Pollution control strategies for Puget Sound

Pollution of the rivers, creeks, bays, and open waters of Puget Sound comes from a variety of sources and travels along many pathways. Spilled oil products and fuel, deposition of air pollutants, legacy toxic pollutants, disease-bearing and illness-causing organisms from failing and poorly maintained on-site sewage treatment systems, fertilizers, erosion, and the runoff from roads and parking lots all find their way into the waters of Puget Sound, where they harm fish and wildlife and create direct health risks to people. Polluted waters reduce ecosystem services – shellfish closures, beach closures, impacts to recreation, impairments to sources of drinking water, loss of cultural resources, consumption warnings for fish, and low oxygen conditions that kill marine species. Increasing numbers of people, cars, and pavement mean more pollutants enter our waterways in higher concentrations, and at a faster rate. Pollutants also enter waterways directly through point source discharges from commercial and industrial sites.

Although we have done a good job of cleaning up contaminated sites, we have not stopped the onslaught of new contamination from entering our waters. We allow pollutants such as synthetic hormones and persistent bioaccumulative toxics to enter the water, many of which we know very little about or have few standards and testing methods to evaluate. Although progress has occurred at individual locations, other sites have worsened and grappling with the multiple problems of water quality at a regional level has been difficult. Past water quality programs have often emphasized expensive cleanup programs without adequate emphasis on reducing new pollutants, including areas where cleanup has occurred. Current water quality management practices in Puget Sound do not reflect an ecosystem approach, are not well coordinated, and do not effectively address the ubiquitous nature of pollutants in our freshwater and marine systems.

Improving groundwater and surface water quality in Puget Sound will require a regional commitment to reducing the multiple sources of toxic, nutrient, and pathogen pollutants prior to their entry into the system. We must be vigilant about preventing and responding to oil spills. We must also improve the management of stormwater runoff and treatment of wastewater. Implementing the cleanup of contaminated sites still must occur, with priorities and appropriate sequencing. Warning systems for contaminated seafood must be continued to protect human health.

The Action Agenda identifies a coordinated, regional approach to reducing the sources of water pollution in Puget Sound that reflects six primary objectives:

C.1 Prevent pollutants from being introduced into the Puget Sound ecosystem to decrease the loadings from toxics, nutrients, and pathogens.

The most reliable and cost effective way to manage for water quality health is to decrease the loadings of pollutants before they enter Puget Sound’s surface and groundwater. Source control tactics include education, pollution prevention, innovative technologies, protection of vegetated areas and wetlands, low impact development, natural infrastructure, cradle to cradle product stewardship, state or national product bans, engineered solutions, as well as incentives and technical assistance.

C.2 Use a comprehensive, integrated approach to managing urban stormwater and rural surface water runoff to reduce stormwater volumes and pollutant loadings.

Surface water and stormwater runoff in urban and rural areas are the primary transporters of toxic, nutrient, and pathogen pollutants to surface and groundwater resources throughout the Puget Sound basin. Comprehensive approaches to reduce stormwater runoff volumes and pollutant loadings differ in urban and rural areas, but include maintaining and restoring natural hydrologic systems of forests and wetlands for infiltration, and managing surface water runoff closer to its source when possible. The region needs to better implement the current programs and regulations now, as well as strengthen efforts moving forward. This work is particularly important as stormwater flows will likely become larger and more frequent with climate change.

C.3 Prioritize and complete upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities to reduce pollutant loading.

Untreated wastewater from municipal, industrial, and government facilities is a source of a broad spectrum of pollutants, including nutrients and pathogens, to Puget Sound. Treated municipal sewage contains a mixture of personal care products, caffeine, endocrine-mimicking chemicals, and other pharmaceuticals. Wastewater treatment removes or transforms many but not all contaminants. Land-based wastewater treatment plants discharge an estimated 400 million gallons per day of treated water into Puget Sound. CSOs sometimes discharge mixed stormwater and untreated wastewater to Puget Sound during wet weather when conveyance or plant capacities are exceeded.

Technical approaches to wastewater treatment vary depending upon the type of waste and age of the facility. Municipal, onsite, and CSO treatment facilities primarily focus on removing pathogens, biochemical oxygen demand, and suspended solids with a primary objective of protecting human health. Industrial facilities typically have systems customized to their waste products and sometimes discharge to municipal systems following pre-treatment. Many wastewater treatment plants are outdated and lack advanced treatment technology.

C.4 Establish and maintain locally coordinated, effective on-site sewage system management to reduce pollutant loading to vulnerable surface and ground waters.

Rural communities in Puget Sound lack municipal wastewater treatment facilities and residents typically use on-site wastewater treatment techniques to treat sewage and wastewater. There are an estimated 500,000 on-site sewage systems in the Puget Sound basin, many located adjacent to vulnerable water bodies. Failing on-site sewage systems threaten water quality and public health. Well designed, sited, and constructed on-site sewage systems are effective in removing pathogens and bacteria from wastewater, they are less effective in removing nitrogen and other nutrients, as well as materials from personal care products and pharmaceuticals. This can become a major problem in nutrient sensitive areas.

C.5 Prioritize and continue to implement toxic cleanup programs for contaminated waterways and sediments.

Remediation and cleanup of contaminated waterways and sediments, which exceed state and federal regulatory thresholds, typically involve groundwater, sediment in deltas, estuaries and depositional zones, and freshwater lakes. Remediation is costly and requires extensive coordination among many stakeholders. Most cleanup actions target sediments containing a number of legacy contaminants such as DDT and PCBs that impact water quality and can bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms. There are 115 contaminated marine sediment sites in Puget Sound, many of which are currently undergoing active cleanup. The water quality management strategy for Puget Sound reflects a continued commitment to completing remediation projects in conjunction with expanded source control programs to prevent future contaminants from entering the system.

C.6 Continue to monitor swimming beaches as well as conduct shellfish and fish advisory programs to reduce human exposure to health hazards.

People and other species encounter a variety of air, soil, and water-based pollutants throughout Puget Sound. If certain thresholds and other conditions are met, individuals may become ill. The consumption of fish, shellfish, sea plants, and other marine biota represent the most significant exposure risk to human health from toxic contaminants, pathogens, and biotoxins related to Puget Sound. The Washington State Department of Health and Department of Ecology monitoring programs assist in identifying sources of pollutants, conduct water quality monitoring, assess the safety of beaches for shellfish harvesting, and certify the safety of commercial shellfish operations. The Department of Fish and Wildlife monitors chemical contamination in Puget Sound fish. Monitoring information assists with making decisions about swimming beach closures, shellfish beach closures, and fish advisories.

Puget Sound Action Agenda 2009

About the Author: 
The Puget Sound Partnership is a state-supported effort of citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses working together to restore and protect Puget Sound. The Partnership's legislatively mandated Action Agenda prioritizes cleanup and improvement projects and coordinates federal, state, local, tribal and private resources.