected. Similar to Hangman Creek, many farm fields next to streams have miles of drain tiles. With decreased access to floodplains and wetlands, our streams also suffer from flash floods and low water levels in the summer.

Miles of our streams are not shaded, have inadequate or no buffers, are colonized with non-native invasive vegetation, have been straightened, and have no contiguous floodplains.

While Whatcom County’s critical areas ordinance (CAO) requires that in order to use critical areas for farming, the landowner must operate under an approved farm plan. Many farms do have farm plans, but we need to make sure those farm plans are followed and enforced.

If our pollution problems are going to be solved, ALL citizens — whether living in cities or in rural areas — must start caring for our waterways.

More information: If you're interested in following restoration projects in Hangman Creek, sign up to receive q’e’yminn he ‘ulhnsikwe’n, the watershed newsletter of the Coeur d’Alene tribe.

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